In the late seventies, fading movie stars used to join ensemble casts in campy films to stay working, to keep their names in the public eye. The Towering Inferno was one such movie. Death on the Nile, this week’s Film Cult Presents selection, is also one of these movies. Bette Davis had been famous—I mean, famous—for over thirty years by the time Death on the Nile was filmed. She’d already done Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, which some marked as a comeback, and yet, she still felt the need to be in movies below her, movies that were downright kitschy. It’s a shame what the business of show does to its aging stars.
That said, Death on the Nile remains one of my favorite films of all time. I have a soft spot for Agatha Christie narratives. They’re always set in some glamorous locale like Mesopotamia, on the Orient Express, or in the Caribbean. Someone sort of deserving bastard ends up dead and a group of people who all benefited from the death are examined, one by one, usually in catty brilliance, until Hercule Poirot (the Belgian sleuth portrayed perfectly in this film by Peter Ustinov) or Miss Jane Marple (the old lady with the steel trap mind) remember a seemingly innocuous fact and save the day just in time for tea.
Death on the Nile fits this mold. A rich heiress is newly married to a handsome playboy. They spend their honeymoon going down the Nile, and when the heiress turns up dead, all the passengers are suspects, as everyone has a motive. Hercule Poirot does his damnedest to eliminate suspects, but it’s clear everyone wanted the beautiful Mrs. Simon Doyle dead. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. This mystery is too much fun to be ruined. Check it out for yourself and see if you can figure out who the culprit is.
Despite the fun of the mystery, did I mention that Maggie Smith is Bette Davis’ paid companion? She and Davis, the most talented actors in the bevy of suspects by far, spar and and snap at each other more than contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and it’s brilliant.
Also in attendance on the luxury cruiser is Mia Farrow, whose waif innocence is heartbreaking yet anchored in the prowess of her talent. Interesting to note that Mia Farrow is the best friend of Mrs. Doyle whose murder is the core plot of the film. Mrs. Doyle is played by Lois Chiles, who also played Mia’s close friend in The Great Gatsby four years earlier. Their chemistry is still as stunted and random as it was on West Egg. Saving the day from their flat interactions is Angela Lansbury, delivering a showstopping performance as a boozy romance novelist with feathers in her bedazzled turbans and over-the-top gesticulations highlighting each of her sex-laden axioms. She’s a hurricane of hilarity, and her tango is as fierce as they come:
No expense was spared on the shoot. The locale is authentic, and the costumes and jewelry are also as such. The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design. The cinematography also pulls no punches, not that it’s difficult to make ancient monuments in Egypt look bad. Shooting on site gives the film strong verisimilitude, which is always necessary when the story is a basic whodunit. Regarding the authenticity of location, Bette Davis famously said, “In the older days, they’d have built the Nile for you. Nowadays, films have become travelogues and actors stunt men.” Well said, Ms. Davis. Well said.
That aside, the pace of the film is surprisingly strong for a mystery that plays out on a giant paddle boat. The star power may have something to do with that, although there are moments when one feels the writers could have cut some scenes short. The plot exposition becomes a little tedious towards the beginning, and in order to make all the suspects seem truly capable of murder, their hatred of Mrs. Doyle gets hammered in pretty solidly.
Of the many Agatha Christie adaptations, it’s easy for this to get lost in the shuffle, what with Murder on the Orient Express considered a classic. Still, this is one of the better ones. This and Evil Under the Sun (which also stars Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith) are definitely my favorites. It’s escapist, fun movie-making at its finest. If you love a bit of camp and a whole lot of murder, then Death on the Nile is right up your river. Besides, what’s better than seeing a bunch of rich people kill each other?
P.S. Keep a look out for a young Jane Birkin, three years before she shared a plane with Jean-Louis Dumas and he named a thirty thousand dollar bag after her.
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