Wednesday, May 4, 2011

FI: Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile
United Kingdom, 1978
Directed by John Guillermin

Agatha Christie's work is always on screen somewhere, it seems. In Death on the Nile, her famous sleuth Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is once again tasked with solving a crime taking place on a closed-off piece of transportation—this time a paddle steamer rather than a luxury train—whose passengers all have a motive for murder. It's up to Poirot and his friend Colonel Race (David Niven) to find the killer with only minimal evidence and a lot of overheard conversations to guide them.

As you might expect based on its genre, the film is formulaic to a T. It boasts a fantastic technical crew—with the legendary Jack Cardiff and Nino Rota providing the cinematography and score, respectively—and is, without a doubt, a well-made and well-directed film. Guillermin knows how to take advantage of silences and pointed looks, and uses them well in creating tension. The characters are Christie's standard mix of bizarre types and jealous schemers, and the film puts them through their paces, dramatizing a potential method of murder for each before turning to the standard scene where Poirot gathers the survivors and solves the case. But, all of that said, the film lives and dies based on its script and its cast.

If you like the mystery genre, and enjoy seeing great performers like Ustinov, Niven, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury owning their screen time, you will probably enjoy Death on the Nile. But be warned: the script does tip its hand a couple of times, and if you can sort the real clues from the red herrings, you may well figure things out before Poirot does. Even in that event, the denouement offers a few small surprises that make the film worth your while. It's not groundbreaking, but it does its job admirably enough.

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