The all-star period mystery film Murder on the Orient Express (1974) was such a commercial and critical success that another big-budget Agatha Christie adaptation was sure to follow. And while Death on the Nile is far less posh than its predecessor, it’s still quite enjoyable—more so, perhaps, than the stolid Orient Express. Clever and intricate though they may be, Christine’s books are not high art, and the makers of Death on the Nile treat the source material as pulp, whereas director Sidney Lumet and his Orient Express collaborators took the dubious path of treating Christie as literature. In any event, Death on the Nile plays out like a quasi-sequel to the earlier film, since both pictures feature Christie’s beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Albert Finney played Poirot in Orient Express, but Peter Ustinov assumes the role in Death on the Nile, marking the first of six films in which he essayed the character.
As per the usual Christie formula, the narrative follows a large number of interconnected characters, all of whom eventually land in the same place—a steamer churning down the Nile River in Egypt—for a long voyage filled with intrigue and murder. The picture begins in England, where penniless Jacqueline (Mia Farrow) begs her rich friend, Linnet (Lois Chiles), to provide employment for Jacqueline’s fiancée, Simon (Simon MacCorkindale). Linnet steals Simon from her friend, marries him, and embarks on a honeymoon trip through Egypt. Yet Jacqueline chases after them, taunting the newlyweds with threats of revenge. Eventually, Linnet and Simon encounter the vacationing Poirot, requesting his assistance in dispatching the nettlesome Jacqueline. Various other characters enter the mix, and before long it becomes clear that everyone except Simon and the neutral Poirit has a grudge against Linnet.
It’s giving nothing away to say that she dies about an hour into the 140-minute film—after all, the story can’t be called Death on the Nile without a corpse—so the fun stems from Poirot’s ensuing investigation. The pithy detective performs a thorough review of all the possible suspects, even as more people are killed, finally unraveling the true killer’s identity during a Christie staple—the final scene of Poirot gathering all the suspects in a room and then explaining, with the help of elaborate flashbacks, how he connected clues. It’s all quite far-fetched and formulaic, but there’s a good reason why Christie is considered the queen of the whodunit genre. It also helps that Anthony Shaffer, the playwright/screenwriter behind the intricate mystery film Sleuth (1972), did the script, and that director John Guillermin provides a brisk pace and a sleek look.
As for the performances from the huge cast, they’re erratic. On the plus side, Ustinov is droll as Poirot, David Niven is urbane as his sidekick, and the best supporting players (Jane Birkin, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, I.S. Johar, Maggie Smith) provide the varied textures asked of them. However, some players are badly miscast (Jack Warden as a German?), and some deliver performances that are too clumsy for this sort of material (Chiles, Farrow, George Kennedy). That leaves Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury, both of whom treat their parts like high camp; neither tethers her characterization to human reality, but both fill the screen with palpable energy.
By the end of the picture, one does feel the absence of Lumet’s sure hand, since he did a smoother job of unifying his Orient Express cast members than Guillermin does here. Nonetheless, in the most important respects, Death on the Nile delivers Christie as pure silly escapism, which seems about right.
Death on the Nile: GROOVY