You might be bored to Death.
DIRECTED BY JOHN GUILLERMIN / 1978
BLU-RAY STREET DATE 9/1/20 / KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Death on the Nile comes on the heels of the very successful Murder on the Orient Express. Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel was a huge success at the box office and was nominated for a half-dozen Academy Awards, winning best supporting actress for Ingrid Bergman. Death on the Nile hoped to replicate that success, but the film, this time directed by John Guillermin and starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, fails to reach the heights of its predecessor. It is a mostly listless affair that only really begins moving once the bodies start dropping, and it takes far too much time to get to that point.
At the start of the film, we are introduced to Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles), a young and wealthy heiress, and her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow). ‘Jackie’ asks that Linnet please hire Jackie’s unemployed fiancee, Simon (Simon MacCorkindale), to run the estate. Linnet asks to meet the young man first, and Jackie happily agrees. Jackie soon comes to regret that, as over the course of a rapid montage, Linnet and Simon fall in love and get married. To Linnet’s utter amazement, this doesn’t sit well with Jackie, who proceeds to stalk and harass the young couple during their honeymoon in Egypt. As Linnet and Simon visit the pyramids, the great sphinx and other ruins, Jackie keeps turning up like a demented tour guide, spouting off each site’s vital statistics.
Determined to shake their stalker, Linnet and Simon hop aboard a steamer heading down the Nile (it ultimately doesn’t work). As luck would have it, all the other passengers aboard said steamer are acquainted with Linnet, and each of them have a motive in wanting her dead. When Linett does, indeed, end up shuffling off this mortal coil, the most likely suspect, Jackie, has the most iron-clad alibi. Thankfully, the famed detective Hercule Poirot is also on board, and it will take every ounce of his deductive prowess to untangle this mystery.
Like Orient Express before it, Death on the Nile boasts, and you will excuse the pun, a murderer’s row of famous character players. David Niven plays Colonel Race, who assists Poirot with his investigations. Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, George Kennedy, Olivia Hussey, Maggie Smith, Jack Warden, Jane Birkin, and Jon Finch are all on hand to serve as likely suspects. That’s the draw of a film like this, and one of the things that made Orient Express so successful.
The promise of this stellar cast, however, is never fulfilled. With the exception of Lansbury (and to a lesser degree Smith), none of them – and I include Ustinov in this- bring enough energy or life to their performances. The film moves sluggishly for the first hour-and-change. Once the dead bodies begin to turn up, there’s a lot more zip to the proceedings. It takes a long time to get to that point, however. The movie is nearly two and a half hours long, and you feel every minute of it.
Lansbury, on the other hand, needs a special shout out. Her performance rises to the level of the material- it’s almost too big for this movie. She slurs, trills and vamps her way across the screen and is pure magic whenever she’s on. Her character is a trashy romance novelist who is being sued by Linett for libel. When she introduces Poirot to her daughter, played by Olivia Hussy, she refers to him as “Hercules Porridge the famous French sleuth,” and blithely ignores his attempts at correction.
This tone of almost but not quite camp best suits Christie’s novels. They are well written, clever and have sharply observed characters, but they shouldn’t be treated with the reverence of “high art.” Kenneth Branagh can work in this space quite well, and it’s one of the reasons his version of Murder on the Orient Express was so successful. His Death on the Nile is still slated for release later this fall. Here’s hoping he kills it a second time.
Kino-Lorber’s recent blu-ray release of Death on the Nile comes packaged with a pretty good handful of extras. There’s an audio commentary which is a lively discussion between Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson. My favorite type of commentary track is a conversation between two or more people, and this one does not disappoint. They share wonderful insights into the context of the film and its release, and the career of director John Guillermin.
There’s also a 23-minute long making-of documentary on the disk, produced contemporaneously with the film. There are also a pair of Spanish-language interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jane Birkin, as well as the usual collection of trailers.