Saturday, October 1, 2011

Death on the Nile Review

Death on the Nile (1978)

I have read the book of Death on the Nile and I can safely say that it is one of the best mystery novels of all time, and one of the greatest books I have ever read. I have not yet seen Murder on the Orient Express, which is supposed to be the best Agatha Christie film adaptation with Peter Ustinov, but it must be amazing if this didn't quite live up to it. There was another adaptation made in the television series with David Suchet as Poirot and drawing comparisons to it is inevitable, so expect a few to pop up in this review. There are some things I like better in this one and some things I like better in the Suchet version, so I don't really have one I like more. There are some definite problems (including one crippling casting problem that we'll discuss later), but on a whole, Death on the Nile is an extremely entertaining murder mystery with a star-studded cast. If you haven't read the book, there may be some spoilers, but no endings. I never give away endings.

Death on the Nile follows the adventures of Hercule Poirot in Egypt, where he is on a pleasure cruise where a murder takes place. The murder is of Linnet Doyle (Lois Chiles) a wealthy socialite. Linnet recently married and the man that she married was Simon Doyle (Simon McCorkindale), the fiancee of her friend Jackie (Mia Farrow). Naturally, Jackie takes on the role of scorned lover, and her act of revenge is following Simon and Linnet around on their honeymoon, which partially takes place on the cruise. They seem to outrun Jackie, but she pops up on the cruise and after a drunken confrontation between her and Simon, she shoots him in the leg and Linnet is found shot in her sleep.

Earlier that day, when the group on the cruise is exploring some Egyptian pillars, someone attempts to push a stone onto Linnet, obviously in an attempt to kill her. This starts Poirot worrying, and when Linnet is shot, he is not surprised. While conducting the investigation with his old pal Colonel Race (David Niven), he learns that everybody on that ship had a motive for killing Mrs. Doyle, and Jackie, with the most obvious motive, is completely exonerated because she was in hysterics after shooting Simon and Miss Bowers (a nurse played by Maggie Smith) stayed with her all night at Simon's request. Miss Bowers had a motive because Linnet's father caused her father financial ruin thus making her work for Miss van Schuyler (Bette Davis). Miss van Schuyler had a motive because she wanted Linnet's pearls.

Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) was being libeled by Linnet for her portrayal in one of Salome's books (erotic books, so you can see why Linnet would resent that) and her daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey) had motive in protecting her mother. A young socialist named Ferguson (Jon Finch) has reason because he's a socialist and resented her money and power. Pennington (George Kennedy) her american lawyer and trustee had reason because he had made some bad business deals in her name and was trying (and eventually failing) to cover them up before she married and gained control of her money. Simon mentions in passing that he never reads legal documents and this gives Pennington even more motive to want Linnet dead so Simon would inherit her money. Dr. Bessner (Jack Warren doing a piss-poor German accent) had motive to kill her because she was making defamatory remarks about his clinic and suing her would mean financial ruin. Lastly, Louise (Jane Birkin) had reason because Linnet was refusing to give her a dowry to marry her fiance.

I won't give away the ending, but it is a genuine twist, like most of Agatha Christie's mysteries. The content of the book is fairly well-transferred here, with some major differences. The book characters of Tim Allerton and Cornelia Robson are amalgamated into Jon Finch and Olivia Hussey's characters, as they get together at the end. Jon Finch's character of Ferguson also brings us to a notable character difference. In the book, Ferguson is a jerky Communist who harasses the young Cornelia about being pushed around by her cousin (Miss van Schuyler) and lectured by Dr. Bessner and is later revealed to be a lord who refuses to use a title because of his Communist ideals. In this, he is occasionally jerky, but considerably nicer than Ferguson in the book.

A few small differences aside, the content of the book is portrayed well on screen and the script of the film is excellently written, like the other Poirot adaptations, and the excellent characters are played extremely well by the star-studded cast. However, there is one crippling flaw in the movie and that was the horrid miscasting of Mia Farrow as Jackie. Don't get me wrong, I think she's a decent enough actress outside this, she is just not very good in this character. They just went about the character of Jackie all wrong. She is relatively sympathetic in the book and when she is played by Emma Griffiths in the David Suchet version, but this version is entirely unsympathetic. They leave out the fact that she is poor, and we hardly see her interact with Simon before he ditches her for Linnet. The book also made a point of saying that Jackie only made herself known to them in public, and never intruded on their privacy. In this, that's all she does, and her entries are way too overblown. This is the main problem I have with this movie, and if Olivia Hussey or even Lois Chiles had played Jackie, the movie would be much better.

Linnet is played decently by Lois Chiles, and Simon is played extremely well by Simon McCorkindale. Another thing that should be mentioned is that there is a lot of 70's overacting, culminating mostly in Angela Lansbury as Salome Otterbourne, who is not very good at hiding her intoxication. Frances de la Tour (AKA Madam Maxime in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) was much more of a covert souse and thus she was more subtle in her performance. The 70's overacting isn't a major hindrance to the movie, but you can't watch the movie denying that it isn't there. Ustinov is a great Poirot and even though David Suchet is and will always be the best Poirot IMO, Ustinov was very good in this. The rest of the cast is pretty good, with special emphasis put on Bette Davis and Maggie Smith as dueling spinsters Miss van Schuyler and Miss Bowers. The characters are interesting as well, and not just one-note like they could have been.

The film won an Oscar for costuming and it shows, as the costume design for this film is extraordinary. We can see that every single piece of clothing in this film was designed with extraordinary care and effort, and I especially love Olivia Hussey and Angela Lansbury's clothes. The art direction is one of the aspects of the film that is lacking, mostly because it looks like the film was set in the seventies, the decade which it was made in. The art direction in the Suchet version is much better. Another thing that is better is Emily Blunt as Linnet in the Suchet version, as she is a considerably better actress than Lois Chiles (who's only claim to fame is being the only actress to be a Bond girl twice) and her Linnet is much more like Linnet from the book.

I would definitely encourage any fan of Christie to watch Death on the Nile, as well as read the book. Although purportedly not as good as Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile is a fine mystery based on one of Agatha Christie's greatest books. Flaws aside, it has a star-studded cast, a great story, a great script, and some great Oscar-winning costume design. It is a very underrated movie and it should definitely be watched by more people, like a lot of Poirot's adventures. I would like to watch Murder on the Orient Express as soon as possible. So in short, see this movie, if you are a fan of casts of British Elite and murder mysteries.

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