[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
If your friendly neighbourhood TV station or film society is tonight showing an uncut print of Clair’s And Then There Were None or Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, you need not miss such delights in favour of Death on the Nile. But if not, you could do worse than attend. Made by the same producers as Sidney Lumet’s 1974 Murder on the Orient Express, it has, however, a different screenwriter, a different director and a different Hercule Poirot; and the difference shows. Although Jack Cardiff – who seems finally to have realized that it’s better to be a good cameraman than a bad director – gives us plenty of tourist-spot imagery up and down the banks of the Nile, with romance at the Sphinx, romantic torment at Abu Simbel and derring-do elsewhere, the film as a whole doesn’t slam gloss into the viewer’s eye the way Orient Express did, and if the starpower on display is of a marginally lower voltage than previously, the leading lights certainly give off enough energy to keep us all bright. Above all, Peter Ustinov as Hercule P. floats along in the Agatha Christie mystery soup quite serenely, whereas Albert Finney, padded and beeswaxed to the nines, felt obliged to attack the material with a funambulistic gusto.
This Poirot is a kindly, avuncular sort of sleuth, fully capable of solving the mystery of Who Killed The Superbitch Heiress, but rather perturbed about it, perpetually saddened by the unhappy by-roads of human nature, and fully aware of his own detecting weaknesses. Two other people get bumped off before the solution is presented, and Poirot has a near-fatal encounter with a hungry cobra; Finney’s Poirot would not have been so fallible, nor, one suspects, so concerned at his failure to trap the killer before more victims were added to the tally.
In fact, the about-face that Death on the Nile does in its final stages genuinely took me by surprise; the jokes stop and the unhappiness of the world takes over. We find ourselves not only feeling sorry for the guilty, but also realising that the appalling bitch-heiress (Lois Chiles) was something of a victim, too, even before she was murdered. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer can’t resist some parodying of detective-yarn conventions (“Did it fall,” Poirot asks of a lethal bit of stone which has just missed crushing a couple of people, “or … was it pushed?”), but has the nerve to alter his script’s prevalently humorous mode into one of sober seriousness for its climax right in the middle of just such a piece of parody. A passenger who’s witnessed the second murder prepares to reveal all to Poirot, gets as far as saying, “…and it was…”, and then drops dead, a bullet between the eyes. Comic, yes? No. For the character has been up to this point funny and touching enough to gain our sympathy; also, her death is decidedly gruesome, blood spouting from the bullet hole in a manner such as will freeze any grin. Though most of the film has a light tone, its deaths have a sting, and Hercule Poirot’s pain at the loss of human life is something we share.
There is one wholly deplorable element in the film, however: I.S. Johar, as the harassed manager of the luxury steamer Karnak (on which most of the action takes place), is compelled to turn in a “funny wog” act, that seediest and most outmoded of British low-comedy conventions; that an actual Indian is required to perform this offensive caricature makes it worse. Elsewhere, the acting ranges from the absolutely spiffing (Maggie Smith as a ravingly butch travelling-companion) through the spirited (Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury) and the outré (Jack Warden as a bogus Vienna medico) to the one-dimensional (Olivia Hussey being able to do nothing with an insipid English-rose role). David Niven, as the Dr. Watson equivalent in the story, has aged alarmingly, but wields a swordstick with finesse, whilst Jon Finch, as a cynical Marxist, comes on so much like the young Peter O’Toole, it must be deliberate. As a piece of truly lunatic extravagance, the producers hired Harry Andrews and Sam Wanamaker for a couple of near-irrelevant bit parts such as anyone could have played; the two celebrated thesps have, I would guess, fewer than ten lines and three minutes of screentime between them. John Guillermin has none of Sidney Lumet’s pretensions to making a statement about glossy Thirties romances, Star Quality or anything like that; he just gets on with the story, managing some very eye-taking craning, bending, panning and zooming of the camera in a longish sequence in a ruined temple, where menace intermingles with the dust and the exact placement of everyone at any given moment is, teasingly, shown us only to make us more confused.
© 1979 Pierre Greenfield
DEATH ON THE NILE
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: Richard Goodwin, John Brabourne.
The players: Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin, Lois Chiles, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Simon MacCorkindale, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Jack Warden, Harry Andrews, I.S. Johar, Sam Wanamaker.