Year Released: 1978
Directed by: John Guillermin
Starring: Peter Ustinov, Lois Chiles, Simon MacCorkindale, Mia Farrow, David Niven, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury
(PG, 140 min.)
"One cannot hurry the little grey cells." Hercule Poirot
Classic Agatha Christie! A star-studded cast surrounds a pampered heiress everyone is itching to kill. And this flamboyant cadre of would be assassins on the luxury river cruise all have ample means, motive, and opportunity, according to the shrewdly observant Hercule Poirot, whose “little grey cells” never take a vacation.
It’s not enough that Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) is as fabulously beautiful as she is rich, but she must also have her friend’s fiancé (Simon MacCorkindale) as well. Something Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow) doesn’t take to very much. Her revenge – to stalk the honeymooning lovers for all it’s worth.
Even a gallop across the desert sands and a tough climb to the peak of the Great Pyramid of Giza does not deter Jackie, who interrupts their rapturous embrace with a lecture on its specifications.
They seem to escape her when they board the grand steamboat cruiser Karnak for its trek on the Nile, but then everyone else on the boat seems equally venomous toward the poor little rich girl.
There’s the regally bitchy Marie Van Schuyler (Bette Davis) who lusts for Linnet’s priceless pearls when she is not busy of bullying her similarly acid tongued companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith). Miss Bowers, it seems, has her own grievance with the former Miss Ridgeway, or at least with her robber baron father.
The romance novelist Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury), equally rhapsodic about the earthier animal passions as well as pretty little drinks with umbrellas and plenty of alcohol, is entangled in a libel suit with the beautiful heiress. Her meek daughter (Olivia Hussey) quietly wonders if one can libel the dead?
It’s nothing personal for the cheerfully sullen Marxist James Ferguson (Jon Finch), but shouldn’t parasites like Linnet be done away with – for the betterment of society, of course.
Doctor Ludwig Bessner (Jack Warden) bristles at the toll his medical reputation has taken because of her, while her American uncle and estate manager Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy) has his own mysterious concerns.
Mayhem is sure to ensue, but luckily we have Hercule Poirot on board as well in the person of the irrepressible Peter Ustinov, putting his own bigger than life stamp on Christie’s diminutive Belgium detective. He disregards Poirot’s fussiness but doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to his vanity or sartorial splendor. David Niven’s Colonel Race is there to assist - cultured, correct, and unmistakably British.
The classic whodunit teases our brains, but it is a feast for the eyes as well. From the opening scene as the polished Rolls Royce ambles through the English countryside to a mansion whose gated entry is more elaborate than most people’s houses to the epic on location scenes from Egypt, we are enthralled, even if then 70-year-old Bette Davis was not. Up at 4 AM to start filming at 6, with a two hour break for the noon day’s sun, peaking somewhere at 130 degrees, she complained, “In the olden days, they’d have built the Nile for you.”
And I’m sure those glorious trailing gowns that engulfed Ms. Davis as well as Angela Lansbury didn’t improve the situation, but you’d never know it from their performances, both actresses diving into their eccentric characters even if they couldn’t submerge themselves in the Nile.
The Sphinx fixes us with its stare, even if it does spare us its riddle, while the huge statues at the temple of Abu Simbel “sing” to us as the desert wind blows past. The massive carved rock that nearly kills our honeymooning couple does not tumble from the wind, however.
This film is on a grand scale, bordering at times on self-parody, but it has an ebullience and a sense of joy that is infectious. It may lack the meticulous literary accuracy of the David Suchet televised series, but it suits the big screen in a way the purist production does not.
Enjoy each over the top moment. Angela Lansbury’s tango deserves its own Dancing with the Stars segment. Maggie Smith as the prim spinster is the antithesis of Daphne Castle, ex-mistress of the King of Tyrania, she plays three years later in Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. You will love the bathroom scene between Ustinov and Niven, even if it is almost stolen by the undulating cobra between them.
Part of the comedy in Death on the Nile comes from the cultural clashes between the very British Colonel Race, played flawlessly by the very British David Niven, and Peter Ustinov’s prickly Belgium detective, Hercule Poirot.
Poirot larders his locutions with buttery French phrases whenever he can, much to the consternation of Colonel Race, who begs to understand what in the world he is saying. This confusion only seems to encourage our somewhat pompous detective, but in one instance, the imperious Poirot gets his comeuppance.
As he hurries off the explore a clue, Poirot asks his friend to order dinner for him, requesting the “morels.” It is with shock and I would say some disgust that he finds his dinner plate home to a very black eel, spread out in an “S” shape as though still swimming upstream.
Of course, what Poirot had meant by “morel” is the gourmet mushroom version.
Here is a delicious mushroom recipe. Don’t feel that you have to go to an exotic store or woodland retreat to find morels. It works just fine with any kind of mushroom.
Mushrooms in Sherry Cream
1 1/2 pounds mushrooms, sliced or quartered,
or whole button mushrooms
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup butter
1 cup heavy dream, heated
2 cups sour cream, heated
2 tablespoons dry sherry
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped, fresh dill
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Wash mushrooms. Peel if necessary and remove woody part of stems. Slice or quarter. Brown mushrooms with the onion in hot melted butter in a large, heavy frying pan. Add the sweet and the sour cream and simmer very gently, stirring continually until very hot and smooth. Add sherry and dill. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Recipe Source: Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook