We all have our favourite films which are indisputable classics – Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Vertigo, The Godfather, The Third Man for example – and find I have to ration them out and not watch them too often, lest their appeal becomes faded by too many viewings. That’s happened with Star Wars: A New Hope, a film that I know every beat, every line, every music cue so well that it’s hard to sit through it these days, or see it with properly appreciative fresh eyes.
But there is a strange sub-class of favourite films that I find I can watch endlessly. They’re not necessarily great films – indeed, part of the appeal seems to be that they’re quite ordinary and flawed. For me, the exemplar of the sub-class is Star Trek: The Motion Picture and it’s not for nothing that it’s been dubbed “the slow motion picture.” Even so, I have to keep a look for it in the TV schedules so that I know when it’s on and can therefore avoid it, because if I happen across it while channel-surfing them I’m liable to stay as stuck to it right to the end credits much as a fly is unable to free itself from flypaper. Other examples of the type are a number of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s, and several of the dodgier James Bond films of the mid-Roger Moore period.
Death on the Nile is another of those motion pictures with the weird, inexplicable alchemy enabling endless rewatches. It’s a big screen adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot who is on holiday on a pleasure cruise down the Nile, visiting the pyramids and other famous tourist locations on the way. Among the other passengers is American heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) who is on honeymoon with her new husband Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale). However they’re being stalked by Linnet’s vengeful former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow), who was herself originally engaged to Doyle. When Linnet is shot dead in her sleep, the culprit is obvious: but Jacqueline has a rock solid alibi, having been under constant supervision during the time in question having accidentally shot and crippled Doyle earlier in the evening. Poirot has to cast further afield for suspects, and isn’t disappointed…
Death on the Nile is the second of three Poirot big screen adaptations made between 1974 and 1982. The first of these was Sidney Lumet’s prestigious version of Murder on the Orient Express which won an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman as best supporting actress, and also featured a lushly romantic score by Richard Rodney Bennett which is still occasionally to be heard performed at the BBC Proms as a modern classic.
The sumptuous period production was meticulously painstaking in sticking to Christie’s novel, with the fidelity extending to Albert Finney’s performance as Poirot: unfortunately Christie herself didn’t think much of Poirot and considered him rather absurd, and so Finney’s faithful performance duly ends up making the character look quite ludicrous and out of place in what is a self-important, self-reverential, consciously po-faced motion picture.
Murder on the Orient Express did well enough at the box office to inspire a sequel, Death on the Nile. This time the filmmakers led by director John Guillermin lighten up and find a much better balance for the film: it doesn’t mess around with the intricate main plot of Christie’s novel, but it does feel free to adjust some of the supporting stories. A few characters are repurposed, amalgamated, downplayed or dropped altogether; but it’s intelligently done and mostly improves on the slightly messy source story. Taking over from Finney, Ustinov simplifies his portrayal of Poirot to the point where it’s little more than a generic European accent and a rather petite moustache; it’s a fairly light performance with Ustinov getting some good laughs from the comedy moments, but he’s also capable of investing his performance with depth and gravity when it’s called for.
The supporting cast isn’t as starry as its predecessor but still boasts the likes of Jack Warden, Jane Birkin, Jon Finch, David Niven, George Kennedy, Olivia Hussey, Angela Lansbury and Maggie Smith. The biggest name by far is Bette Davis, and when I first saw this film as a young child I confess I had never heard of her. Seeing this movie opened the door for me to dive into her back catalogue of films from the 30s and 40s, and especially All About Eve from 1950 which is now one of my favourite films of all time.
Ustinov got another big screen outing as Poirot in Evil under the Sun. It’s a distinctly less exotic production than Nile although still considerably entertaining and with another deliciously intricate Christie plot rendered intact. It trades the Devon setting of Christie’s novel for an island resort in the Adriatic, but it’s more of a package holiday and no match for the genuine spectacle of Egypt or the restored glamour of the Orient Express.
The supporting cast is also a further step down, although it’s hard to complain too much with the likes of James Mason, Diana Rigg, Roddy McDowall and Sylvia Miles in attendance. We even have something of a rep company forming, with both Birkin and Smith returning for the second film in a row albeit in entirely different roles. Still, Evil under the Sun is only a couple of notches above a TV movie – and sure enough, Ustinov’s subsequent outings in the role were indeed made for the small screen. Even by the time he did Evil he was playing the role strictly for light entertainment and there was little pretence of a serious dramatic portrayal, and the diminished production values left them only mildly diverting.
Later in the decade, David Suchet took over the role of Poirot for a long-running series of ITV adaptations. He found a way of creating a character that was faithful to the novels without being ridiculous, and was even able to invest him with a genuine warmth and personality at the same time – a combined feat that neither Finney nor Ustinov managed. Eventually Suchet got to do his own versions of Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and Evil under the Sun – and yet despite Suchet’s superior performance, those adaptations somehow didn’t match up to the motion picture outings of the 70s and 80s.
It’s taken Poirot almost 35 years to return to the big screen. Kenneth Branagh’s new version of Murder on the Orient Express – starring Branagh himself as Poirot – was a big hit over the holidays, although critical opinion seemed pretty split. (I haven’t seen the film myself yet, so I won’t express any view until I have – I fear my sentimental attachment to the 1974 original might prove too much to overcome, however.) The remake certainly seems to have done well enough to green light a sequel, which will be … Death on the Nile. History really does go round in cycles, it seems. I’m looking forward to Evil under the Sun in 2022!
But the best thing about the new version of Murder on the Orient Express is that is prompted Studio Canal to produce a new home media release of the Finney and Ustinov films. They’ve been around on DVD for years of course, but they were pretty mediocre quality. Hopes were raised when a Poirot Blu-ray box-set came out in 2013, but not only was it impossible to get hold of, it also turned out that the quality was little more than an upscale of the previous DVD print.
That’s not the case this time, with all three films getting a proper digital remastering. It’s a big jump in both visual and sound quality, allowing us to see these films in something like their original glory. Naturally the age of the film stock means that they’re not perfect – the 30s-style gauzey soft focus of Orient Express rules out any fine detail there, and there’s a couple of moments in Nile where the picture starts to jump around – but in general the pictures are clear, vibrant, dirt-free and pin-sharp. Evil comes out best of all, being the most recent and also the one shot in ideal lighting conditions on location. All three films have delightful new packaging featuring original art deco illustrations; there are a small number of brand new special features – more than I would have expected; and an improvement on the no-frills releases of the past. For the first time the discs even feature optional subtitles for the hard of hearing – another big advance!
The only trouble now is that having Death on the Nile and its siblings available to me on the shelf means I could end up watching them even more frequently than their endless cycle of replays on ITV3…
Murder on the Orient Express: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Death on the Nile: ★ ★ ★ ★
Evil under the Sun: ★ ★ ★
As a PS, Studio Canal extended their remastered re-release program to another big screen Christie adaptation of 1980, the Miss Marple story The Mirror Crack’d. It’s directed by Guy Hamilton, who as well as Evil under the Sun was also in charge of several James Bond films including Goldfinger.
I’m not such a big fan of this film – Angela Lansbury plays Marple but she was actually too young for the role at the time, and the ‘aging up’ make-up they give her to wear is distractingly bad. With Joan Hickson playing the role on TV at the time, Lansbury just didn’t fit the part. And I say that as a loud and proud superfan of her “American Marple” character, Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher.
The Mirror Crack’d is also not one of the better Christie novels, nor one of the better plots the Queen of Crime ever came up with. There’s certainly some pleasure to be had from watching Rock Hudson and Elisabeth Taylor in lead roles, along with Tony Curtis, Kim Novak and Edward Fox; but its rural English countryside setting robs it of the exotic appeal of the Poirot films and leaves it feeling a bit flat by comparison.
While I’ve not seen it myself, reviews I’ve read of the new Blu-ray version of The Mirror Crack’d ironically suggest that it’s the film that has benefited the most from the remastering. For that alone it’s worth thinking about popping it in your basket if you’re picking up the aforementioned Poirot trilogy.
The Mirror Crack’d: ★ ★ 1/2
Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun and The Mirror Crack’d are available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray.