Death on the Nile (1978)

With the highly anticipated Kenneth Branagh film coming out in February, I thought it would be a good opportunity to rewatch the original film from 1978. Peter Ustinov is my original Poirot (I have a soft spot for him) and this is the movie that got me into both murder mysteries and also Agatha Christie. The gorgeous visuals, the amazing array of actors and, of course, the man himself – what more can you ask for?

The story revolves around a love triangle between Simon Doyle, Jackie De Bellefort (his ex lover) and Linnet Ridgeway (his new wife). When Jackie asks her best friend Linnet to give her fiance a job, the last thing she thought would happen would be losing him to her. In a whirlwind romance, Simon and Linnet tie the knot and go on their honeymoon in Egypt.

Early on in the film, we are whisked away to the sites and sounds of Egypt – magical and perfect. We see Simon and Linnet climbing to the top of the Pyramids of Giza with not a care in the world, only to be interrupted by Jackie. As events continue, everywhere they turn Jackie seems to turn up like a bad smell, much to Linnet’s annoyance, and the perfect couple’s facade begins to crack.

Poirot is “en vacance” (a worry for any of the passengers on board!), however, even though he is on holiday, Poirot is never far away from a drama observing the situation, and he can’t help but get involved in the love triangle himself, trying to warn off Jackie.

“Bury the dead…turn your back on the past. Do not allow evil into your heart. It will make a home there.”

Hercule Poirot’s advice to Jackie De Bellefort

Peter Ustinov, whilst not always fitting the typical description of Poirot, is a powerhouse of mystery and intrigue, and I enjoy seeing him in this role. Balancing both the fun with the serious, he always seems to be in the right place at the right time, hearing whispers of a conversation or spying a slight (but telling) movement which will of course help him later on when solving the mystery. To top it off, he is dressed stylishly in his safari outfit, with an “undeniably elegant Belgian moustache,” and sporting the odd humourous accessory such as the bedtime hairnet for good measure whilst on board.

The contrast between the two leading ladies is well thought out too. Lois Chiles is well cast as Linnet, glamorous and classy, with spiteful undertones, and with a great selection of outfits to boot. To contrast, Mia Farrow is excellent as Jackie, a much plainer tomboy, who plays the woman scorned exceptionally well, showing both her possessive and stubborn nature throughout, and you end up feeling very sorry for her. Simon on the other hand (played by Simon MacCorkindale) is handsome, but may I say rather unlikeable, as his feelings change with the wind.

The supporting cast is a sensational line up – with Captain Hastings nowhere in sight, Poirot relies on another faithful companion, Colonel Race, played by David Niven (helping us to make sense of the clues). Amongst the rest of the cast, a shout out needs to be given to Maggie Smith, playing Miss Bowers, a stylish, androgonous companion to an aging socialite Marie Van Schuyler (played by the glorious Bette Davis). However, my favourite character in the film is the batty, drunk romance writer, Salome Otterbourne, played by Angela Lansbury, offering some light relief from the deadly voyage.

“It’s amazing! Everybody could have done it and everyone has a reason for doing it.”

Colonel Race to Hercule Poirot

Throughout the film, Poirot is constantly observing the situation as motives are set up between various characters and snippets of the past come to the fore. Bodies then start to pile up, and Poirot (with the help of Colonel Race) quickly identifies motives for almost all of the people on board. As soon as the first murder happens, accusations start to fly, clues are gathered and possible solutions begin to form through visual flashbacks. The finale, where Poirot brings all of the characters together for the big reveal, is both satisfying and, for those who do not know the ending, surprising.

This film is one of my favourites and can stand up to the book in my opinion. I just love the cinematography within this visually stunning movie – there is so much to see on screen! Panning camera angles, which are sometimes handheld, help us to feel like we are a passenger on the luxury cruise. These sweeping vistas and wide-angle shots of the beautiful scenery, displaying the timeless Egyptian monuments and intriguing hieroglyphics, add to the allure, and have stayed with me, making me want to go on a Nile cruise myself. Shots zoom in and out, helping to guide our eyes with carefully chosen close ups of the characters’ facial expressions and emotions, providing subtle clues for the viewer if they watch closely enough. My favourite scene takes place at one of the Egyptian monuments, where a point-of-view shot makes us feel like we are looking through the eyes of the killer themselves!

Whilst I do want to go and see the new Death on the Nile film, this one, from 1978, will always hold a special place in my heart and I recommend that you all must watch it.

Photo stills from Death on the Nile (1978) – made by Mersham Productions Ltd – distributed by EMI Films Ltd

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