“DEATH ON THE NILE” (1978) Review

 

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (1978) Review

Four years after the success of ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, producer John Bradbourne focused his attention upon adapting another Agatha Christie novel for the screen. In the end, he decided to adapt Christie’s 1937 novel, ”DEATH ON THE NILE”

Instead of bringing back Sidney Lumet to direct, Bradbourne hired journeyman action director John Guillermin to helm the new film. And instead of re-casting Albert Finney, Bradbourne hired Peter Ustinov for the pivotal role of Belgian private detective, Hercule Poirot. It would turn out to be the first of six times he would portray the character. The ironic thing about ”DEATH ON THE NILE” is that although ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” had received more acclaim – the point of being regarded as the finest adaptation of any Christie novel – my heart belongs first and foremost to the 1978 movie.

One might ask – how can that be? ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” is highly regarded by critics and moviegoers alike. It even managed to collect a few Academy Awards. And its story – a revenge plot that centered around the past kidnapping of a five year-old child – has a great deal of pathos and depth. Yet . . . my favorite Christie movie is still ”DEATH ON THE NILE”. Its production never struck me as over-the-top as the 1974 movie. And I believe that it perfectly matched the movie’s plot about Poirot’s efforts to solve the murder of a wealthy Anglo-American heiress during a luxury cruise down the Nile River. Most importantly, because the actor portraying Poirot came from Central European stock, he WAS NOT inclined to portray the detective in an exaggerated manner that British and American actors like Finney and Tony Randall were prone to do. But if I must be honest, I simply enjoyed the movie’s adaptation and Guillermin’s direction.

As I had stated earlier, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” centered around the murder of an Anglo-American heiress named Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, during a cruise down the Nile River. A vacationing Hercule Poirot did not take very long to discover that most of the passengers either bore a grudge against the heiress or wanted something she possessed. The suspects included Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet’s former best friend who was once engaged to her new husband Simon Doyle; Linnet’s American attorney Andrew Pennington, who has been embezzling money from her inheritance before her marriage; a wealthy American dowager and kleptomaniac Mrs. Marie Van Schuyler, who has an eye for Linnet’s pearls; Miss Bowers, Mrs. Van Schuyler’s companion, whose father had been ruined by Linnet’s father; Salome Otterbourne, an alcoholic novelist who is being sued for libel by Linnet; Rosalie Otterbourne, Mrs. Otterbourne’s embittered, yet devoted daughter; James Ferguson, a young Communist who resents Linnet’s wealth; Dr. Ludvig Bessner, a Swiss clinical doctor whose methods that Linnet has spoken against; and Louise Bourget, Linnet’s French maid that is being prevented from marrying a man who lives in Egypt. Also on the cruise are Simon Doyle, Jacqueline’s former fiancé; Colonel Race, a friend of Poirot and a fellow detective, who is acting as a representative for Linnet’s British attorneys; and Poirot. Most of them had a reason to kill Linnet Doyle . . . and the opportunity to kill her, save one.

Unlike ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, not all of the characters featured in Christie’s 1937 novel appeared in the 1978 film. Which did not bother me, since the deleted literary characters had struck me as the least interesting. Ironically, many of these deleted characters had the strongest motives to murder Linnet Doyle in the novel. Only Jacqueline de Bellefort, Andrew Pennington and Mrs. Van Schuyler made the transition from novel to movie with their motives intact. Another change from the novel resulted in ALL of the suspects either harboring a reason to kill Linnet. Although, I must admit that I found Jim Ferguson’s motive rather slim. Political and economical repugnance toward an obvious capitalist like Linnet Doyle as a motive seemed to be stretching it a bit to me. And most of the suspects, as Poirot revealed, had an opportunity to commit the deed. Perhaps screenwriter Anthony Schaffer (who did not receive credit for his work on the ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” screenplay) may have went a bit too far with this scenario. But if I must be perfectly honest, I have nothing against these changes. In fact, they made the movie a little more entertaining for me.

”DEATH ON THE NILE” had a first-rate cast that had obviously enjoyed themselves. This especially seemed to be the case with Bette Davis, who portrayed Mrs. Van Schuyler. The literary version of the character seemed to be a humorless tyrant. Davis’ version of the character possessed a sly, yet malicious sense of humor that she constantly used to torment her long suffering companion, Miss Bowers. Yet, Davis also gave Mrs. Van Schuyler a sense of privilege to make her slightly autocratic. Another performance that I found highly entertaining, although flamboyant, belonged to Angela Landsbury (the future Jane Marple and the future Jessica Fletcher) as the alcoholic has-been novelist, Salome Otterbourne. Did Landsbury’s portrayal of Mrs. Otterbourne struck me as over-the-top? Yep. In spades. Did I care? Not really. Why? Because the literary version of Salome Otterbourne struck me as even more over-the-top . . . and less likeable. Whereas Angela Landsbury gaven a flamboyant performance, George Kennedy gave a far more restrained one as Andrew Pennington, Linnet Doyle’s embezzling American attorney. One of my favorite scenes involving Kennedy featured a moment when Pennington reacted to Simon Doyle’s admission of a lack of business skills. Anyone could see Pennington’s idea of dealing with the more gullible Doyle instead of Linnet, gleaming in Kennedy’s eyes.

In my review of the James Bond movie, ”MOONRAKER”, I had accused Lois Chiles of giving a slightly wooden performance. Granted, I would never view her as an exceptional actress, I must admit that she gave a much better performance in ”DEATH ON THE NILE”, as the wealthy and slightly autocratic Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. The amazing thing about Chiles’ performance was that she could have easily portrayed Linnet as a one-note bitch. Instead, the actress managed to successfully convey more complexities into her character, also revealing a charming woman, a good friend (somewhat), and a warm and passionate spouse. Simon MacCorkindale gave a solid performance as the straight-forward Simon Doyle – Jacqueline’s former fiancé and Linnet’s new husband. MacCorkindale not only conveyed Simon’s charm, but also the character’s simple nature, lack of imagination and an inability to realize how much he had truly hurt his former fiancée. If it were not for Peter Ustinov’s performance as Hercule Poirot, I would have declared Mia Farrow’s performance as the spurned Jacqueline de Bellefort as the best one in the movie. Instead, I will simply state that I believe she gave the second best performance. Emotionally, her Jacqueline seemed to be all over the map – angry, resentful, passionate, vindictive, remorseful and giddily in love. Yet somehow, Farrow managed to keep the many facets of Jackie’s personality in control and not allow them to overwhelm her. I especially enjoyed her interactions with Ustinov, as she portrayed a reluctant disciple to his mentor. The pair had an interesting and strong screen chemisty.

I could also say the same about Ustinov’s interactions with David Niven, who portrayed fellow detective Colonel Race. Niven’s portrayal was charming and at the same time, very humorous. The interesting thing is that Ustinov used to be Niven’s batman (personal servant to a commissioned military officer) during World War II before the pair became good friends. This friendship permeated their scenes together. But more importantly, Peter Ustinov took the role of Hercule Poirot and made it his own. Just as David Suchet would do nearly two decades later. Ustinov managed to inject his own brand of humor into the role without wallowing in some caricature of the Continental European. More importantly, I believe that Ustinov did an excellent job of conveying Poirot’s intelligence, sense of justice and formidable personality.

Like its 1974 predecessor, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” could boast a superb production, thanks to the crew that John Bradbourne had hired. Anthony Powell designed the movie’s costumes, evoking an era set during the early 1930s. I must admit that I found that interesting, considering that the novel had been published in 1937 and possibly written in 1936. Although a good deal of the movie was filmed on location in Egypt, I had been surprised to learn that many of the scenes aboard the S.S. Karnak had been filmed in England – both interiors and exteriors. It was a credit to both cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designers Peter Murton, along with Brian and Terry Ackland-Snow that the film managed to convey the movie’s setting of a small and exclusive Nile River steamboat with such clarity and elegance.

”DEATH ON THE NILE” was not without its flaws. Well, I can only think of one at the moment. Actor I.S. Johar portrayed the S.S. Karnak’s unnamed manager. Unfortunately, Johar’s portrayal of the steamboat’s manager invoked strong memories of the many actors and actresses of non-European descent that found themselves stuck in comic relief roles during the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. And ”DEATH ON THE NILE” had been filmed in 1977 and released in 1978. Johar found himself stuck in a clichéd and humiliating role and I suspect that Guillermin, Schaffer and Bradbourne are to blame for allowing such a role in the film.

But you know what? Despite that one major complaint, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” ended up becoming my favorite adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. It may not be considered the best among film critics and moviegoers. But then again, I have never been inclined to blindly follow popular opinion.

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One Response

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