Anchor Bay // 1978 // 140 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // May 10th, 2001
This place is beginning to resemble a mortuary!
Peter Ustinov (Spartacus, Quo Vadis?, Topkapi) makes his first appearance as the famous Hercule Poirot in this adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel.
A cruise down the mysterious, exotic Nile. It is the perfect way for a wealthy British heiress of the 1930s to spend her honeymoon -- until she turns up dead, that is. Coincidentally (but not surprisingly) almost everyone on the steamer Karnak has a potential motive for killing Linnet Doyle (Lois Chiles -- Moonraker, Broadcast News). Fortunately, one of the passengers on the voyage is the inimitable Hercule Poirot, the idiosyncratic Belgian master sleuth. With a little help from his friend Colonel Race (David Niven -- The Guns of Navarone, The Pink Panther, Murder by Death), Poirot sifts through the evidence, motives, and conflicting alibis in a race to finger the killer before the Karnak reaches its final destination.
Death on the Nile is a classic whodunnit in every sense. It follows the conventions of the genre like they were handed down from Mount Sinai. Naturally there is a murder, a group of suspects conveniently contained in a confined space, and a brilliant detective to put all the pieces together. Along the way we discover tantalizing clues that may or may not point to the truth. These clues are doled out slowly, often in half-overheard conversations or in a furtive glance or gesture. Death on the Nile benefits from a romantic, exotic locale to work with; the Nile, along with the famous Egyptian pyramids and other monuments, makes for a far more interesting backdrop than even the most lavish English manor house.
Into this scenario is placed Ustinov's Poirot. Ustinov plays Poirot with a whimsical humor, a lightness that belies the detective's razor-sharp intellect. He makes great use of the sly, subversive sense of humor that served him so well in Spartacus.
Poirot is assisted by Niven's Colonel Race. Race and Poirot have some of the best scenes in the movie together as they needle each other with their witty banter. The relationship between the two characters must have its roots in the longstanding friendship between Ustinov and Niven, a friendship that dates back to WWII, where Ustinov served as Lieutenant Niven's "batman" or valet. Niven also gets to do just a bit of swashbuckling in one of the most exciting scenes in the movie.
The rest of the supporting cast is a delight to watch as well. Although they are too many to mention everyone individually, there are a few that really stand out. Particularly amusing were Bette Davis (Dangerous, Jezebel, All About Eve) and Maggie Smith (Clash of the Titans, A Room With a View, California Suite) as the wealthy, acid-tongued Mrs. Van Schuyler and her cantankerous nurse, Miss Bowers. Angela Lansbury (Gaslight, "Murder, She Wrote") was a riot as Salome Otterbourne, a lusty, tippling writer of lurid romance novels. Jack Warden (While You Were Sleeping, 12 Angry Men) does quite well with a German accent as Dr. Ludwig Bessner, a doctor of questionable skills and methods. Finally, Mia Farrow (The Great Gatsby, Hannah and Her Sisters) is impressive as Jackie, the rejected former lover of Linnet's husband.
Death on the Nile was directed by John Guillermin (The Towering Inferno, King Kong, Shaft in Africa). Guillermin's direction is competent but unimaginative. However, the Director of Photography on this film was the legendary Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The African Queen), and the results are naturally incredible. Cardiff manages to make even the most ordinary shot look great, and when he has material like the pyramids and ancient temples of Egypt to work with his artistry really shines.
Anchor Bay's DVD release of Death on the Nile comes to us in an anamorphic transfer in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is very good and clear overall, with few noticeable defects except some grain and fading of colors due to age. The image seemed to be just a bit soft a lot of the time, so much so that it almost seems the movie was shot that way, in slightly soft focus. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital Mono and is better than one would expect from this format. The sound is clear and bright, and the all-important dialogue is easily understood. There is no hiss or other distortion that I could detect.
There is a fair amount of extra content on this DVD. The first is a 24 minute featurette about the making of Death on the Nile. It is interesting in that it dates back to the original release of the film in 1978. The usual interviews with the actors are featured, as well as a lengthy discussion of the work that went into recreating a vintage luxury steamer for the production. Next up on the disc are two interviews evidently recorded for Spanish television. The first one runs for about nine minutes and features Ustinov, whose mastery of Spanish is imperfect at best. This interview is available with or without English subtitles, although it should be noted that the subtitles are not a totally accurate translation of some of the interview. The second features Jane Birkin and runs for only four minutes; in her interview the questions are for the most part asked in Spanish and her answers come in English. Rounding out the extra features are fourteen very nicely done cast bios, and a theatrical trailer.
I have very few complaints with this movie or this DVD. The biggest hurdle for most viewers will be the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept the story's basic premise, that Linnet and her new husband could travel thousands of miles for a vacation and be surrounded exclusively by people whom she knows and who hold grudges against her. Once one gets past that hang-up, the movie becomes enjoyable, although it is a bit light and perhaps overly conventional. The actors involved clearly had a lot of fun with their parts, and occasionally do go a bit over the top, but it mostly works as part of the charm of the movie.
Anchor Bay has done a good job with this DVD, but there remains the old, familiar complaint: no English subtitles. Come on, Anchor Bay, there's nothing to be afraid of; using them on the Peter Ustinov interview was a good beginning, now start putting them on your features and everyone will be happy.
Death on the Nile is a clever, interesting murder mystery in classic Agatha Christie style. It's a bit light at times, but it is pretty good entertainment and an enjoyable movie. If you like mysteries with colorful, eccentric characters in exotic locales, then you should certainly check it out -- you won't be disappointed. I would recommend this disc for a rental, because once the mystery has been revealed once there won't be much reason for you to watch it again.
The movie and all involved are acquitted, except for...well, I'm not going to tell you, or Mr. Poirot will be out of a job. Anchor Bay is acquitted yet again, but their serial omission of subtitles is trying the patience of this court and will not go unpunished forever.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Theatrical Trailer
* Cast Bios
* Interview with Peter Ustinov
* Interview with Jane Birkin