Sailing into Trouble | A Death on the Nile Review at 40

Some people find their work follows them wherever they go. Agatha Christie‘s great detectives cannot escape mayhem and murder even on their holidays. Christie’s Belgian detective has been appearing onscreen for 90 years in various incarnations. The 1978 adaptation of Death on the Nile is notable for several reasons. It was Peter Ustinov’s first appearance as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, in a starry film that won an Oscar for its costume design and has proved to be a favourite of daytime TV.

Based on Christie’s 1937 novel, the beautiful, wealthy and recently married Linnet Doyle (Lois Chiles) is discovered dead in her cabin during a luxury river trip in Egypt during the early 1930s. There are plenty of suspects aboard who could have pulled the trigger and Poirot must unravel the mystery to expose the killer before they strike again.

There is a certain rhythm to an Agatha Christie whodunit and this film hits most of those beats. It’s a relatively faithful adaptation of the source material. Here is Poirot as he interrogates each suspect. They all deny they could have carried out the crime because why would they have killed her? Greed.  Jealousy. Hatred. Desire. Fear. Everyone has a motive. In the final reveal, the killer confesses all in a shock twist that rates as one of Christie’s most surprising.

Filmed in Pinewood Studios and on location in Egypt, Death on the Nile was directed by John Guillerman who was also behind the camera for the terrifying The Towering Inferno. Here, he has assembled an impressive cast including Bette Davis, David Niven, Angela Lansbury, Mia Farrow, Jane Birkin and George Kennedy. Where else would you see Bette Davis verbally spar with Maggie Smith as Mrs Van Schuyler and her nurse Miss Bowers respectively? Or Angela Lansbury lead David Niven around a dance floor for an excruciatingly awkward tango? Both moments are very funny. The quality of the cast is one of the joys of this film.


However, this isn’t a serious adaptation. The 1970s was a period when Poirot tended to be played as a parody of himself. Here, he wears a hair net on his head and round his mustache. Ustinov’s performance leans into absurdity. His Poirot emerges from behind a bar after a fateful row. The detective is bumbling and vain. The Belgian knows he is the best at what he does; his arrogance may be unattractive, but it isn’t unwarranted.

Ustinov would go on to play Poirot six times in total and it is one of the roles he’s most associated with. Yet, his performance never really captures Poirot. David Suchet’s defining turn as the detective catches the detective’s exactness and his sense of order in over 70 films including Death on the Nile in 2004.

The Belgian detective is set to travel back to Egypt in 2019 as Kenneth Branagh is due to reprise his take on Poirot in a sequel to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. That’s not all, Poirot fans. John Malkovich will also play the detective in a three part adaptation of The ABC Murders, for BBC One and Amazon Studios expected to launch later this year.

It seems audiences can’t get enough of Agatha Christie’s creations. No wonder these detectives get no rest. We won’t let them.

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