This is the second in a (long-delayed, alas!) series of posts chronicling the fortunes of Agatha Christie on film from 1974-1988. Spoilers are not only expected, but required, and I offer them with no apology.
With the success of Murder on the Orient Express, it was only a matter of time before the cinema tried its hand at another Christie adaptation along the same lines. The formula was, after all, a solid one: a star-studded cast in an exotic location. Add a pinch of romance and you’ve got an almost-guaranteed success. In Orient Express, the Romance had been supplied almost entirely by the setting itself: that train, which had carried spies and lovers across the world, which still today—forty-one years later—carries the air of intrigue. Having the larger-than-life cast simply sit and talk in that setting was enough to evoke mystery and beauty. But where to go from there? The answer is fairly obvious; Christie, for all her ingenuity as a plotter, only produced a handful of novels with the necessary ingredients, and I suppose after the Balkan snows of the first movie it was only sensible to move the setting to somewhere warmer—to Egypt.
And so Death on the Nile becomes the next movie in the series. The novel itself is a good one—indeed, it is one of my personal favorites—but it poses the formal difficulty of the detective story in a way that Orient Express did not. Remember, the twist in the older movie is not that the entire cast is in on it, but that they have already performed the ritual of expiation that normally devolves on the detective; the climax, then, is a reenactment of the murder in such a way that the audience experiences a catharsis. Death on the Nile offers no such unconventional structure. It is a murder-mystery, through and through, and its climax exists on precisely one level—that of plot resolution. To make it work on the big-screen, the film-makers would need a new trick.
Fortunately, that trick presented itself in Albert Finney’s refusal to return to the role of Poirot. Unwilling to face the heat of Egypt in the pounds of makeup that converted the actor into the detective, Finney pulled out and was replaced by Peter Ustinov. That replacement altered everything. For Ustinov is a particular type of actor, his method wildly different from that of Finney. He was, after all, Herod the Great in Jesus of Nazareth, the Old Man in Logan’s Run, Prince John in Disney’s Robin Hood, Blackbeard in Blackbeard’s Ghost, Bataitus in Spartacus. All of these roles, as different as they may seem at first glance, have in common one thing: they are heavily laced with a certain brand of winking self-awareness. Ustinov is not an actor to disappear into a character; the character—be he Henry VIII or Frederick the Wise—disappears inside the persona of Peter Ustinov. This is, of course, most clear in his famous answer to the objection that Hercule Poirot looked nothing like him in the books. With a measure of arrogance that would have suited the Belgian detective, he declared, “Madam, he does now.”
It should be clear, then, that casting Ustinov as Hercule Poirot fundamentally alters the dynamic of the movie; now it is not the suspects who command audience attention, leaving the actor playing Poirot to fill in subtleties and slowly build a character. Poirot himself appears on the scene fully formed, an omniscient, godlike power. A paternal power—witness how he interacts with Jackie (Mia Farrow), cautioning her not to allow evil into her heart lest it make a home there. It is almost impossible to imagine the spikey, unlikable Poirot of Albert Finney delivering these lines in his thick music-hall accent. Finney’s Poirot doesn’t work like that; he does not form attachments—he forms conclusions. Ustinov, on the other hand, grows heavily attached—it is evident in his voice at the end, which cracks when he is forced to admit that the one person he cared at all about on the boat is the mastermind behind the murders.
But, if Ustinov is paternal and godlike in the role of detective, it becomes difficult to argue that he is not also mildly sadistic. In order to navigate the closed setting of the steamer Karnack, screenwriter Anthony Schaeffer structures the second half of the movie—after the murder—around a number of “guess spots.” That is, Poirot says “Ah, madam, but you could have committed the murder quite easily—” before proceeding to narrate precisely how it would have looked in that case. It is an awkward set-up, and it doesn’t work particularly well, but it does illuminate how different this Poirot’s methods are from his previous incarnation. Rather than adapting his tack to the suspect, changing as need requires, Ustinov subjects every one of them to a merciless, cold grilling, which leads one of them to exclaim “I think you’re horrid. You pretend to be so kind and considerate and all you want to do is trap us.” Quite so. But the joke is on Poirot; the one person he does not subject to this torture is Jackie—and, of course, she is the brains behind the whole plot.
Right, the plot. It’s quite a good one, turning as it does on Christie’s favorite trick—or one of them—the misleading triangle. Briefly, the way these things work is: two people seem to be very much in love, with a third person existing as an irritant because she loves one of them. In this case, Jackie (Mia Farrow) is in love with Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale), who left her to be with Linnett Ridgeway (Lois Chiles). But the trick is this: the two characters who seem to hate each other (Jackie and Simon) are the actual lovers, and the “loved one” (Linnett) is actually the third-person irritant.
It’s worth taking a moment to discuss what makes this plot so effective. The most obvious answer is that it’s a stereotype; it isn’t called “the eternal triangle” for nothing. The initial set-up of a love triangle is a literary trick as old as (older than!) Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot, and when we see it we accept it without question because that’s just how these things work. We don’t question why Jackie is following the newly-married Doyles around Egypt, or how she can know where they will be when they take such great pains to avoid her; we recognize the stereotyped plot and accept it because that’s just the kind of story this is. And what’s clever about the way Christie uses the plot is that she maintains the stereotyped simplicity of the eternal triangle and still manages to pull off a surprise solution: the final constellation of Simon-Jackie-Linnett is simply the same situation inverted.
But how does the movie handle all this? Not, alas, terribly well. Schaeffer accurately judges that this movie is a love story, and the opening scenes with Jackie, Linnett, and Simon are all beautifully crafted. Mia Farrow is particularly good here—and since she’s appearing in a movie with Lois Chiles, it might do well to cast our minds back to 1974 and The Great Gatsby (another story, incidentally, with a misleading triangle). The thing that makes Farrow’s Daisy Buchanan such a disappointing performance is that it seems to exist entirely on a high note. She breathes, she simpers, she emotes—but there’s no texture to it all, just Farrow rushing around being melodramatic. What’s odd in this connection is how very easily she could have fallen into that trap with Jackie. After all, the character of Jackie is a nervous, high-strung, jilted woman who has pledged to hound her ex-lover and his wife (her ex-best-friend) all over the earth. And yet, Farrow infuses the character with a steely determination and a sense of the tragic that her Daisy never achieved. Lois Chiles doesn’t fare so well; she and Simon MacCorkindale make a beautiful couple, but there’s no sense of spark between them. This movie, by rights, belongs to Mia Farrow.
Of course, she has to compete with Ustinov. And here’s where the gravity of the Ustinov-persona becomes fatal. Because he is almost always a parody—even in serious roles—he draws the movie around him into parody as well. This is not to say that Orient Express was not tongue in cheek—it manifestly was in several particulars—but Nile takes the whole thing one step further. Instead of one broadly comic character (the sublime Lauren Bacall) and several slyly witty ones, Nile gives us: Betty Davis as a kleptomaniac, Maggie Smith as her tart companion, George Kennedy as a scheming lawyer, I.S. Johar as a cringe-inducing stereotype captain, and Angela Lansbury as a drunk, sex-obsessed novelist. The steamer Karnack is literally a ship of fools, all of whom are more than willing to murder Linnett Ridgeway (the opposite of Orient Express, where we aren’t told of any motives at all until the very end).
Thus, Death on the Nile seems to want two things: it wants to be a grand romantic narrative of tragic love, with the lovers breaking all laws and finally killing themselves for love. But it also wants to be a murder-mystery-farce, with Ustinov serving as the dynamo at its heart. And both of these options break down once Linnett Ridgeway is murdered (an hour into the film!) and the movie relapses into the not-really-flashback structure mentioned above.
For all that, Death on the Nile is important because it points the way for Christie adaptations for the next decade: mixing the star-studded appeal of Orient Express with the comic expansiveness of Death on the Nile and you get Evil Under the Sun, which may be the most pleasant—though not necessarily the best—of the big-screen Poirot adventures. But first, of course, the producers decided to replicate their success with Poirot and bring another Christie detective to life: Miss Marple. And their choice of an actress would be important—not for the film series itself, but for televisual mystery in general. But that’s The Mirror Crack’d, and it’s a post for the future.