Thursday, February 2, 2012

Movie: Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile
From a story by Agatha Christie

Come, Bowers, it's time to go, this place is beginning to resemble a mortuary. (Mrs. Van Schuyler)

I must have seen parts of this movie before, as some of it looks familiar, but apparently I never watched the whole thing. Too bad, since I'd rank it right up there with the best mystery flicks I've ever seen.

I'm not real well-read when it comes to Agatha Christie, having only tackled about a dozen titles thus far. I have yet to read Death on the Nile, but in this case I think that not having done so first only served to enhance the experience.

As the novel and movie are rather well-known I won't go very deeply into the plot. It's a pretty good one, as these things go. As the title suggests, most of the story takes place onboard a steamboat traveling down the Nile, with a passenger compliment that consists primarily of a bunch of well-heeled tourists - and Hercule Poirot.

It's all pretty cut and dried, with the first part of the movie demonstrating that nearly everyone on board has a bone to pick - and a reason to kill - the victim. After that killing, things also proceed fairly methodically, with M. Poirot questioning all potential suspects and a few more instances of mayhem breaking out.

Which makes it sound like a pretty mediocre affair, but it's anything but. What brings this one right up to the top of the heap is a number of things, including the execution, with Anthony Shaffer's screenplay and John Guillermin's direction coaxing every available drop of drama out of the proceedings. I especially liked the scenes in which the characters play out the hypothetical scenarios Poirot lays out for how each might have committed the crime.

Then there's the truly all-star cast, which includes Peter Ustinov as Poirot and a boatload of other luminaries, including David Niven, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, and many more. And though he's not a name that I recognized, I.S. Johar, as the boat's manager, pretty much manages to steal every scene he's in, with a performance that calls to mind equal parts of Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers.

Then there is the setting. Which is Egypt - and that's the real Egypt, mind you, not some cut-rate studio backlot. Which may not have been a treat for the actors, working long days on a riverboat in intense heat, but it's an extra-special treat for the viewers. About the only thing I regret is that I wasn't watching this movie in a movie theater, on a big screen. But maybe someday.


  1. Haven't seen this for years, but I do remember loving it when I first saw it at a young age - and being completely fooled by it.

    I think reading less of Dame Agatha's work puts you in a good frame for not spotting what happened, but even though she goes for one of her favourite tricks, it's a damn good variation on it anyway.

  2. I saw this in the theater as a kid. It's overshadowed by the earlier Murder on the Orient Express, but it's a very good Christie adaptation, I think--better by far than the recent British television version, which veered over completely into camp.

    You're right the Egyptian setting is fantastic and the challenging plot is managed with clarity. I find the boat manager amusing too, though I suspect such a portrayal would raise hackles today.

    Orient Express probably had better actors overall. Here I think grande dames Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury make the strongest impressions among the big names. Ustinov was miscast, I think, though he gets by. Mia Farrow is her usual nervy self, but that probably is fitting for this character. George Kennedy is a good "ugly American."

  3. It's certainly fun, by I think all the humour comes at expense of the theme. Which is a shame because it's one of Christie's strongest. But by removing the conversation between Poirot and Jackie, or any of the conversations about choice (which tend to be copied verbatim in other adaptations) all that's left is the mystery. Which is great, but I could really have done without all the hypothetical reenactments. Because none of them are substantially different: the suspect saw the fight, took the gun, shot Linnet. After the seventh time of seeing it it's just tedious.

    Also not everyone needs a motive! Christie understood that, but Shaffer seems to think it improves things to have everyone be a feasible suspect. I just think it stretches credulity to breaking point.

    @The Passing Tramp It baffles me that you think the ITV adaptation is MORE camp than this version! Lansbury's overacting; the bickering between Davis and Smith; when Peter Ustinov pops up from behind the bar; it's an endless parade of camp silliness.

  4. I'm old enough to have seen this when it came out at the cinema - I loved it and became an instant Agatha Christie fan, like probably every other 10-year-old for the last few decades ... maybe it's just me, but it does seem to be the case that this is the age when the appeal of the whodunnit really can take hold.

    In terms of the movie, I loved the complications of the plot and the presentation of the ingenious resolution, the intricate production design, the wonderful score by Nino Rota, the gorgeous cinematography by Oscar-winning veteran Jack Cardiff (the same who shot THE RED SHOES and BLACK NARCISSUS thirty years earlier)and of course a great cast.

    The Suchet version is much less fun for my tastes and although Shaffer (incidentally, the author of SLEUTH) does make the film a lot funnier than the book, I think he succeeds admirably on his own terms. IS Johar absolutely steals the show - you can see him doing it 20 years earlier in the fab action adventure, NORTH WEST PASSAGE.

    This was the second of the quartet of Christie adaptations made by the producing team of Richard Goodwin and John Brabourne - personally I much prefer it to ORIENT EXPRESS but I also think that THE MIRROR CRACK'D and EVIL UNDER THE SUN, while again quite changed from the original books, are truly underestimated as movie mysteries and well worth a look.

    Sergio (Tipping My Fedora)