Death on the Nile

Although I will regularly cite The Empire Strikes Back as the first film I actively remember seeing at the cinema, back in 1980, to the degree that I can even remember the exterior and interior of the cinema itself, Death on the Nile hangs around as something I might have seen even before that.

Released two years earlier, in 1978, Death on the Nile is a film I have strong memories of in relation to a family holiday, possibly to somewhere like Port Macquarie. I vividly remember looking at its lobby cards with my mother. The year might not have even been 1978 as I note the US and UK releases of the film were in late 1978 and, in those days, it wasn’t uncommon for films to take quite some time to be released in Australia. This would potentially push it into 1979, closer to my fourth birthday. I also can’t rule out the way provincial towns seemed to show ‘old’ movies at their picture houses back in those days, too. The short version of this story being, I have memories of the film, but whether they fell before my 1980 Star Wars experience, or whether they fell after, I have no way of knowing.

In recent years I’ve noticed Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot making a big screen comeback with Murder on the Orient Express and, with a new version of Death on the Nile forthcoming in the same series, I thought it might be time to watch the original version of a film I don’t recall seeing since those hazy memories of being four or five years old. Delightfully, the film – and many like it – is part of a ‘classics remastered’ series of DVDs and Blu-Rays with nicely cleaned up picture and sound, selling for an absolute pittance. I think my disc was something like $6. You can barely buy a sandwich for that.

I had some sense of the film featuring a proverbial ‘star studded cast’ but looking at the DVD case I was stunned at this film’s roster: Peter Ustinov, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Mia Farrow, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Simon MacCorkindale, Jane Birkin, Olivia Hussey, Lois Chiles, and more.

It’s an extraordinary cast to assemble, from genuine old school Hollywood like Davis, through to a – at the time – newcomer like MacCorkindale. And perhaps the inspiration for the modern Poirot films to have similar casts, drawn from generations of today’s actors who wouldn’t often feature together.

Of course, the cast has to be balanced against what seems to have been a modest budget, not to mention shot using 1978 film making techniques. While some scenes are shot on location in Egypt, an awful lot of the film is shot on interior sets and the quirky, contemporary ‘making of’ film as an extra on the DVD shows that even some scenes featuring the film’s central location – a paddle steamer on the Nile – were actually shot in a 1:1 replica on a soundstage in the UK, filled with water. Quite an extraordinary achievement when you look at it like that. But my overall point being, this feels like an ‘older’ film. Indeed, at times it doesn’t even feel like something shot for cinema release. Strip away a few impressive Egypt shots, and the film feels more like a telemovie made in the mid to late 80s.

Don’t let that observation put you off the film, however, as there’s plenty in here to enjoy. From Bette Davis being fantastically horrible to her maid played by Maggie Smith, to Angela Lansbury portraying a crazy novelist who seems drunk the whole time, to Peter Ustinov having a lot of fun with his Poirot accent while David Niven seems bemused, but jolly happy, to be involved… the film just zings along, hitting all the right beats, and ending in the time honoured tradition of Poirot assembling what remains of the cast at the end to announce ‘whodunnit’. It’s formulaic, sure, but still quite fun.

Naturally I don’t want to say too much about the plot, for fear of spoilers. These really are a kind of film (or book, if you’re doing it old school), that you don’t want to know much about before you go in. That said, I pretty much sussed this murder out right away. Not so much how it was done – that was ingenious when explained – but I’d certainly figured out who, well before it was revealed by Poirot.

As the credits rolled I was quite happy I spent my $6 and have finally seen – with an adult’s eyes – a film that’s basically as old as any I can remember seeing in my lifetime. Indeed, it filled me with excitement that I’d at the same time I bought it, I’d also bought the film’s sequel, for want of a better word, Evil Under the Sun, and would be able to watch that next. Indeed, it’ll be my next blog here.

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