- Movie Rating -

Death on the Nile (1978)

| September 29, 1978

Perhaps one of the greatest faults of Agatha Christie is that while her legendary mysteries were crafted with clockwork precision, she was not as adept at writing characters.  The players were always types – the secretary, the dowager, the gum shoe – but they were merely chess pieces to be moved around.  And this, perhaps, was the catnip for Hollywood movie executives.  Casting adaptations of Christie’s work are easy.  You take a big star and put them in the proper costume, prop them up as a suspect in a flimsy murder investigation and your halfway home.

This was the magical formula of Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which shoved Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Martin Balsam, Jackie Bissett, Sean Connery, John Gielgud and others onto a stranded train car in the middle of an avalanche, tossed in a dead body and let the legendary Hercult Poirot figure things out.  It was kinda fun.

Death on the Nile is, for my money, just as tantalizing.  It seems to be a collection of terrible people aimed at a terrible crime set off by a kind of terrific opening.  Obscenely rich heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) is friends with Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow) and almost immediately steals her husband, Simon (Simon MacCorkindale).  Soon they are married and their honeymoon destination is Egypt.

Onboard the paddle steamer S.S. Karnak, someone does away with the heiress in richly devilish Agatha Christie fashion.  Fortunately, perhaps for her wandering ghost, the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on hand with his faithful companion Colonel Race (David Niven) to sniff out the guilty party.

The greatness of Death on the Nile is that the investigation is handled with a degree of seriousness.  A murder has been committed and the killer is afoot and must be caught, despite the unnerving feeling that the heiress perhaps got what was coming to her.  Poirot examines the case Rashomon-style, looking at it from varying points of view and leading us to believe that each party had a reason to want to see Linnet laid out on the slab.

This version of Death on the Nile takes a very interesting approach.  The intricacies of the case keep changing and keep evolving as Poirot unearths varying pieces of puzzle.  You’re always guessing, and in a movie like this, that’s key.

What I liked best is that the standard Agatha Christie scene, the moment when Poirot gathers all of the suspects and then lays out whounnit and why, is handled much better here than it was in Murder on the Orient Express.  For one thing, the scene is shorter and much easier to follow.  For another, we are still guessing by the time he gets to the killer.

The cast is fine despite not having a lot of character to work with.  Bette Davis is the irritating Mrs. Van Schuyler, Maggie Smith is Mrs. Bowers, Jake Birkin is the lovelorn maid Louis Bourget, Olivia Hussey is the beautiful Rosalie Otterbourne and Angela Lansbury is the shaded novelist Salome Otterbourne.  It’s a fun time.  Much more involving, I thought, than Orient Express.  I had no idea how it would end, and perhaps that’s the best you can say about one of these stories.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1978) View IMDB Filed in: Mystery/Suspense