The only thing that could follow ‘murder’ is ‘death’ – at least, so the clever marketing campaign behind John Guillermin’s Death on the Nile (1978) suggested. The success of Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974) had invigorated Agatha Christie’s popularity on film. Yet EMI and Paramount hesitated in immediately producing another all-star spectacle based on the author’s celebrated works. In fact, by the time Death on the Nile made it to the screen it was a considerably different movie than originally planned. Albert Finney, who had astounded audiences with his transformation into Belgian master sleuth Hercule Poirot, politely declined the opportunity to reprise his performance, leaving Guillermin and his producers John Brabourne, Richard Goodwin and Norton Knatchbull in search of someone new to fill Poirot’s shoes. In Peter Ustinov they made a daring departure, not only from Finney’s Poirot, but also from the iconic character as written by Agatha Christie.
It is virtually impossible to forgo Ustinov’s adroit personality. Ustinov is not Poirot but a clever derivation of himself. This is not to suggest Ustinov as either wrong for the part or unconvincing in it. On the contrary, the actor’s erudite approach bodes well with Poirot’s powers of deductive reasoning. Ustinov, a man of culture, class and impeccable good taste, also represents the character as a charming bon vivant and superior raconteur, his deft skill for mimicry and intellectual prowess as a man of the world informing not only his acting style but Poirot’s base character. Even so, Hercule Poirot is not one of Ustinov’s finest performances. But it is mostly deliciously heartfelt, particularly when Ustinov allows himself the luxury to relax in the role. Gone is Poirot’s fastidiousness, his quick-tempered exacerbation and curt impatience with those he regards as inferiors. In its place we have a more reserved, questioning and oddly compassionate figure, empathetic toward his fellow man.
Like Lumet’s foray, Death on the Nile splits its shooting schedule between actual locations shot in England and Egypt and a lavish recreation of the central set – the steamer Karnack – built to exact specifications on a flooded soundstage at Shepperton Studios. On location the actors endured infernal heat, the daily temperature hovering around 130 degrees, leaving costar Bette Davis to wryly assess, “In my day they’d have built the Nile for you. But today films have become travelogues and actors stuntmen.” Conditions were also exacerbated by a delay in hotel accommodations that forced at least half the crew to rough it for the first few days. But on the whole the production of Death on the Nile incurred no major setbacks.
Like Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile is blessed with a stellar cast of luminaries spanning the spectrum of talent from past to – then – present. Our story begins with the return of haughty heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) to her family’s pastoral English country estate. A beautiful creature on the outside, Linnet is both calculating and cruel. Hence, when her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort (Mia Farrow) introduces Linnet to her fiancé, Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale), Linnet wastes no time in seducing the young man, eventually marrying him herself. However, once scorned Jackie is not about to let the happily marrieds go off on their merry way. Thus when Linnet and Simon embark upon a romantic holiday in Egypt Jackie pawns everything to doggedly trace their every step. She scales the pyramids and books her hotel and passage on the Karnack to remain nearby.
Meanwhile, the day to day management of the Ridgeway family fortune is being overseen by Linnet’s uncle, Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy) who, through his own creative bookkeeping, has managed to embezzle a fair sum that he now fears may be discovered by his ever-clever heiress/niece. While staying at the hotel in Egypt, Poirot eyes Linnet and Simon in a passionate pas deux. He also reunites with an old friend, Colonel Race (David Niven), and endures the nuisance of Mrs. Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) and her demure daughter, Rosalie (Olivia Hussey). It seems that Salome, the author of lurid romance novels, has written a book that closely parallels various scandals in the Ridgeway family closet of secrets. Its publication has incurred Linnet’s displeasure and she has since begun proceedings to sue Salome for slander.
Also planning a trip down the Nile are Mrs. Van Schuyler (Bette Davis), her pert social secretary, Bowers (Maggie Smith) and Doctor Bessner (Jack Warden); a physician who’s fraudulent claims of healing have been brought into question by Linnet, whose inquiries could threaten the ruin of his thriving practice. After observing the venomous way Jackie is stalking Linnet and Simon, Poirot attempts to encourage more prudence and restraint, forewarning, “Do not allow evil into your heart, madam…it will make a home there.” But it’s no use. Like a disturbed hornet’s nest, Jackie will not rest until she has destroyed Linnet’s chances for happiness. A trip to some ancient ruins nearly turns deadly when a heavy slab of stone topples from one of the spires, almost crushing Linnet and Simon. After temporarily eluding Jackie, the lovers – along with the rest of the passengers – return to the Karnack where an even more gruesome fate awaits.
For on the third day of the cruise the mood on board grows precariously dark. A drunken, embittered Jackie confronts and shoots Simon in the knee, then appears to suffer a complete nervous breakdown that requires being attended to by Dr. Bessner. The next morning Linnet is discovered murdered in her stateroom. With Race’s help, Poirot attempts to separate the suspects from the red herrings. It seems unlikely that Linnet’s ladies maid, Louise Bourget (Jane Birkin) would have committed the crime, even though Linnet has denied her the promised dowry quite necessary for her to marry Mr. Ferguson (Jon Finch); a handsome, though penniless explorer. Everyone, including Jackie, seems to have the perfect alibi leaving Poirot and Race baffled. Almost anyone could have committed the crime. Van Schuyler, as example, coveted Linnet’s pearls. Bowers, who was forced into service when Linnet’s father financially ruined her family, might have sought revenge. Salome could have done it to thwart the prospect of a lengthy liable suit, while Rosalie might have shot Linnet to spare her mother the grief.
Poirot is working from the understanding that Linnet was always the intended victim of the crime. However, his theory begins to lose its form after Van Schuyler’s fur stole is fished out of the Nile with the gun used to murder Linnet still wrapped in a handkerchief smeared with Linnet’s red nail varnish. The body count rises. Louise is found with her throat slashed by one of Dr. Bessner’s scalpels. She is still clutching a fragment of a bank note in her dead hand. Salome rushes to Poirot and Race, claiming to have firsthand knowledge of this crime, only to be shot in the head with Pennington’s revolver – though not by the man himself. Poirot amasses the remaining suspects in the Karnack’s dining lounge. He explains that Simon’s initial wound was faked with a blank. While Jackie was attended to by Dr. Bessner Simon snuck off to Linnet’s stateroom to kill his wife, using Van Schyuler’s fur stole to muffle the sound of the gunshot, before returning to the dining room to shoot himself in the leg for real, thus concealing his crime.
Yet the preparation of this murder plot is hardly his alone to bear. In fact, Simon and Jackie never stopped loving each other, all the way back to the plotting of Linnet’s seduction and subsequent marriage to Simon as a way for him to inherit her family’s millions; thus ensuring that both he and Jackie could live happily ever after. Faced with this revelation Jackie produces the gun that killed Salome. Keeping the passengers at bay, she bids her lover farewell, shoots Simon in the head and takes her own life before a stunned room.
Death on the Nile is a rather nasty affair. Its murders are baffling and occasionally gruesome, the probability of committing so many in such a confined space both confounding and occasionally not all that convincing. How no one – not even Poirot – sees Salome’s killer, for example, when the murder is committed right before his eyes is a curiosity; the killing of Louise even more brash and diversionary without really making too much sense. Still, the cleverness of this all-star cast keeps most – if not all – of these suspicious balloons up in the air for most of the movie’s 143 minute run time. Even so, Jackie is the obvious villain; clever though she may be, but too venomous and self-destructive not to have had her hand in this criminal enterprise – even when Poirot’s cursory findings seem to suggest otherwise.
David Niven is an admirable fop for Ustinov’s more austere and French-accented Belgian to bounce theories off. The other standout is, of course, Bette Davis; an actress whom it is quite impossible to take one’s eyes off of, even when she is doing little more than smirking from her armchair. Ah yes, she did indeed have Bette Davis eyes! But the casting of Lois Chiles and Mia Farrow in their respective roles seems strangely off timber. Why Simon should choose to murder his extremely handsome and very wealthy seductress of a wife – whose money he already shares – in order to live happily ever after with the rather dowdy and equally as pouty girl of common stock doesn’t quite work, though it might have if Chiles and Farrow had switched their roles.
Upon renewed viewing it also is rather disappointing to see such stellar performers as Maggie Smith and Jack Warden relegated to little more than comedic or doleful sound bytes, the anemic status of their cameos a wee too thin to warrant such exceptional talent in their parts. Anthony Powell’s costume design is rather subdued, although it did win him an Oscar. Still, that ultra-glamour of the gathering so welcomingly over the top in Murder on the Orient Express is lacking in Death on the Nile and at times it is sorely missed. When the box office tallies finally came in Death on the Nile paled by comparison, earning a paltry $14.5 million compared to Orient Express’ $25 million. Viewed apart from its predecessor, Death on the Nile is lavishly appointed and all-star; an elegant ‘how did they do it?’ rather than a high stakes and intriguingly complex ‘who done it?’
The rights to Death on the Nile have expired with Paramount. Thus, this DVD release comes to us from Maple Home Video. The DVD is fairly weak, suffering from compression artifacts and some color fading. Film grain rarely looks as it should, but takes on the texture of digitized grit. It’s not as bad as all that – but the image is rarely smooth or refined. On the whole, only close-ups exhibit any kind of detail. Long shots are mostly softly focused. Contrast levels appear ever so slightly bumped, revealing an artificially brighter than normal image. The film’s soundtrack is presented in 2.0 mono, adequate though just barely for this presentation. Occasionally dialogue can sound strident. Extras advertise a ‘making of’ documentary, but actually what we have is a vintage featurette briefly skimming over the particulars of the production history. There are also interviews with Ustinov and Jane Birkin and some scant bios on the rest of the cast. Bottom line: Death on the Nile is a good solid film, though hardly a masterpiece. It deserves much better than this DVD. Perhaps…a Blu-ray?!?
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)