As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised I’ve come to like a very specific kind of movie more than any other – the all-star cast film. There’s just something about watching the great names of Hollywood go up against each other, all attempting to get the best performance in such a shared spotlight. We’re talking The Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior. We’re talking Ocean’s 11, both the Rat Pack one and the Clooney/Damon/Pitt one. I’m thinking The Towering Inferno, with Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway, and more. X-Men, Mars Attacks!, Inception, LA Confidential.
The list goes on, but I think I’ve already listed too many. But, last night, I chanced to walk into the family room just as much of the family was settling in to watch yet another. It was the 1978 Agatha Christie murder-mystery classic, Death On The Nile. Well, I knew I had to see this (especially as it has David Niven in it, and we all know how much I like David Niven) and so I successfully convinced Dad to start the film again. I was very glad he did, because what I went on to behold was a marvellously lavish adaptation of the novel of the same name, starring Peter Ustinov (whom you may remember as the voice of Prince John from the Disney version of Robin Hood) as Hercule Poirot, detective extraordinaire. Alongside Ustinov is a cast of some of the most memorable actors of a generation, such as David Niven, Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, and Maggie Smith, plus a few younger faces such as Lois Chiles and Mia Farrow (reunited after The Great Gatsby, though Robert Redford is nowhere to be seen).
Like any great all-star cast movie (or indeed any Agatha Christie story), this one is full to bursting with clichés. The late 1920s-early 1930s-set story centres on a very wealthy newlywed couple (Lois Chiles as the arrogant Yank heiress, and her no-name British husband) for whom every passenger seems to have it in. There is a (quite literal) smoking gun, a Communist (“James Ferguson, citizen of the world.” Vomit.) who hates rich people, a salacious authoress (Angela Lansbury at her absolutely panto best) and her penny-pinching daughter, a quack doctor, an insane ex-lover (a crazed and gaunt Mia Farrow), a dodgy lawyer (George Kennedy, the chief of the Naked Gun PoliceSquad), a servant with a hidden agenda, an old woman obsessed with jewels (a wonderfully dry Bette Davis) who is accompanied by her bitter and vengeful nurse (a pre-Dame but still hilarious Maggie Smith), a comedy Indian boat captain, plus David Niven, who plays David Niven (well, actually an army colonel working for a British law firm, but for crying out loud, David Niven always just plays David Niven). So, after a gruesome murder and some shocked expressions, there can be only one question: who is the murderer? But, more importantly, who is the biggest pork chop on this boatful of hams?
Just by watching the opening of this film, you can tell they wanted to make something more than just a standard murder mystery film, and that they wanted to get it all right. It opens in the English countryside, and there are wide shots manifold of the natural beauty during the opening titles. The film stock was clearly high quality, because the movie looks as good now as it would have thirty years ago. Once the plot reaches the marvellous location of Egypt, the cinematography just gets even better. This was made at a time when most of the ancient wonders of Egypt had been dug up, but they weren’t on restricted access, so one could get right up close and personal with them without any concern for heritage value! There is climbing on the pyramids! There’s rock throwing in Luxor! There’s local flavour in Cairo! The production also commandeered a genuine paddleboat (the historic SS Sudan), which just adds to the very well created period atmosphere. Anthony Powell, costume designer on the film, won an Academy Award for his work here, and it was well deserved. Period films in those days were not necessarily very faithful to the periods they represented, but gosh, this one was just great.
Being faithful to the book upon which it was based, Death On The Nile follows the Agatha Christie formula to a tee. Almost the entire film is dedicated to giving the viewer more and more clues as to whom the murder may be. There is probably only about twenty minutes of proper character development in the almost two-and-a-half hour running time, the rest given over mainly to making us hate Poirot (this particular version is greedy and mildly uncouth) and playing out a number of different possibilities of how the murder took place. Then, in the last fifteen minutes, everyone is gathered in the lounge (what’s the lounge on a ship called? Is there a seafaring word for it? I don’t know) and Poirot reveals his cunning deductions. Certainly not how we expect a movie to play out now! But, for what should seem like an eternity considering exactly what does (or doesn’t) happen, Death On The Nile really doesn’t feel like a hugely long movie!
The pace is probably aided by the hilariously over-the-top performances of every member of the cast. David Niven has a sword-stick which is awesome. Angela Lansbury hams it up as the drunken authoress, whose final scene is probably the single best in the film. Maggie Smith just does what she does in everything – pops her eyes and looks outraged – and it is beautiful to watch. Chiles and Farrow make great rivals, and whilst I wouldn’t normally write home about the acting talents of either, here they are excellent. The great Bette Davis just rolls her eyes and is sarcastic throughout, but that is exactly what one wants from Bette Davis. The Marxist seemed sinister for a moment, but that was just a Red herring. Importantly, Ustinov is splendidly irritating and yet likeable as Poirot. The director, John Guillermin, should be applauded for managing to get so much great work from his huge cast – even the minor talents have time to shine, and shine they do. Everyone just seems to be having fun, which is notoriously difficult on film shoots in Egypt.
I genuinely consider my siblings and I to be amongst the luckiest movie watchers of our generation. Like many, we’ve seen lots of the fantastic movies from the last 20 years, on video and at the cinema. But, unlike many people, throughout our formative years we were shown many classic movies by our parents, and that’s how I’ve come to know all the names of the actors in this film. We’ve seen some amazing films that many of our contemporaries will probably never see nor hear of. For me, certainly, movies like this are more than just a cinematic curiosity, something to watch whilst waiting for more new Poirot and Miss Marple series on the ABC. It’s an opportunity to see some of the greats in action. And what better way to do it than in a lavishly corny production of a classic murder-mystery? Make more of them, Hollywood! And as for you, dear reader, please go and find this movie and watch it. It’s just grand.
With thanks to my frustratingly witty sister for some of the puns.