There are two brilliant film versions of Agatha Christie‘s classic detective novel, Death on the Nile, available now and a third to be released in September of this year. The Peter Ustinov version from 1978, directed by John Guillerman, has a star-studded cast including Ustinov as Poirot, Maggie Smith as Marie Van Schuyler’s nurse, Bowers, Schuyler played by Bette Davis, David Niven as Colonel Race, Angela Lansbury playing the aging author Salome Otterbourne , whose daughter Rosalie is played by Olivia Hussey. Lois Chiles plays the filthy rich, selfish airhead Linnet Ridgeway Doyle who has managed to offend, hurt or totally ruin almost everyone on the cruise and Mia Farrow plays the jilted Jacqueline while Simon MacCorkindale plays Simon Doyle who marries Linnet. George Kennedy plays the corrupt trustee who tries to get Linnet to sign papers that will make it look like his stealing has been authorized and Jack Warden is the doctor Linnet has slandered publicly.
Ustinov (1921 – 2004) is brilliant as the Belgian detective even though Poirot is usually depicted as having a more slight build. Ustinov was more than just an actor on stage and screen where he won Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globe and Bafta awards. Fluent in 6 languages with some Turkish and modern Greek thrown in, he was a diplomat, writer, film maker and frequent guest on the Jack Parr Tonight Show. Somewhat less obnoxious than the David Suchet portrayal can be at times, although in the Suchet episode (Season 9, Episode 3, 2004) he can be very sympathetic and understanding, Ustinov is perhaps the quintessential Poirot and played the character in several Christie film adaptations.
Guillerman had the movie shot at exotic authentic locations and the opening credits run over the blue water of the Nile then switch to the status car with chauffeur taking the new owner of the Wode Hall estate (near Walton-under-Wode) through the village and the countryside to the front door of the manor where her new staff is waiting to greet her. The house has been extravagantly redecorated but not exactly in keeping with the Art Deco style of the 20s as it is in the David Suchet episode which I liked much better. Both versions use the original Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan, the Nile Hotel in the movie, and use the steamer the S.S. Memnon called the Karnak. Other locations such as the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, and temples at Abu Simbel and Karnak were used as well as the cities of Cairo, Aswan, Abu Simbel, and Luxor.
There are some deviations from the original plot in the movies. For instance Guillerman dropped the whole replacing jewels with fakes plot line with Tim Allerton and his cousin Joanna Southwood which made for fewer cast members. Colonel Race (James Fox in the 2004 version), rather than joining the cruise after the first murder, joins the cast at the Nile Hotel and boards with all the others, thus eliminating the plot line about the terrorist. And the final murder/suicide takes place in the saloon with the whole cast watching rather than on the gangplank after most of the cruise members have left. Of course, the murderers are the same as in the book.
The Poirot tv series, begins with a dark and stormy night around the manor house of the incredibly wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Emily Blunt) and then the scene switches to the lovers Simon (J.J. Feild) and Jackie (Emma Malin) with delightful 20s jazz in the background, Mad About the Boy. Switching to Linnet’s huge bedroom (redone in wonderful Art Deco), where she and Joanna Southwood (Elodie Kendall) are sharing girl talk, as Joanna admires and arranges to borrow Linnet’s exquisite pearl necklace. Jackie arrives and talks Linnet into hiring Simon, a pouty boy who turns flirty the instant he meets Linnet.
The crooked American trustee, Pennington, is played well by David Soul but Tim Allerton (Daniel Lapaine), Joanna’s cousin and partner in crime in the jewel switching, to my mind doesn’t fit up to his description in the book. He seems too short and rather a belligerent sycophant rather than a secretive, impoverished aristocratic jewel thief ready to go straight for the right gal. He’s in it right from the beginning. But here, too, the film is a departure from the plot in the book for he doesn’t end up with the girl — he tells her “she’s barking up the wrong tree”.
Frances de la Tour is perfect as the aging author of steamy novels Salome Otterbourne and Zoe Talford plays the daughter Rosalie perfectly as she hides her love for her mother in brash indifference.
This episode skips several introductions/vignettes but nothing that can’t be caught up and it gives the plot a faster pace. It goes straight to Egypt and the opulent Nile Hotel where we see colourful skiffs on the river and the painted buildings on the far shore, then after dark, the steamer Karnak lit up and reflected in the water. Great atmosphere. Very authentic costuming — the Egyptian garbed waiters and maitre d’, Europeans all in correct garb, and the bustling on the dock and up and down the boarding ramp. The deck of the steamer is decked out with palm trees and gardens where the passengers have tea and an extremely elegant dining room.
Again, the locations are great and the massive monuments make a powerful backdrop. The director, Andy Wilson, has eliminated Miss Bowers, the nurse accompanying Maria Van Schuyler (Judy Parfitt) and the naive niece (Daisy Donovan plays Cornelia perfectly) is the observer making sure anything the light-fingered Ms. Van Schuyler picks up gets returned.
Both films are excellent in their own way but I love the way the Ustinov movie has added some interesting and fun “extras”. It’s hilarious when the first evening at the hotel, Angela Lansbury steals the scene dancing a flamboyant tango with Col. Race. At the beginning several native boys are running along the far bank as Van Schuyler is taking in the scenery from the deck garden when a couple of the boys turn their backs and moon her. Poirot returns to his cabin to find a python in his bathroom so begins to hum in an effort to put it in a trance meanwhile knocking on the wall in Morse code to attract Col. Race’s attention, who draws a sword out of his cane and rushes in to pierce the offending snake through its neck. It’s a delightful rendition with so many things to recommend it but do watch both if you haven’t seen them. I’m anxiously awaiting the Kenneth Branagh version, the trailer of which can be seen here. Both of these movies are 5 stars in my book!