Death On The Nile Review
The nineteen seventies were a pretty harsh time for Britain. What with coal strikes, Edward Heath and the twin horrors of rampant inflation and Dick Emery, the country seemed on the brink of collapse for much of the time. It's no surprise therefore, on reflection, that one of the most popular British films of the era was Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express, a cunning and beautifully wrought mixture of period nostalgia, outrageous snobbery and even more outrageous overacting. Without even the vestige of relevance to contemporary Britain, it's not so much a film as a comforting panacea, harking back to the golden days when "every Cabinet minister had a thriller by his bedside, and all the detectives were titled". This quotation from Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth is particularly apt since he was hired to write the screenplay for the second Christie film, a star-studded adaptation of Death On The Nile. The result is hugely enjoyable for fans of camp but less satisfying for anyone who might have wanted to watch a detective thriller.
Seldom has a film been so easy to describe in terms of its locations and, er, characters. Beginning in quaint thirties England, all forelock tugging servants and Harry Andrews giving it some serious stiff upper lip in a one line role as the butler, we follow the story of the love affair between frightfully rich and thoroughly spoilt heiress Linnett Ridgeway (Chiles) and penniless admirer Simon (McCorkindale). The fly in the ointment is Linnett's childhood friend Jackie (Farrow) who is less than pleased with the match since Linnett has stolen Simon from her after dazzling him on first meeting. The star-crossed lovers marry and honeymoon in Egypt but their path is dogged by Jackie who books herself on the same holiday, a luxury cruise down the Nile in the company of the most grotesque set of characters this side of Little Britain. As they tick off the tourist sites - Pyramids, a bit of the Sphinx, lots of water, camels, the Temple of Abu Simbel - the honeymooners become aware that someone wants one (or perhaps both) of them dead. A near miss at the Temple becomes a successful murder, but who could be responsible ? Is it Mia Farrow, overacting more hysterically than David Dickinson might if faced with a genuine Queen Anne commode ? Perhaps it's filthily loaded Bette Daves or her bitter 'companion" Maggie Smith, bitching like Dr Fox and Simon Cowell in drag. Or could it be romantic novelist Angela Lansbury, reaching heights of camp that even John Inman might find a tad too stratospheric. What about her daughter, Olivia Hussey, sneaking off to enjoy furtive encounters with Engels spouting, spoilt heiress hating Communist Jon Finch ? Or perhaps Jack Warden's German doctor, sporting an accent that rivals Gene Hackman's Polish general in A Bridge Too Far for gritty authenticity ? Surely it can't be a lawyer as archly sinister as George Kennedy (this time, sadly, with no plane to fix) ? But this melange of mystification is not enough to stop Hercule Poirot (Ustinov) from cracking the case, assisted by his loyal old mucker Colonel Race (Niven). In somewhat tortuous fashion, he explains whodunnit, why and how while the assembled guests look on with the sort of wondering admiration usually reserved for talent show contestants who have miraculously overcome a debilitating speech defect.
This is, of course, a lavishly furbished confection - one rich enough to pass the time but with no more real substance than Christie's wafer-thin analysis of British society. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing as long as it's understood from the start that the sole purpose is having a good time with some entertaining people. On that level, Death On The Nile is, broadly speaking, a success. The people involved are amusingly devised stereotypes given the luxury of star playing. In some cases, this is somewhat disappointing - Bette Davies is given little to do and doesn't do it with any real distinction and the likes of Lois Chiles and Simon McCorkindale would have done better to lie in a dark room and wait for the call from Aaron Spelling instead of playing with the big boys and having their lack of talent so mercilessly exposed. But there are also weird, wonderful triumphs. Sometimes, it's the small details that seem so right; Jack Warden's extraordinary accent, George Kennedy's blustering overplaying (for once entirely appropriate) or the way Jon Finch glares at Lois Chiles in the ballroom scene.
But mostly it's the grande dames of outrageous hamming being given their head. Maggie Smith is hugely funny as the unwilling companion of Davies, twitching and pouting as one humiliation after another comes down upon her like a judgement from some unfair god. Mia Farrow practices that batty waif number which came in so useful in court 15 years later and is quite the most convincingly hysterical nightmare of a woman you could hope never to meet. Best of all, Angela Lansbury throws caution to the winds as the deliciously monickered Salome Otterbourne and devours the furniture with relish as she flings herself about in passionate despair. It's totally outrageous and not remotely subtle but Lansbury displays such comic flair (and rather touching desperation) that it's hard not to regret that this wonderful comedienne has now been relegated to endless hours of "Murder She Wrote".
As for Peter Ustinov's Poirot, it's fair to say that he does a very good job of not being remotely like the Poirot in the book. However, once you accept that his interpretation of Poirot isn't even in the same league as David Suchet's definitive incarnation of the character, he's rather entertaining to watch. He gets the vanity and fussiness of the man down to a tee and his accent is just right. What I don't like is the atypical note of sentimentality he introduces. He also plays down the snobbishness but this is a fault of the script more than the performance.
The real problem however, and this is a major fault, is the almost total lack of suspense. John Guillermin, the man who directed Towering Inferno with the remorseless military precision of a latter day Hannibal, can't seem to find a way to tell the story without resorting to endless duologues, incorporating lengthy flashbacks and often revealing very little significant information. This means that the 134 minute running time is heavily padded for no good reason. As with most Christie, the solution involves some, er, "imaginative" plotting and at least one entirely unbelievable coincidence. It would have been possible to mask this with slick direction, but Guillermin simply plods along from one clue to another. Compare this to Murder On The Orient Express, which is one set but feels a lot more fluid, and you'll see why Lumet is a good director while Guillermin is merely workmanlike. He also totally muffs the attempt at grand tragedy with which the story culminates. In the book, this is one of Christie's best scenes but on the screen it's unintentionally amusing.
It is interesting to note that the film has a PG rating but actually contains as much on-screen bloodletting as you'll find in the whole of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is about as upmarket as the slasher movie genre has ever got - the film was given a Royal premiere in London back in 1979 - but the roots of the genre are still visible. There is more than a little of the giallo in this movie - grisly deaths, suspicious characters, dubious sexual motives and convoluted plotting - which is unsurprising given that Christie's books were among the most popular of the yellow paperback books which lie behind the classic thrillers of Argento and company.
Overall, to be generous, the camp value is genuinely redeeming and does mean that the film is usually diverting; when Angela Lansbury is chewing the scenery, the deck and possibly the extras, you don't care about whodunnit. Jack Cardiff's photography of Egypt is as stunning as you would expect - the shot of the Temple of Abu Simbel in the late afternoon is particularly glorious. Anthony Powell also comes up trumps with his deservedly Oscar winning costumes and the score by Nino Rota has an epic grandeur which the film doesn't entirely deserve. In other words, this is pulp dressed up to the nines but without any of the narrative energy that drives Christie's entertainingly trashy whodunnits. The cast and locations make it worth seeing but you'll only watch it again if you're a true connoisseur of theatrical camp.
Optimum haven’t exactly given Death on the Nile the royal treatment but their DVD is acceptable enough. As so often with Optimum, however, one feels that just a little more effort would be appreciated.
The transfer is framed at 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s not a bad image on the whole, though like Orient Express it seems a little on the soft side. There’s also an excessive amount of grain in places. However, the colours are reasonably good – washed out in places but rich in others – and there’s no more than a modicum of print damage. The monophonic soundtrack is excellent throughout, doing justice to Nino Rota’s epic score.
The only extra is a making-of featurette dating from 1978. This is in quite appalling condition but for those who remember Clapperboard, it’s a piece of quite delightful nostalgia. There’s a narration from Chris Kelly and interviews with producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin, Peter Ustinov, David Niven, George Kennedy, Jon Finch and production designer Peter Murton. Peter Ustinov is, as you’d expect, particularly good value, particularly on the subject of European rivalries and there’s some interesting behind-the-scenes material on the set. There’s no scandal or gossip here but it’s a very pleasant 22 minute piece.
No theatrical trailer on the disc and, shamefully, no subtitles.