Saturday, January 3, 2015

#1,601. Death on the Nile (1978)

Directed By: John Guillermin

Starring: Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Simon MacCorkindale

Tag line: "Can the killer be found before the ship of clues reaches the end of its murderous journey ?"

Trivia: The film shot seven weeks on location in Egypt, four on the steamer Karnak (the historic ship SS Memnon) and the rest at places such as Aswan, Abu Simbel, Luxor, and Cairo

Following the same formula as the hugely successful 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile is a star-studded whodunit based on a novel by Agatha Christie, in which a beautiful heiress is murdered while honeymooning in 1930’s Egypt.

Socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) has just married Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale), much to the chagrin of Linnet’s former best friend Jackie (Mia Farrow), who was once engaged to Simon and is still in love with him. Jackie is so upset, in fact, that she’s been stalking the newlyweds during their recent Egyptian vacation, going so far as to follow them to the top of one of the Pyramids of Giza. So, when Linnet is shot dead while traveling on the Karnak, a steamer carrying a number of distinguished guests down the Nile, most assume the jilted Jackie is the killer. But Jackie has an airtight alibi, and couldn’t possibly have committed this heinous crime. Enter Hercule Poirot (Sir Peter Ustinov), the famous Belgian sleuth who, as luck would have it, is traveling on the very same steamer. With the help of his good friend Col. Race (David Niven), Poirot launches an investigation, during which he learns that everyone on board the Karnak had a motive, as well as the opportunity, to murder Linnet Ridgeway. But who is the guilty party?

Part of the fun of a movie like Death on the Nile is discovering the motives of its various suspects. Louise (Jane Birkin), Linnet’s maid, needed money to marry her lover, which Linnet refused to give her. Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy), the deceased’s American lawyer, had been embezzling money from Linnet’s family for years, and was in danger of being found out. Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury), who’s traveling with her loving daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey), is a romance novelist who Linnet was suing for libel. Marie Van Schuyler (Bette Davis) coveted Linnet’s exquisite pearl necklace, while her servant Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith) holds a grudge against the entire Ridgeway family for ruining her father’s reputation. Rounding out the list of potential killers is Dr. Bessner (Jack Warden), whose methods Linnet had publicly criticized; and James Ferguson (Jon Finch), a young communist who abhors the wealthy, calling them the “leeches” of society. At various points throughout the film, Poirot questions them all personally, during which he lays out how each one might have perpetrated the crime. Before it’s over, some of the suspects will themselves be murdered, adding a few new twists to an already tangled tale.

Along with its stellar cast, Death on the Nile had a number of talented people working behind-the-scenes, starting with screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, who penned such classics as Sleuth, The Wicker Man, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy. Also worth noting is Costume Designer Anthony Powell (Papillon, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), whose period garb netted the movie it’s only Academy Award. Director of Photography Jack Cardiff fully exploits the film’s Egyptian setting (a key scene that takes place at the ruins of Abu Simbal is particularly well shot), while the somber score of Nino Rota (La Dolce Vita, The Godfather) sets the perfect tone throughout. All of these elements, combined with the fine performances of its entire cast, work in unison to make Death on the Nile a twisting, turning, very entertaining mystery.

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