Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: Death on the Nile

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

In the drawingroom detective story—whether literary or cinematic or both—the central feature of the genre’s art is also its one great failing: the form gives away the content. We know we are witnessing a genre-piece, circumstantial evidence that in “real life” would be insufficient to damn instead tends to exonerate, betokening the red herring. Only persons with airtight alibis may be considered real suspects. Consequently one figures out the who in Death on the Nile fairly easily, while the how must remain for Poirot to reveal to our far weaker gray cells. Director John Guillerman never really plays the revelation of the guilty party for surprise; in fact, his formal, often symmetrical compositions betray his awareness and acceptance of a certain formalism in both the story and its genre that makes the identity of the murderer a foregone necessity: if it were anyone else. the neatness of it all would be quite spoiled. So we feel comfortable with the film’s array of guest suspects, regarding them as traveling companions on the journey toward the how. In contrast to the labored, artificial “nostalgia” of Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (with which Death on the Nile insists upon comparison), Guillermin’s film stresses place—and the movement from one place to another—more than time. While the costumes and production design are done with charm and integrity, they are never so imposing as the Egyptian landscape, which is far better integrated with the goings-on in the film than was the Orient Express’s snowy mountain passage in the Lumet film. Guillermin gives us a sense of movement through that landscape, a feeling of progress—however illusory—by repeated incidental emphasis on modes of transportation: cars, horses, carriages, boats, camels, burros; where Lumet’s stalled train tended to make Murder on the Orient Express bog down altogether in the mire of Geoffrey Unsworth’s thick-as-a-brick photography. And even if the who is a foregone conclusion, Death on the Nile stays filled with the excitement of the puzzle (much like scenarist Shaffer’s Sleuth, or the Anthony Perkins–Stephen Sondheim screenplay The Last of Sheila), where Orient Express never got beyond the turgid objectivity of an impossible but obvious pattern.

Crucially indicative of the difference between Lumet’s film and Guillermin’s is the distance between Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov in portraying Hercule Poirot. The eccentric Belgian is always odd man out in Christie’s world; but in Murder on the Orient Express Finney’s over-madeup, overplayed grotesque allowed the sleeping car full of murderers to become the moral norm of a world from which he excluded himself through labored ridiculousness. In Death on the Nile Ustinov’s Poirot is involved in the world, and is distinguished from his fellows as much by his wisdom and honor as by his oddness. The moral norm here is the ordinary person with the motive, opportunity and urge to kill, who nevertheless restrains himself; and the actual killer represents the extreme of an intelligence as sharp as Poirot’s, twisted into the service of evil. Armed as he is with warmer characters, a more interesting puzzle, and a much better-written scenario, Guillermin can’t help making Death on the Nile into a substantially better film than its predecessor. And though he may not have Lumet’s knack for evoking a “performance,” he shows himself superior at depicting human beings in a milieu. His sure hand with characters caught up in a mysterious flow of events is most evident in those moments of sheer directorial audacity when his players become one with their landscape (the Pyramids, then Karnak, then a climactic moment among the Colossi of Luxor), and the stealthy movements of his lurking, darting, zooming camera eye alert us—even in something as lighthearted as a drawingroom whodunit—to the ubiquitous possibilities of violence.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

Direction: John Guillermin. Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer, after the novel by Agatha Christie. Cinematography: Jack Cardiff. Production design: Peter Murton. Costumes: Anthony Powell. Editing: Malcolm Cooke. Music: Nino Rota. Production: John Brabourne, Richard Goodwin.
The players: Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Lois Chiles, Simon MacCorkindale, David Niven, Jack Warden, Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, Jon Finch, Jane Birkin, I. S. Johar, Harry Andrews, Sam Wanamaker.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.