Death On The Nile-1978
Starring-Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis
Scott’s Review #714
Reviewed January 14, 2018
Death On The Nile is a 1978 British thriller that follows up the successful 1974 offering, Murder On The Orient Express- both films based on the fabulous Agatha Christie novels of the 1930’s. This time around, Belgian detective Hercules Poirot (Peter Ustinov) investigates a string of deaths aboard a luxurious steamer carrying the lavishly wealthy and their servants. The film is a good, old-fashioned whodunit, perhaps not on the level of storytelling as its predecessor-the murder mystery contains not the oomph expected-but features exquisite Egyptian historical locales-worth its weight in gold.
Featuring a who’s who of famous stars and tremendous actors of the day, Death On The Nile carves a neat story right off the bat in such a way that the murder victim is fairly obvious right away- most of the characters have reason to celebrate her demise. Rich and reviled heiress, Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles), has stolen best friend Jacqueline’s (Mia Farrow) beau, Simon, sparking a bitter feud between the women. While honeymooning in Egypt, the newlyweds are continually taunted by angry Jacqueline. Once the cruise ship departs with all on board, Jackie is the prime suspect when Linnet is murdered. Poirot must find the killer as numerous other suspects all with grudges against Linnet, begin to emerge.
Death On The Nile serves up a stellar cast including legendary Bette Davis in the role of Marie Van Shuyler- eccentric American socialite with an eye for Linnet’s necklace. The casting of Davis is reason enough to watch the film, though the character is not center stage and rather a supporting role. The lead female honor is held for Farrow, who has the meatiest and most complex role in the film. Jackie’s unstable actions makes her the most likely to commit the deed, but the fun is to figure out the “whys” and the “hows” of the murder. Is there more than one killer? Are they working in cahoots or independently? As the body count increases these questions begin to resonate more and more.
The costumes and sets are gorgeous and it is no wonder the film won the Oscar for Best Costume Design. At a ball the women are dripping with jewels and gorgeous gowns. Along with Davis, boozy author Salome Otterbourne, hilariously played by Angela Lansbury, is granted the prize of wearing the most luxurious and interesting of all the costumes. She drips with jewels and, with a cocktail always in hand, is the films comic relief.
Director John Guillermin makes the film an overall light and fun experience and, despite the murderous drama, does not take matters too seriously. Offering humorous moments, this balances nicely with the inevitable murders. The fun for the audience is deducing whodunit- most of the characters have motive and the cast of characters is hefty. I had memories of the famous board game Clue- Was it Jackie in the ballroom with the revolver? You get the idea. In this way the film makes for a good, solid game of mystery.
Comparisons to 1974’s Murder On The Orient Express cannot help but be drawn, especially in the lead casting of Hercules Poirot. Truth be told, Albert Finney’s portrayal in “Murder” is superior to Peter Ustinov’s Poirot in “Death” and I am not sure what purpose Colonel Race (David Niven) as Poirot’s friend offers other than to be a loyal sidekick and present a character that Poirot can explain events to- think what Watson was to Sherlock Holmes. Regardless, Finney is the superior Poirot as he musters more strength and charisma than Ustinov does.
How lovely and historic to witness the wonderful Egyptian locales- the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids are featured amid an attempt on the life of the romantic pair by way of falling rocks- this sets the tone for the perilous cruise about to be embarked upon.
Perhaps a perfect film for a Saturday stay at home evening with friends, complete with a serving of a quality wine and cheese, Death On The Nile is a sophisticated, yet fun, British mystery film, fantastic to watch in a party setting where the audience can be kept guessing until the nice conclusion and the big reveal of who killed whom and why.
Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design (won)