“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (1982) Review

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“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (1982) Review

For many years, I tried to pretend that Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel, “Evil Under the Sun” was a personal favorite of mine. I really tried to accept this opinion, knowing that it was a popular favorite of many Christie fans. But for some reason, any deep interest in the novel’s plot failed to grab me. 

Produced by John Bradbourne and Richard Goodwin, and directed by Guy Hamilton; this “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” is basically about Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a famous English stage star, while on holiday in the Adriatic Sea. The movie begins with an unidentified female hiker reporting her discovery of a murdered woman named Alice Ruber on the Yorkshire moors. The story jumps to London, where Poirot is asked to investigate the circumstances of a millionaire’s diamond that turned out to be fake. Poirot’s investigation leads him to millionaire Sir Horace Blatt, who had originally given the diamond to his former lover – stage actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. After receiving the diamond, she eventually dumped him and married another. Sir Horace reveals that Arlena and her new husband plans to visit Daphne’s Island, an Adriatic Sea island resort owned by former showgirl Daphne Castle. During his holiday there, Poirot eventually discovers that there are others who have a grudge against Arlena:

*Daphne Castle – a former professional rival of Arlena, who had fallen in love with the famous actress’ husband, before he met the latter

*Kenneth Marshall – Arlena’s wealthy new husband, who is unhappy over Arlena’s extramarital affair with another guest and her bitchy treatment of his daughter; and who is also in love with Daphne

*Linda Marshall – Arlena’s stepdaughter, who detests her

*Patrick Redfern – a school teacher, who also happens to be Arlena’s current lover

*Christine Redfern – Patrick’s mousy wife, who resented Arlena’s affair with her husband

*Odell and Myra Gardener – husband and wife stage producers, desperate to cast Arlena in their new play

*Rex Brewster – a witty writer and theater critic who had written an unauthorized biography of Arlena

After two days on the island, Arlena sets out on her own for a private boat ride around the island. She is found strangled to death on one of the island’s secluded beaches, nearly two hours after Poirot saw her depart on a small paddle-boat. Daphne recruits Poirot to unveil the murderer before the local police can being their own investigation.

I recently watched the 2001 television adaptation of Christie’s novel. Aside from some changes, the movie more or less followed the literary version. This 1982 version, which featured Peter Ustinov as Poirot, featured more changes to Christie’s tale. Screenwriters Barry Sandler and Anthony Schaffer (who had also co-written 1974’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” and written 1978’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”) changed the story’s location from the coast of Devon to an exclusive island resort in the Adriatic Sea (filmed in Majorca, Spain). Linda Marshall’s age was reduced from sixteen years old to at least twelve to thirteen years old. Although this reduction in age made it impossible for Linda to be considered a genuine suspect, she still played a major role in Poirot’s investigation. Sandler and Schaffer also glamorized the movie’s setting by allowing some of the suspects to reflect Arlena’s show business background. The Gardeners were transformed from mere American tourists to theater producers. The screenwriters transformed spinster Emily Brewster into writer/theater critic Rex Brewster, with the theatricality and wit of Noel Coward. Horace Blatt went from a slightly wealthy braggart to the garrulous self-made millionaire industrialist Sir Horace Blatt. Dressmaker Rosamund Darnley transformed into former showgirl-turned-royal mistress-turned resort owner Daphne Castle. And characters such as Stephen Lane and Major Barry were completely written out of the story . . . thank goodness. If I must be brutally honest, Schaffer and Sandler’s revamp of Christie’s novel made the story a lot more interesting and entertaining for me.

“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” was not perfect. It had a few flaws that either confused me or I found unappealing. One, I never understood why the insurance papers regarding the Alice Ruber case were in Poirot’s possession during his stay at Daphne’s Island. I understood that he was investigating Sir Horace’s fake diamond on behalf of the same insurance company. But why bring along the files for another case . . . even if that case proved to have a connection to Arlena’s killer? Although I enjoyed most of Anthony Powell’s colorful costume designs, there were a few selections I found either mind boggling or extremely tasteless. In one scene, both Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg wore outfits with material from the same source – white something with gaudy, colorful baubbles. Take a look:

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And in another scene, Sylvia Miles wore the following costume:

Costume Anthony Powell 1982

A black evening gown with reddish-pink and white polka dots, a plunging neckline and puffy sleeves? What on earth was Powell thinking when he created this costume for the actress? However, I still enjoyed the rest of Powell’s creations, which perfectly captured the movie’s comedic and slightly campy tone. I especially enjoyed the salmon-colored gown Rigg wore during Poirot’s second evening on the island and the black-and-white number that Miles wore during the detective’s first evening. And the costumes for the men – especially the evening wear – struck me as well tailored. Powell’s costumes were not the only artistic contributions to the film that I enjoyed. Christopher Challis’ photography of Majorca, Spain; which stood for the French Riviera and Daphne’s Island; struck me as colorful, sharp and very beautiful – a perfect reflection of sunshine elegance. And music arranger John Dalby make great use of various Cole Porter tunes in the movie

Most of my observations regarding “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” are definitely positive. It is one of my top favorite Agatha Christie adaptations of all time. Thanks to Schaffer and Sandler’s revisions in Christie’s tale and Guy Hamilton’s elegant, yet lively direction, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be the wittiest Christie movie I have ever seen hands down. Nearly every character – including Emily Hone, who must have been in her early teens at the time – had some juicy lines. And I consider it to be twice as entertaining and superior to the 1941 novel. Between the show biz background of some of the characters – including Arlena Marshall, the witty dialogue and the movie’s exclusive setting; “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” managed to beautifully recapture the ambivalence of the cafe society between the 1930s and 1950s that included celebrated wits, actors and actresses, musicians, writers, and well-known high society figures. This was especially apparent in scenes that featured the evening gatherings of the guests in the hotel’s main drawing room. The apex of these scenes featured an entertaining and rather funny rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” by Diana Rigg (along with an interruption or two from Maggie Smith).

As for the murder mystery itself, it does not have the same emotional resonance as “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” or “DEATH ON THE NILE”. There is no real emotional connections between the victim and the killer. This does not mean that I regard the 1982 movie inferior to the other two. “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” is simply a different kettle of fish. The murderer is too cold-blooded and the victim is too self-absorbed for any emotional connection. And the movie has a comedic, yet elegant that makes it a lighter fare than its two predecessors – like a delicious, yet fulfilling souffle.

As for the cast . . . ah, the cast! How I adore every last one of them. Every time I watch “EVIL UNDER THE SUN”, I am constantly surprised by the chemistry between James Mason and Sylvia Miles, who portrayed the producing husband-and-wife team, Odell and Myra Gardener. It still amazes me that two performer with such different backgrounds and acting style should click so well on screen. Jane Birkin, who appeared in “DEATH ON THE NILE” with both Peter Ustinov and Smith, did an excellent job as the cuckolded wife, Christine Redfern. She managed to effectively combined Christine’s mousiness and penchant for nagging with great ease. I have a confession to make. I was never that impressed by Nicholas Clay’s performance as Sir Lancelot in 1981’s “EXCALIBUR”. But I really enjoyed his performance as the charming and slightly roguish Patrick Redfern, who loved his wife, but enjoyed having a good time with Arlena. This was the second time he had portrayed an adulterer. And honestly? He was a lot sexier in this film. Denis Quilley, who was stuck in a one-dimensional role in “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, had a better opportunity to shine as Arlena’s dignified, yet cuckolded husband, Kenneth Marshall. And he also had a nice chemistry with Smith. Like Quilley, Colin Blakely had a better role in “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” than he did in “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. He was deliciously sardonic and earthy as the slightly embittered Sir Horace Blatt, the millionaire whom Arlena made a chump.

The bitchfest between Maggie Smith’s Daphne Castle and Diana Rigg’s Arlena Marshall turned out to be a moviegoer’s dream. Both were absolutely delightful as the warm and pragmatic Daphne and the arrogant and self-absorbed Arlena, the former rivals who resumed their conflict with delicious verbal warfare and one-upmanship. Roddy McDowell’s portrayal of writer/critic Rex Brewster turned out to be the biggest bitch on the island. The actor had some of the best lines in the film. His response to the Gardeners’ suggestion that he go play with himself had me in stiches for at least two to three minutes. Surprisingly, novice actress Emily Hone engaged in her own bitchfest with McDowall’s Brewster . . . and did a great job in the process. I was surprised by her ability to hold her own with the actor and other members of the cast despite her age and lack of experience. Pity that “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be her only work in films.

Peter Ustinov returned for a second time as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and seemed better than ever. Mind you, I was very impressed by his performance in “DEATH ON THE NILE”, but in this film he seemed more relaxed . . . enough to include more of his personal style in the role. Like the rest of the cast, he had his own memorable lines. But the one sequence in which he really impressed me proved to be the scene in which Poirot reveals the murderer. The murderer revelation scenes has always been among my favorites in any Christie adaptation. But Ustinov really outdid himself in the one for “EVIL UNDER THE SUN”. I was so impressed by the actor’s pacing and use of both the dialogue and his voice that this movie ended up featuring my favorite murderer revelation scene of all time.

“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” is not my favorite Christie adaptation movie. And I found a few flaws in both the screenplay and Anthony Powell’s costumes that has left me scratching my head. But I cannot deny that the 1982 movie is among my top five favorite Christie movies. From my point of view, I would attribute this to Anthony Schaffer and Barry Sandler’s witty screenplay, Guy Hamilton’s well-paced direction and hilariously outstanding performances from a cast led by the very talented Peter Ustinov. I could watch this movie over and over again.

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