Death on the Nile (1978)

Synopsis:

Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Sir Peter Ustinov, Spartacus) is enjoying a vacation on a cruise on the Nile River when one of the passengers, a loathsome American socialite, Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles, Moonraker), is brutally murdered. Poirot is determined to solve the crime before the murderer has a chance to escape justice.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“This place is beginning to resemble a mortuary.”

Death on the Nile is the second installment in the Agatha Christie movie series produced by British moguls John Brabourne (Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet) and Richard Goodwin (A Passage to India). Like its predecessor, Sidney Lumet’s intelligent and classy 1974 whodunit Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile is enormously entertaining, if a bit too content with following an established formula.

Shot mainly on location in Egypt, Death on the Nile is an undeniably fun whodunit that manages to entertain the audience by relying heavily on fabulous vistas. Replete with unexpected twists and turns, and populated with a beefy number of interesting suspects, this elegant production has all the elements that make whodunits so appealing — even sharp viewers will have a hard time guessing who the killer is.

Having said that, I didn’t think Death on the Nile was as good as Murder on the Orient Express. While both films share many of the same attributes — an all-star cast, high production values, gorgeous cinematography, etc. — Death on the Nile is less polished than its sister production. I think the problem is that director John Guillermin (The Towering Inferno) is more of a skilled craftsman than an aristise thus the movie suffers from a lack of artistic vision (director Lumet’s deft touch is sorely missed).

Death on the Nile also suffers from problems derived from a narrative filled with too many red herrings. For example, there is a scene with a cobra that makes no sense whatsoever and fails to add anything to the storyline. I haven’t read the book so I’m not sure if Christie is to blame for the scene or not, but I thought scripter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) should have done a better job removing the fat from the story.

All in all the movie is quite good, despite the flaws and lack of inventiveness. Legendary cameraman Jack Cardiff’s (Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes) work is, as expected,  splendid. Costume designer Anthony Powell (Tess and Hook) won an Academy Award for his eye-catching costumes. Best of all is Nino Rota’s (La Strada and The Godfather) majestic music score — it’s one of my favorite movie soundtracks.

Sir Peter Ustinov replaced Albert Finney as Poirot. One could successfully argue that Finney’s Poirot was flashy while Ustinov’s Poirot is a little colorless. Ustinov is good but this is hardly the kind of performance that makes you stand up and applaud. In the debate about who was the better Poirot, Ustinov or Finney (or David Suchet), you can put me on Finney’s team (I haven’t seen Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot yet).

Ah, but what a great supporting cast! Dame Angela Lansbury (Gaslight) steals a bunch of scenes as a boozy writer of salacious novels. However, my favorite performances in the movie were given by Bette Davis and Dame Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), who play a wealthy old dame with an unhealthy taste for pearls and the woman’s bitter companion, respectively. Davis and Smith are so funny together that I wish they had more screen time — these two characters deserved their own movie!

And you don’t want to miss David Niven (The Pink Panther) — he plays Poirot’s friend, Col. Race — dancing the Argentine tango with an inebriated Lansbury. The rest of the cast includes Mia Farrow (Rosemary’s Baby), Jon Finch (Frenzy), Olivia Hussey (Black Christmas), George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke), Jack Warden (Shampoo), Jane Birkin (The Swimming Pool) and Simon MacCorkindale (The Riddle of the Sands). Harry Andrews (The Ruling Class) appears briefly as Lois Chiles’s butler.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Okay, this is far from a perfect movie. For starters, Death on the Nile definitely lacks the technical finesse of Murder on the Orient Express (in all fairness, I do have some friends who prefer Death to Murder). Additionally, Anthony Shaffer’s script is a little untidy. But the fact is, for all its shortcomings, the film is still rock-solid entertainment. Death on the Nile is a well-made production that will delight anyone that has a soft heart for old-fashioned whodunits. Recommended. Color, 140 minutes, Rated PG.

9 responses to “Death on the Nile (1978)

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