Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

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“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.

“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:

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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.

Top Ten Favorite AGATHA CHRISTIE Movies

About two years ago, I had posted my ten favorite movies based upon some of Agatha Christie’s novel. Two years later, my tastes have changed a bit. Here is my new list: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE AGATHA CHRISTIE MOVIES

1. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his debut as Hercule Poirot in this intriguing mystery about the detective’s investigation into the death of a wealthy Anglo-American bride on her honeymoon, during a cruise down the Nile River. Directed by John Guillerman, David Niven co-starred.

2. “Evil Under the Sun” – Peter Ustinov portrays Hercule Poirot for the second time in this witty and entertaining mystery about the detective’s investigation into the murder of a famous stage actress. Guy Hamilton directed.

3. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Poirot investigates the 15 year-old murder of a famous, philandering artist in order to clear the name of his widow, who had been hanged for killing him. David Suchet and Rachael Stirling starred.

4. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this classic, all-star mystery about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the death of a mysterious wealthy American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1986) – Joan Hickson stars as Jane Marple in this superb adaptation of Christie’s story about an unusual newspaper announcement that leads curious village inhabitants to a supper party and a murder. John Castle co-starred.

6. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a man disinherits his sole beneficiary and bequeaths his wealth to others just prior to his death, Poirot is called in to investigate. David Suchet and Geraldine James stars.

7. “Towards Zero” (2007) – Geraldine McEwan starred as Jane Marple in this excellent adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel about the investigation of the murder of a wealthy, elderly woman.

8. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot races against time in this haunting tale to prove whether or not a young woman was responsible for the murder of her aunt and the latter’s companion.

9. “Cards on the Table” (2005) – In this fascinating mystery, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a mysterious dinner host named Mr. Shaitana, in which four of the suspects may have committed a previous murder. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker starred.

10. “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980) – Four years before she stepped into the role of television sleuth Jessica Fletcher, Angela Landsbury portrayed Jane Marple in this entertaining mystery about a visiting Hollywood star filming a movie in St. Mary’s Mead. Guy Hamilton directed.

“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.

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1989) Review

Below is my review of the 1989 miniseries, “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”

 

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1989) Review

I have seen at least three full versions of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”. And if I must be frank, I have yet to see a version that I would consider to be flawless or near flawless. But if I had to choose which version would rank as my favorite, it would be the three-part miniseries that aired on NBC in 1989.

Directed by the late Buzz Kulik, this version of Jules Verne’s novel starred Pierce Brosnan as the globe-trotting Phineas Fogg. ”MONTY PYTHON” alumni Eric Idle co-starred as Fogg’s French manservant, Passepartout; Julia Nickson portrayed the India-born Princess Aouda; and the late Peter Ustinov was the English detective who was convinced that Fogg had robbed the Bank of England, Detective Fix. The story started with a conversation between Fogg (Brosnan) and three fellow members of the Reform Club (Christopher Lee, Patrick Macnee and Simon Ward) in 19th century London about the technological advances in transportation in the past thirty to forty years. This leads Fogg to make a wager for twenty-thousand pounds (£20,000) that he could travel around the world in eighty (80) days or less. During the same day, a thief robs the Bank of England and all suspicions point to Fogg, who is identified by a bank employee as the robber.

Wentworth (Robert Morely), an official from the Bank of England and his assistant McBaines (Roddy MacDowell) dispatch private detectives to various ports throughout Europe to find Fogg and have him extradicted back to England. One of the detectives include Fix (Ustinov), who is sent to Brindisi, Italy. Unfortunately, Fix spots Fogg and Passepartout boarding a steamer bound for Suez and Bombay a minute too late and is forced to follow them on their trek around the world. Upon Fogg’s arrival in India, one last member joins his traveling party when he and Passepartout (actually, Passepartout) rescue a recently widowed Indian princess from a suttee funeral pyre.

Like its 1956 predecessor, this version of “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” turned out to be longer than necessary. The miniseries could have easily been a two-part miniseries or a 135-minute television movie. Unfortunately, John Gay filled his screenplay with unecessary scenes and dialogue that merely served as fillers to justify a three-part miniseries. In Part I, Fogg and Passepartout’s adventures in France lasted longer than necessary – especially after they met a balloonist named Gravier and his mistress, Lucette. Even worse, viewers have to endure Fogg and Passepartout’s balloon journey from France to Italy – which included a period that the heroes found themselves stranded in the Italian Alps. Part II included scenes that featured Fogg, Passepartout and Aouda’s adventures with a Burmese prince and the bandits that kidnapped all of them; and Fogg, Aouda and Fix’s encounter with the Empress of China and her son, the Emperor. I realize Gay also added these scenes to make Fogg’s journey around the world more interesting. Unfortunately, they failed to interest or impress me.

Another problem I had with Gay’s script turned out to be a major blooper that involved Fogg’s encounters with the famous bandit, Jesse James (Stephen Nicols). Following Fogg’s first encounter with James in San Francisco; he, Aouda, Passepartout and Fix boarded an eastbound train for Omaha. By some miracle, Jesse James and his brother Frank managed to catch up with this train somewhere on the Great Plains (probably in Nebraska), where Jesse boarded said train before the second encounter with Fogg. How was this possible? Fogg’s train should have traveling eastbound for at least a day or two before James boarded it. There is NO WAY that the bandit could have caught up with that train. Gay should have allowed the James brothers or Jesse board the train in Oakland, along with Fogg and his party. Sloppy writing. And some of the dialogue featured in the miniseries seemed ladened with pedantic and half-finished sentences and unecessarily long pauses that seemed to serve no other function than to act as fillers to stretch the story.

One might wonder how I can view this version of “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” as my favorite, considering the above criticism. But despite the flaws, I must admit there were many aspects about the miniseries I found enjoyable. John Gay’s screenplay did not turn out to be a total loss. In fact, the number of gems in the story seemed to outweigh the flaws. I especially enjoyed the following:

*Fogg and Passepartout’s charming encounter with actress Sarah Bernhardt (portrayed by a still sexy 54 year-old Lee Remick) at Dover
*Fogg and Passepartout’s hilarious adventure at a Parisian bar
*The steamship journey from Brindisi to Suez that featured Fogg’s encounter with Egyptian stonecutters and Fix’s hilarious encounter with a Turkish prisoner willing to offer himself to help the detective pass the time
*Princess Aouda’s rescue
*Fogg, Aouda and Fix find themselves shipwrecked on the China coast
*Fogg’s first encounter with Jesse James at a San Francisco ball
*Fogg and James’ duel on the Omaha-bound train

One particular scene I truly found enjoyable was Fogg and Aouda’s hilarious and unsuccessful attempt to stowaway aboard Cornelius Vanderbilt’s (Rick Jason) Europe-bound yacht. It was never featured in the novel or the 1956 movie. Too bad. I thought it was one of the best written scenes in the miniseries.

And it was Pierce Brosnan’s performance as Phileas Fogg that really made that last scene a comic gem for me. Which is not surprising, considering he has turned out to be my favorite Fogg. Sorry Mr. Niven and Mr. Coogan, but I feel that Brosnan’s portrayal has the other two beat. He managed to combined the best of the other two actors’ performances to create the most emotionally rounded Phileas Fogg. He managed to perfectly convey the angst of Fogg’s tendencies to suppress his emotions with some great comic timing.

Speaking of comic timing, Eric Idle’s timing was effectively on display in some of my favorite scenes. Granted, I found his French accent rather questionable. But Idle more than made up for it in some very hilarious scenes. One featured his reaction to being attacked by a French thug at the Parisian bar and another a drunken moment shared with Fix at a Hong Kong tavern. But my favorite Idle moment centered around his reaction to a questionable meat pie purchased by Fogg on the Omaha-bound train in probably the funniest line in the entire miniseries.

Julia Nickson was both charming and amusing as the very brave Princess Aouda. Her Indian princess provided the miniseries with some deliciously angst-filled moments that allowed Aouda to question Fogg about his habit of suppressing his feelings from others. Nickson’s Aouda also provided the miniseries with some political correct moments that were not only amusing, but well handled without being overbearing. And I simply enjoyed Peter Ustinov’s performance as Detective Fix. Like Brosnan’s Fogg, his Fix came off as more rounded and complex as Robert Newton or Ewan Bremmer’s Fix. Without a doubt, Ustinov had some hilarious moments – especially in scenes that featured Fix’s encounter with the Turkish prisoner on the voyage to Suez; and his reaction to anothergame of whist with Fogg. Not only did Ustinov managed to be funny, but also give Fix’s character with a great deal of depth not found in other versions of the story.

I do have to say something about the supporting characters. One, I really enjoyed Robert Morely and Roddy McDowall as the Bank of England official and his assistant. Morely was a lot more amusing and fun in this miniseries than he was as the more stoic bank official in the 1956 version. And McDowall supported him beautifully. I also enjoyed the performances of Christopher Lee, Patrick Macnee and Simon Ward as the three Reform Club members who made the bet with Fogg. I especially enjoyed Lee’s performance as the one member who especially found Fogg’s precision and rigid habits rather annoying.

This version of “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” lacked Victor Young’s memorable score and Lionel Lindon’s cinematography. But it does possess a pleasant and catchy score written by Billy Goldenberg. And I must admit that I found myself impressed by Emma Porteus’ costume design, which captured the styles of the early 1870s more effectively than the 1956 movie.

In a nutshell, the three-part miniseries is simply too long. It has scenes and some clunky dialogue that could have easily been edited. But screenwriter John Gay also provided some wonderful and effective moments in the script. Frankly, I thought the cast was top-notch – especially the four main characters led by Pierce Brosnan. And although he is not well known, I thought that director Buzz Kulik did a solid job bringing it all together. The 1956 version may have won the awards, but in my book, this 1989 miniseries remains my favorite version of Jules Verne’s novel.