‘Death on The Nile’ or — White Mischief?

Kent — 1978 and I, only 8 years old, was sitting in a cinema waiting for ‘Death on The Nile’ (1978) to start and I was nervous. It was my friend from primary school’s birthday so his mum had taken a group of his little friends to the movies with him to see ‘The Cat From Outer Space’ (1978). The only problem was ‘The Cat From Outer Space’ had sold out so, in those days of often just two screens to a cinema, we had to settle for the only other available option — ‘Death on The Nile’. None of us kids seemed that happy or excited by this prospect but his mum was in charge and assured us it would be fun. Besides, what else were we going to do?

I was especially worried as this was going to be the first time I had ever seen an “adult” movie (i.e. one that didn’t involve James Bond, robots or talking animals) in my short life and I was concerned I would find it either -

1. Boring.

or

2. My infant brain wouldn’t be able to understand what all the adults were doing.

Turns out I loved it! Wow, it had twists and turns and a love story, but a really interesting love story with murders and deaths and not much kissing, and, best of all, I understood it! Walking out the cinema afterwards I felt like a tiny, little detective myself. If this is what “adult” movies were like then I wanted to see more.

I’ve never re-watched the film since then although the plot, characters and Poirot’s final deduction always stayed with me. So how would it hold up re-visiting it last night?

‘Death on The Nile’ has a star-studded cast which includes some of the biggest names in the world at the time plus Simon MacCorkindale. It’s typical Agatha Christie where we follow the shallow upper classes brutally killing themselves so we can bathe in the residue of their of their homicidal posh-lust. This time they are all conveniently contained on a paddle-steamer on a cruise down the Nile when one of the passengers is murdered.

Unfortunately the two prime suspects are automatically ruled out and whilst every other passenger had a reason to carry out the murder themselves nothing can be proved. Fortunately world famous detective Hercule Poirot is on-board to sort out all these homicidal toffs.

You know what, ‘Death on The Nile’ holds up not too badly. It’s not exactly pulse-racing stuff, often happy to simply meander along with the flow of the river itself, the killings often another tourist attraction to admire or nod at as the steamer paddles along, but the crime itself is pretty craftily thought out.

Sure, it gets a tad repetitive in the second hour watching Poirot describe the different ways various famous people could’ve shot Lois Chiles in the head and there were a few moments that got me thinking “But wouldn’t such-and-such have left a bigger stain?” or “Why weren’t we told that piece of information before?” but it’s all in the service of keeping the mystery and on that level it works.

Yet it’s the acting that’s the real pleasure here, specifically from the lead females who tend to have the juicier parts: Bette Davis is great as a pearl-lusting socialite with Maggie Smith almost outshining her as her bitter, resentful and sexually androgynous nurse; Angela Lansbury is a total delight as the appropriately named Salome, an older woman whose appetite for sex and drink has not dimmed in the slightest. Mia Farrow provides some youthful energy as the flighty Jacqueline de Bellefort although Olivia Hussey and Jane Birkin do feel somewhat pushed to the sidelines.

As for the guys? Peter Ustinov is suitably avuncular and with just the right amount of preening ego as Poirot whilst David Niven is fun to watch because he’s, basically, being himself. Simon MacCorkindale does not too badly and American actor Jack Warden delivers a highly believable performance as a German doctor doing a highly believable performance of American actor Jack Warden.

The cinematography by Jack Cardiff is frequently gorgeous, Nino Rota provides a romantic score and John Guillermin’s directing style (which I can often find uninspired and lackluster) doesn’t get in the way too much, although the film is too long and could’ve done with a stronger hand at the helm to really pull it all tightly together.

So yeah, ‘Death on the Nile’ was fun to revisit, if only for those flashes of recognition of images from over forty years ago. And, oddly enough, it was also over forty years until finally I got to see ‘The Cat From Outer Space’ which is a fun film although I’m glad it was sold out that night. Little 8 year old me was, too, afterwards.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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