“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (1988) Review

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“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (1988) Review

Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel, “Appointment With Death” has proven to be a problem over the past 70 years or so. If I must be honest, it is not a great novel. Considering the topic of emotional abuse, it had the potential to be great. But I feel that Christie never achieved what could have been a memorable and haunting tale.

The novel also produced adaptations in the form of a 1945 stage play, a 2008 television movie and a 1988 theatrical release. Of the three adaptations, the 1988 film, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” came the closest in being faithful to novel. Is it the best adaptation? Unfortunately, I have never seen the stage play and have no idea what changes to Christie’s plot had been made. I have seen the 2008 television movie. And honestly? I consider it a colorful travesty. Do I harbor the same opinion of the 1988 film? Well . . . no. It is not a bad film. But I believe it is a far cry from some of the best of the Christie adaptations.

Directed by Michael Winner, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” centered on Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the death of a wealthy middle-aged woman named Mrs. Boynton. Actually, the story began several months earlier, in New Jersey, where the recently widowed Mrs. Boynton learned that her late husband left a second will would enable her stepchildren and daughter to enjoy a financially stable life, independent of her. Jealous of the idea of no longer holding any power over her family, Mrs. Boynton blackmailed the family attorney, Jefferson Cope, into destroying the second will, leaving her in charge of the family finances. The family embarks on a grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land during the spring of 1937. During the sea voyage between Italy and the Middle East, fellow passenger Hercule Poirot overhears two of Mrs. Boynton’s stepchildren, Raymond and Carol, discussing the possibility of their stepmother’s death. More importantly, Mrs. Boynton is surprised by the appearance of Cope, fearful he might inform her children about her husband’s second will.

Following the characters’ arrival in Petra, Poirot and some of the other characters become aware of Mrs. Boynton’s domineering abuse of her stepchildren and daughter. One of the vacationers, a Dr. Sarah King, falls in love with one of Mrs. Boynton’s stepsons – Raymond. But she becomes frustrated by his inability to break free of his stepmother’s grip. Sarah’s frustrations reflect those of Nadine Boynton, who is near the breaking point over her husband’s inability to break free from his stepmother. Also, the old lady’s stepchildren are becoming increasingly worried over Mrs. Boynton’s poisonous influence over the latter’s only child and their half-sister, Ginerva. Things come to a boil during a one day expedition to an archeology dig outside Petra. A few hours after Mrs. Boynton encourages her family to go for a walk, she is discovered dead. It does not take Poirot very long to figure out that the old lady had been murdered. And he is recruited by the region’s British Army representative, Colonel Carbury, to investigate her death.

As I had earlier stated, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” is not a bad film. But it is certainly no masterpiece. Let me be frank. It is quite obvious that the look and tone of this production is more akin to television movie feature from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” than a theatrical movie. It is a bit cheap in compare to star Peter Ustinov’s previous two Poirot movies and the 1974 one that starred Albert Finney. Some of cast members seemed to be going through the motions in their performances. This especially seemed to be the case for Carrie Fisher, Nicholas Guest, John Gielgud and sadly, Peter Ustinov. And when the star of the film seemed almost too relaxed or uninterested in his performance or the film, there is potential for disaster. What makes this sad is that Ustinov gave a funny and energetic performance for his next role as Detective Fix in the 1989 miniseries, “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”. Adding to the film’s second-hand look was Pino Donaggio’s very disappointing score. Honestly, it was probably the worst movie score for any Agatha Christie’s production I have ever heard. It seemed to be 1980s pop music at its cheesiest. And allowing a cheesy 80s pop tune to serve as the main score for a movie set in the late 1930s was one of the worst mistakes that Michael Winner and the other film’s producers made.

But all is not lost. At least Winner can claim he directed the better version of Christie’s 1938 novel. The television movie adaptation made twenty (20) years later seemed like a total disaster in compare to this film. And the 1988 movie had more virtues. Although the movie’s production visuals seemed a bit of a comedown from the Christie movies between 1974 and 1982, production designer John Blezard’s work in “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” still struck me as pretty solid. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Alan Cassie and Shlomo Tsafrir’s set designs and David Gurfinkel’s photography during the archeological dig sequence. John Bloomfield’s costume designs also struck me as pretty solid, but not exactly mind-blowing. Despite Michael Winner’s pedestrian direction and the less-than-spectacular production, I have to admit that Winner, Anthony Shaffer and Peter Buckman did a very admirable job of adapting Christie’s novel. I am not saying this because it is more faithful than the 1945 stage play and the 2008 television movie. The three screenwriters made some changes to the plot – including the deletion of one or two characters – but those changes did not harm the story overall.

Most of the cast certainly injected a good deal of energy, despite Ustinov, Fisher, Guest and Gielgud’s lethargic performances. I was especially impressed by Jenny Seagrove as the stalwart Dr. Sarah King, David Soul’s sly performance as the Boyntons’ slippery, yet charming attorney Jefferson Cope, and John Terlesky’s earnest performance as Raymond Boynton. As far as I am concerned, both Lauren Bacall and Hayley Mills gave the funniest performances in the film. Bacall’s hilarious portrayal of the rude and pushy American-born Lady Westholme almost reminded me of her performance as the verbose Mrs. Hubbard from 1974’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. However, her Lady Westholme struck me as funnier. And Hayley Mills was equally funny as Lady Westholme’s impromptu traveling companion, the obsequious Miss Quinton. But the engine that really drove “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” turned out to be Piper Laurie’s performance as murder victim, Mrs. Emily Boynton. There were moments with Laurie’s performance became somewhat hammy. But she did a great job in portraying a manipulative and emotionally sadistic woman with a talent for keeping her stepchildren in line. I found her performance very commanding.

Overall, I would not consider “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” to be one of the best movie adaptations of a Christie novel. Heck, I can think of several television movie adaptations that I would view as better. But I believe it is the better of the two adaptations of the 1938 novel. I wish I could say that director Michael Winner and Peter Ustinov’s performance as Hercule Poirot contributed a good deal to this movie’s production. But it was not that difficult for me to see that Winner is at heart, a mediocre director. And Ustinov’s performance seemed at worst, lethargic. And yet, the rest of the cast (aside from two others) and a solid script prevented “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” from sinking into a mire of crap. At least for me.

 

 

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Carrie Fisher (1956-2016) R.I.P.

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