|Evil Under the Sun|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 27 February 2001|
The big risk was that no one had made a classic, "drawing room" murder mystery in years; the only attempt since the very early 30s to bring Christie's little Belgian detective to the screen had been the badly-judged 'The Alphabet Murders' with Tony Randall well-cast but badly directed as Poirot. So when 'Orient Express' was a success, it's no wonder that Brabourne and Goodwin wanted to continue in the same vein. And for a while, they succeeded, both economically and in terms of quality.
Finney declined to continue as Poirot, so Peter Ustinov stepped in for 'Death on the Nile,' 'Evil Under the Sun' and several others of rapidly-diminishing quality. Eventually, Ustinov played Poirot in a few lackluster TV movies (unlike the features, they were set in the present), and all was silent until the so amiable Suchet brought back one of fiction's most colorful, amusing sleuths, he of the magnificent moustaches and the little gray cells.
Now Anchor Bay has brought out three of the Brabourne-Goodwin Christie adaptations, the first two Ustinov-Poirot titles and 'The Mirror Crack'd,' with Angela Lansbury working hard but slightly miscast. Bless Anchor Bay's heart: 'Evil Under the Sun' is likely to be played more often than a lot of better films.
There's something very comforting about the structure of a classic whodunnit, and it goes beyond just trying to figure out who, in fact, did dunnit. It's chaos neatly reigned in by the sleek deduction of a colorful detective, it's a whole lot of terrific actors having a grand time playing well-developed stereotypes. In the case of the Brabourne-Goodwin Christie adaptations, it's also great production design, beautiful photography, elegant costumes and well-chosen locations. You can relax into these movies and enjoy them a different way each time around: the first time, it's the mystery; the next time, it's the fun of the actors playing off one another. These movies are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food: not haute cuisine by any means, but deeply satisfying -- even more so on home video that in theaters, oddly enough.
At the time the films were made, Peter Ustinov took some pride in announcing that he had never read a single book by Agatha Christie, that he was making Hercule Poirot his own character. (That is, he made this claim in some interviews; in others, it's clear he had read the novels. )And to a large degree, this is true: his Poirot runs parallel to but a distance from Christie's (and Finney's, and Suchet's). He's funnier, he's sunnier, he's less obnoxious, and he's a different build. The dialog in 'Evil' still contains lines referring to "that annoying little Belgian;" Ustinov's Poirot may be annoying, but he's certainly not little. But it's like Margaret Rutherford playing Miss Marple: miscast perhaps, but a delight nonetheless. And there are few more flavorful, delightful, endearing, impish and skilled actors in movie history than Peter Ustinov. He may not be Christie's Poirot, but he's a great one.
'Evil Under the Sun' was scripted by Anthony Shaffer ('Sleuth') and leisurely directed by Guy Hamilton ('Goldfinger'). Someone had the brilliant idea of using Cole Porter melodies for the score, and in hiring Hugh Casson to do the graceful, slightly ironic watercolors that decorate the credits (a new painting for each name). The movie is set on an Adriatic island, part of the fictional country of Tirania, but was shot on the Spanish island of Majorca. It's barren and bleak, but jewel-like just the same, with crystalline-blue waters all around.
The movie opens with the discovery of a murdered woman on the English moors -- but this incident is then completely ignored until the last few minutes of the film. Very clever. Poirot comes into things when an insurance company hires him to find out why a valuable diamond owned by the brusque, vulgar but worthy Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) has been replaced by a cheap paste copy.
This leads Poirot to that island, owned by Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith), a former showgirl -- and former mistress of the King of Tirania. The hotel is a hangout of the rich and famous -- the guest book shows signatures of Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Cole Porter and other celebrities of the 1930s. Also at the plush hotel run by Daphne are arch gossip columnist Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall), husband-wife theatrical producers Odell (James Mason) and Myra Gardener (Sylvia Miles). Arriving soon are the Redferns, shy, sunlight-shunning Christine (Jane Birkin) and handsome outdoorsman Patrick (Nicholas Clay). When famous actress Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg) arrives with her staid husband Kenneth (Dennis Quilley) and his young daughter Linda (Emily Hone), Arlena and Patrick renew their affair. Soon, it's obvious that everyone except Poirot has a damned good reason to kill Arlena, and sure enough, eventually she turns up dead. Poirot puts his little gray cells to work.
The exquisite, creamy photography by Christopher Challis captures the exotic stillness of the resort, inside and out; Anthony Powell's costumes are just exaggerated enough to be amusing, but not so much that they seem unrealistic. Elliot Scott's production design is similar -- a little over the top, but still within reasonable boundaries. Altogether, this team has created one of the best-looking murder mysteries in movie history, maybe not quite as lush as 'Death on the Nile,' but a joy to behold anyway.
The sound is equally fine; although it's mono, the work by John W. Mitchell, John Richards and Bill Rowe captures the ambiance of an isolated island resort: somehow they even make it sound dry. 'Evil Under the Sun' is a very quiet movie -- even the murder is accomplished by silent strangulation -- but that doesn't mean the sound team didn't work wonders.
As with all the Brabourne-Goodwin Christie adaptations, the film is blessed by a terrific cast. It's great fun to see Rigg and Smith, playing life-long rivals, go at each other bitchily, particularly when Rigg sings 'You're the Top' with interruptions by Smith. Rigg's character is a classic domineering, egocentric bitch, and she's given some of the best lines. When MacDowall's Rex, usually bedecked in nautical finery, is shocked by her refusal to endorse his biography of her, she snarls, 'You're not going to barbecue me to keep yourself in sailor suits.' But Smith has some good lines, too; asking Poirot to be discreet in his investigations, she points out, 'You know how people can be about a spot of murder.'
Movies about a spot of murder can be great, satisfying fun, and though 'Evil Under the Sun' is a bit lethargically paced, it's also very entertaining, graced by a great look and a terrific cast. They really should make more movies like this.