Death on the Nile (1978)
Death on the Nile
Dir: John Guillermin
Cert: PG • UK: 140 min • EMI Films • DVD
Murder on the Orient Express, released in 1974, was an all-star adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, and it made a mint. And so four years later there followed Death on the Nile, built on a comparable union of exotic locations and an all-star cast.
Death of the Nile opens with the irrepressible and irritating Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow) introducing her fiancée, the impossibly English stud-muffin Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale), to her best friend, the arrogant American heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles). Simon flashes his straight white teeth at Linnet, and in the blink of an eye they are married, leaving poor Jacqueline to wreck the honeymoon the only way she knows how: by turning up unannounced wherever the couple go.
On board the S.S. Karnak, cruising down the Nile, the motley crew of passengers, all of whom have rather coincidentally had a run-in with “the Ridgeway girl” somewhere along the way, are considered suspects when Linnet is found shot in the head, the letter ‘J’ marked in the blood on the wall beside her. Fortunately Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is also on the cruise, and an investigation ensues.
Of the all-star adaptations made between 1974 and 1981, Death on the Nile is the most gloriously camp – even more so than The Mirror Crack’d, with its excessively ham performances by Elizabeth Taylor and Tony Curtis. (I’m not including the television films with Ustinov, and the disastrous late-comer to the all-star party, Appointment with Death (1988), in which Lauren Bacall rides roughshod over everything and Carrie Fisher is coked-up to the gills.) The suspect list includes three particularly camp diamonds: the ageing jewellery enthusiast, Mrs van Schuyler (Bette Davis), her bitter paid-companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith), and the eccentric alcoholic novelist Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury). Mrs van Schuyler tortures Bowers mercilessly with barbed asides, and the latter responds to the “bloody old fossil” in a more direct manner, much to the former’s delight. Mrs Otterbourne waxes lyrical on the sexual passion of men while three-sheets-to-the-wind, and insists on calling Poirot “Monsieur Porridge”. Even the “Tango” scene in the hotel before the cruise was choreographed by Wayne Sleep.
Dyson Lovell’s casting is faultless. As Poirot, Peter Ustinov brings a sense of humour to the character that was somewhat lacking in Albert Finney’s portrayal of Christie’s Belgian sleuth in Murder on the Orient Express. The supporting cast is consistently magnificent, from George Kennedy as Linnet’s crooked lawyer, Jane Birkin as the disgruntled maid, and David Niven as Colonel Johnny Race, an old friend of Poirot’s who assists him on the case. There is even a cameo from Sam Wanamaker as one of Linnet’s American lawyers.
Filmed at Pinewood Studios, and on location in Egypt, Death on the Nile is visually stunning, and is the perfect candidate for reissue on Blu-ray, although there is no sign that such a release is forthcoming. John Guillermin uses the majesty of the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, as well as the temples at Abu Simbel and Karnak to superb effect. The grandeur of the locations is equal to that of the actors. In her usual droll manner, Bette Davis commented, “In the older days, they’d have built the Nile for you. Nowadays, films have become travelogues and actors stuntmen.” Perhaps she did not like the scene in which Miss van Schuyler waves to the Egyptian kids on the riverbank only to be mooned by them.
Unlike Murder on the Orient Express, the film of Death on the Nile is far superior to the book. Whereas the conclusion of Murder on the Orient Express is inventive, and second only to Ten Little Niggers (1939), Christie telegraphs the identity of the murderers in Death on the Nile, and there are so many subsidiary characters that the narrative is diluted. Anthony Shaffer’s script strips away the debris and illuminates the story.
In the 1970s, Death on the Nile harked back to the glamorous 1930s. In the 2010s it harks back to a highpoint in the history of British cinema, as well as a time in which an all-star cast meant talented actors and not a collection of flavours-of-the-month.