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Death on the Nile Print E-mail
Tuesday, 27 February 2001

Death On The Nile

Anchor Bay Entertainment
MPAA rating: PG
starring: Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, David Niven, Lois Chiles, Simon MacCorkindale, Jack Warden, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, Jane Birkin, Jon Finch
release year: 1978
film rating: Four stars
sound/picture: Three stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

In 'Death on the Nile,' Peter Ustinov played Agatha Christie's colorful detective Hercule Poirot for the first time. He played him again for producers John Brabourne and Richard B. Goodwin in 'Evil Under the Sun' (1982), which, like 'Murder on the Orient Express' (with Albert Finney as the Belgian detective) and 'Death on the Nile,' was set in the 1930s. Ustinov then turned up in a trio of TV movies with contemporary settings, 'Thirteen at Dinner' (1985), 'Dead Man's Folly' and 'Murder in Three Acts' (both 1986); he played Poirot for the last time in the dismal 'Appointment with Death' (1988), which returned to the period setting.

All these outings as Poirot, and yet Ustinov didn't really try to play the character as Christie had written him. (That would wait for David Suchet's brilliant turn as Poirot in the long-running British TV series.) In some interviews, he liked to claim that he'd never read any of the Poirot stories, but in those included on this handsome DVD, it's obvious he was quite familiar with Christie's books. He just chose to play Poirot in a far more overtly comic, even cuddly, manner than in the stories. Here, in 'Death on the Nile,' he's a little more straightforward, a little less cutesy-pie than he is in the later films. But despite his varying from the Christie texts, Ustinov is always a delight as the brilliant Belgian, who relies upon his little gray cells (brains) to solve knotty murder mysteries. And in each of them, he classically gathers the suspects together to outline the murder scheme, finally identifying the killer to the amazement of all onlookers, including us.

'Death on the Nile' is the best of Ustinov's outings as Poirot; 'Evil Under the Sun' has a lot to recommend it, but 'Nile' features even more exotically beautiful locations and an even more intriguingly complicated plot. And it has an even more colorful cast, which is saying something. Here, we get delights such as David Niven acting as Watson to Poirot's Holmes, Maggie Smith and Bette Davis cattily snarling at each other, Angela Lansbury flouncing around in amazing costumes, and all that incredible scenery -- the movie really was shot on the Nile, and genuine Egyptian temples are important, memorable settings.

Poirot is in Egypt en vacance, and happily meets his old friend Col. Race (David Niven), pleased to learn they are on the same excursion boat. Also aboard are the usual mix of strangers, friends, enemies and lovers: Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale) is on his honeymoon with his rich bride Linnet (Lois Chiles), having thrown over the now almost-deranged Jacqueline De Bellefort (Mia Farrow), who follows the honeymooning pair everywhere, including to the top of a pyramid. Flamboyant Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury), hauling her resentful daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey) about, is one of several people with a financial score to settle with the oblivious Linnet. Her American Lawyer Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy) is uneasy about something, and German charlatan Dr. Ludwig Bessner (Jack Warden) is also angry with Linnet. As is wealthy, elderly and sharp-tongued Mrs. Van Schuyler (Bette Davis, in fine if frail form), who quarrels incessantly with her servant Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith, also in 'Evil Under the Sun'). Also aboard are apparently innocent Louise Bourget (Jane Birkin) and political radical Jim Ferguson (Jon Finch), who dislikes Linnet just because she's rich.

The stage is set. Quarrels, reconciliations and mysterious events ensue as the ship chugs along the scenic, historic river. Director John Guillermin mostly keeps things movie in good order, though the film is overlong -- but in one ancient Egyptian temple, all huge columns and long passageways, he stages a scene with nothing less than brilliance as the tourists pass among the pillars, in and out of view of the smoothly mobile camera. There's no music, just the sound of the wind brushing the sand over the ancient stones. It's the highlight of the film, and probably the single best scene in Guillermin's career. It's eerie, beautiful and haunting.

When, yes, Linnet is finally killed -- shot to death while sleeping -- Poirot begins investigating (but is unable to prevent a couple more killings). He moves among the passengers, a threat to some, an annoyance to others, but always charming to us. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer follows the lead of 'Murder on the Orient Express' (explicitly referred to here) in showing how any of the suspects could have committed the crime. Poor Linnet is shot over and over and over by various possible killers. It's a clever idea that more murder mystery movies should follow.

The mystery is satisfyingly complex, and not all that easy to guess; it's a tale full of money and passion, the classical driving forces of "cozy" mysteries like this one. And cozy it is, too: even though the movie is a little overlong, you're not likely to notice, lounging comfortably in your recliner or on your couch. It's ideal viewing for a relaxed evening at home. The print is in fine shape, the colors are rich, and though it's mono, the soundtrack is effective and enhances the setting wonderfully well.

So do the costumes by Anthony Powell, who won both an American Oscar and the British equivalent for his designs. The music by Nino Rota is one of the best the great composer ever did outside of Italy; it evokes the period, the luxury, and the river setting with rich, sweeping tones. It's magnificent.

So is most of the cast, with the only false notes being struck by George Kennedy and Jack Warden, who more than a little overdo things. Angela Lansbury appears to overdo things, but her character is so grandly flamboyant it's hard to make that accusation stick -- besides, she's simply great fun. So are Bette Davis, clearly enjoying herself, and Maggie Smith; the two great actresses are splendidly bitchy. Lois Chiles is dreamily beautiful, an angel with a splinter of ice in her heart; she's blithely uncaring about those her business practices damage, and retains enough innocent to make her character's murder a tragedy. Mia Farrow is often at her best in less serious films, such as this one, and her drive and energy here are disturbing, but hypnotically attractive.

As usual in murder mysteries of this nature, most of the fun in 'Death on the Nile' comes prior to the murder, as we're introduced to everyone and to the beautiful, exotic setting. The second half is less fun, almost unavoidably. But overall, though 'Murder on the Orient Express' remains the best theatrical adaptation of Christie to date, 'Death on the Nile' is a major contender for second place, a grand evocation of a type of mystery and a period now long gone.

•Don't miss Bill's DVD review of The Mirror Crack'd

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital mono
aspect ratio(s):
letterboxed (16X9 enhanced)
special features: trailer, featurette, interviews, biographies
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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