With this type of picture coming back in style, perhaps the new gumshoes who’ll be gracing our screens can learn from this outing.
With the impending release of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and production ramping up for Kenneth Branagh’s next Poirot flick, whodunnits are back in style. What better time than now to revisit the last mainstream film to tackle an adaptation of the upcoming Murder on the Orient Express sequel, John Gillermen’s Death on the Nile, with Peter Ustinov’s first turn playing the Belgian sleuth.
In the years between this movie and the new slate of detective-driven mystery films on the horizon, this particular subgenre has become relegated almost exclusively to the world of television miniseries and the kind of low-budget, recorded theater confined to the BBC and PBS. But in the late ‘70s, in the wake of Sidney Lumet’s version of Orient Express, a well-funded Christie adaptation could still be framed as an event picture, the kind of marquee showcase for a star-studded cast to shine.
These films are always populated by a vast, colorful group of potential suspects, and with precious little screen time to establish each individual supporting role, it makes sense for the filmmakers to leverage the existing screen personas of big name performers, as well as the unique charm of reliable character actors. In that regard, Nile remains an absolute delight. With a cast including Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury and David Niven, the tale’s complex web of possible murderers is easier to keep up due to so many imminently watchable actors taking their little typecasting morsels and making meals of them.
Nile follows the same narrative architecture of most successful Poirot movies. We meet a bunch of socialites with ridiculous connections to one another, wait for one of them to die and then watch as Poirot solves the mystery entirely in his own head, verbalizing only the slightest of deductions for the audience at home to piece together the conclusion themselves. For the mystery aficionado, this structure is airtight, and it plays like a game you can watch on autopilot until the final act, when Poirot collects everyone in a big room and lays bare all of the dirty laundry and one can check their personal scorecard against his.
With Albert Finney’s portrayal of Poirot in the previous film, the third-act switch from faux-bumbling inspection to full-throated accusations was stark and dramatic. His take on the character was that he was lovable and a little goofy until the shit hit the fan, but that he eventually relished tearing people apart once he knew who was to blame. Ustinov, by contrast, is a pale comparison, maintaining a semi-likable, scenery-chewing incarnation who is just over-the-top enough not to get lost in the shuffle of showier parts of the supporting cast.
But lacking that bite means that the best part of the film, the prolonged sequence where every nook and cranny of the plot is laid bare for the viewers who haven’t previously put it all together themselves, becomes a lot less satisfying. There’s something pure and enduring about watching an intelligent and articulate independent observer read a bunch of uppity rich people for filth, and Ustinov’s Poirot, while beloved by a fair portion of the mystery-loving crowd, just doesn’t scratch the schadenfreudian itch like one would really hope.
However, with this type of picture coming back in style, perhaps the new gumshoes who’ll be gracing our screens can learn from this outing.