For a brief and wonderfully weird period of time, Agatha Christie was seen as a sizable box office draw. Films based on the mystery maven’s works have been around for ages (most recently becoming synonymous with public television), but from the ’70s and into the ’80s, not only could you see such adaptations on the big screen, they were fairly decent hits, to boot. Following the success of Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, filmmakers next chose to capitalize on the public’s then-current interest in everything Egyptian by bringing Christie’s Death on the Nile to theaters in 1978. This classy whodunit eagerly carries on the tradition established by Orient Express, accentuating a tale of murder most foul with an all-star cast and an exotic setting. But while our story teems with wit and plot twists aplenty, Death on the Nile finds itself hindered as a whole by awkward direction, which labors under the misconception that simply having its characters stand around with their maws agape will lead to a suspenseful atmosphere at some point.
Just about everyone wants to see Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) six feet under. The icy heiress has left quite a few enemies in her wake, the latest of which is Jackie (Mia Farrow), a former pal whose beau (Simon MacCorkindale) Linnet was glad to woo away. When the happy couple marries and decides to spend their honeymoon on an African cruise, a vengeful Jackie follows, only to find out that all of her fellow passengers have also been spurned by the little rich girl in one way or another. But while initially assigned to ward off the scorned lover, Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) soon becomes part of a whole different investigation: Linnet’s murder. Someone had enough of the woman’s devious ways and bumped her off…but who among the other guests is the guilty party? Is it boozy author Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury), who’s facing charges of slandering the deceased’s image in her novels? Or could it be Ferguson (Jon Finch), a young Socialist with disdain for the bourgeoisie? Either way, the killer has nowhere to run, and with a keen mind like Poirot’s on the case, it’s only a matter of time before his or her deadly secrets come floating back to the surface.
Though it makes valiant strides towards brushing away its confined surroundings, Death on the Nile can’t help but come across a smidge stuffy. It’s a more mobile story than Orient Express, what with stopping off at lovely locales for us to admire and for the characters to encounter danger within. Director John Guillermin (The Towering Inferno) does whatever he can not to spent the picture’s entire two hour-plus running time on a blasted boat, but sporadic patches of clumsy pacing take a toll on the tension he strives to achieve. One sequence sees Linnet narrowly escaping death at some ancient ruins, an event at which all of our suspects are present; the camera pans to each individual, so you know something big is about to go down, but the stiff shooting style doesn’t force you to the edge of your seat, so much as it makes the actors look like they’re just waiting their turns to make a suspicious face. Plus, once Death on the Nile‘s resident murderer starts targeting their fellow travelers, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of concern that comes of it. Characters see their loved ones cut down in cold blood, but little fuss is made, and not in the droll, British, “seen it all” fashion that typifies much of Christie’s writing. The robust ensemble has also made it difficult for very many of these players to feel as though they have lives outside of being red herrings, with attention-grabbing subplots and complex back stories in slim supply.
All that said, Death on the Nile is a perfectly diverting production that’s scarcely bereft of merit. The cinematography (which highlights actual Egyptian locations) is terrific, as are the movie’s sets and Oscar-winning costumes. Christie’s devilish sense of wit shines throughout Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay, particularly whenever Poirot expertly dismantles what the suspects he faces think are airtight alibis. Speaking of which, Death on the Nile presents what has to be one of the most rock-solid group of actors ever associated with any Christie adaptation, no matter what medium. Ustinov’s Poirot is noticeably more cuddly than Albert Finney’s portrayal, but he’s still as sharp, vigilant, and clever as the character should be. Farrow is in excellent form as the jilted Jackie — playing her as both weepy and vindictive to great effect — and Chiles (she of Moonraker fame) is just right as an ice queen you can picture someone falling in love with and wanting to stab in the back with equal passion. Other familiar faces include Bette Davis as a cunning old crone, Olivia Hussey as an innocent ingénue, and the great David Niven as Poirot’s partner in crime-solving. It’s simply great watching everybody in this cast do what they do, and even when the script doesn’t fare so well at maintaining the illusion that they exist whenever the narrative doesn’t require their presence, the quality of their performances keeps your eyes peeled to them regardless.
Death on the Nile has its share of hiccups, but it’s far from the Hollywood butchering of a literary mystery classic that some might fear it to be. There’s a distinctly old-fashioned vibe at play here, and while some added visual craft could have helped break open the film’s narrative shutters, it’s all presented in a fascinating enough manner to get by. Worth watching for the acting as much as (if not a bit more than) for its main mystery’s resolution, Death on the Nile proves to be a fine little thriller from start to finish.