Death on the Nile (1978). Film review of the classic Agatha Christie whodunnit in Egypt.

image photo death on nile all cast
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Film review, by Jason Day, of Death on the Nile, the all-star adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunnit about the murder of a socialise on board a Nile steam cruiser in the 1930’s. Starring Peter Ustinov and David Niven.

Crime

star rating 3 out of 5 worth watching

 

 

 

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Summary

Linett Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) has everything. She is young, rich and beautiful. But she is also lonely and has a penchant for nastiness.

When her comparatively mousy best friend Jacqui (Mia Farrow) brings home her new boyfriend (Simon MacCorkindale), a handsome but impoverished Estate Manager who Jacqui thinks hold be employed by her rich pal, Linnet falls in love and the feeling is reciprocated.

A whirlwind engagement leads to marriage and they are blissfully happy, much to the consternation of those around them. Jacqui, devastated by the betrayal, follows them on their honeymoon, ending up on a Nile river cruise. Also aboard are a motley selection of passengers who also hold a grudge against Linnet, from her lawyer (George Kennedy) to a romantic novelist (Angela Lansbury) who faces ruin if Linnet sues her for libel. Famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) joins them and the game is set for murder.

Review, by Jason Dayimage poster death on nile

Following the runaway success of Murder on the Orient Express (1974) producers John Brabourne and Richard B. Goodwin reteamed for three more, lesser big screen Agatha Christie adaptations, two of which starred Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot.

This was the first, groaning at the seams with chocolate box beautiful locales, guest stars in need of quick cash and a free holiday and Ustinov’s gut on the waistline of his impeccably pressed trousers.

Sleuth supremo Anthony Schaffer did an uncredited polishing job on the script to Orient Express but is given full licence here. A little too much licence as it happens: the film is stretched out, rather tediously, to a full two hours 20 minutes in duration.

A creeping sense of ridiculousness (acknowledged by Poirot as the body bags stack up) was unavoidable, as the production pads out a dull mystery to the point that, like Ustinov’s trousers, the film threatens to spill out all over the lovingly designed boat’s decks.

All this despite the stinging one liners Schaffer drops throughout the movie and his ability to bring to life the morbid characters in the story.

image still simon maccorkindale lois chiles death nile

Getting abreast of the situation: Simon (Simon MacCorkindale) and Linnet (Lois Chiles) feel murder is upon them in Death on the Nile (1978).

Christie film adaptations suffer from a polarisation of people, either the great or the grim. Here, of the glorious we have:

  • Farrow’s enjoyably unhinged Jacqui
  • Maggie Smith’s as Bette Davis’ tightly wound, opinionated hired friend
  • David Niven’s perpetually unruffled English gent
  • Lansbury’s perpetually pissed, Elinor Glynn type, who constantly refers to sex and calls Hercule “Mr Porridge”
  • Olivia Hussey as Lansbury’s mousey, but devoted daughter
  • Bullish, brusque Kennedy
  • Chiles as the doomed, basilisk gazed, viperous bitch. 

And of the ghastly, we have to tolerate:

  • Davis as a kleptomaniac American dowager, crudely and shoddily performed
  • I.S. Johar as the Indian manager of the cruise ship whose ‘goody goody gumdrops’ impression reeks of schoolyard racism
  • Jane Birkin, in her first of the two Ustinov Poirot’s, is a comely French maid, too comely by half
  • Jon Finch is an interesting addition as a Socialist but is underused and boring
  • Jack Warden whose Germanic accent is too ludicrous to be credited, as Albert Finney said of Ingrid Bergman’s in Orient Express.

It is to director Guillermin’s credit that using the ever urbane, always watchable Ustinov as the keystone for which his rogue’s gallery of suspects is built upon, he just about controls their tendency to out ham each other, as if grandstanding will ensure them greater attention from the editor in the cutting room.

Davis in particular is guilty of this. Acting slowly, as if reading her script from an autocue powered by an arthritic hamster she stops more often than she starts, straining over every word. Now, Mr Editor (Malcolm Cooke), you can imagine her thinking, cut around that!

Of the whole cast, Niven gets the best lines. “Yes, I’d forgotten your opinion of yourself” he says, after one of Poirot’s more egregious speeches. Later, after Hercule quotes Moliere in French, he advises: “I do wish you’d speak some known language”.

Jack Cardiff is the cinematographer with the mostest and he captures the impossibly sunny Egypt and unbelievably sunny English countryside with Olympic impartiality.

He ensures the entire production has a ravishing, Teflon quality…it all shines, but nothing really sticks, despite being overcooked all round.

Cast & crew

Director: John Guillermin.

Producers: John Brabourne, Richard B. Goodwin.
Writer: Anthony Schaffer.
Camera: Jack Cardiff.
Music: Nino Rota.
Sets: Peter Murton.

Peter Ustinov, David Niven, Jane Birkin, Lois Chiles, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, I.S. Johar, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Simon MacCorkindale, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Jack Warden, Harry Andrews, Sam Wanamaker. 

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