In honour of the newly (and finally) released movie, I thought I’d offer a special double-length set of mini-reviews, dealing with ten incarnations of the classic murder mystery. Others exist but one has to draw the line somewhere!
Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie. An iconic mystery novel for a reason, but not a perfect one, Death on the Nile is a passionate and ingenious tale of love, fame, and the end of opulence. Set aboard a Nile steamer, it concerns a wealthy socialite, famous purely for being beautiful and inheriting her father’s new money, murdered on her honeymoon. The prime suspect Jacqueline de Bellefort, the excellently-drawn ex-best-friend whose fiancée the late Linnet Ridgeway married. But Jacqueline has a very dramatic alibi: she was sedated and monitored after shooting someone else. Hercule Poirot, enjoying ‘the little vacation,’ learns that a holiday is never a holiday and gets to grips with the lengthy list of suspects, all of whom have something to hide. It is escapism at its best, even if some of the logic doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I’d recommend checking out the relevant episode of the All About Agatha podcast for a breakdown of the plot holes – because, honestly, I never notice them when I’m reading this book: I just enjoy it too much. An unusual feature of Death on the Nile is that every single character – from the great Christie ‘types’ like the snobbish Miss Van Schuyler to the very minor players who never appear in the films like Mr Fanthorpe – is brilliantly and engagingly depicted. You feel like you’ve met them all. And I can’t go without mentioning Mrs. Otterbourne, the tragic bestselling author of slushy romances whose books no one reads and who insists that she’s being censored. She is rather relevant in this day and age. I believe that she is a comic self-portrait; not of Christie as she became but of Christie as she might have become had she kept writing in her original derivative genre. Thank goodness she turned to crime.
Murder on the Nile (1944) by Agatha Christie. Christie’s stage adaptation famously replaces Hercule Poirot with a new character, the worldly Canon Pennyfather (is this the same Canon Pennyfather who will go on to play an unwitting role in the odd goings on At Bertram’s Hotel? Probably not, but it’s fun to imagine). Although the author claimed that Poirot as a character was too bombastic for the stage, it’s highly likely that she didn’t like certain actors claiming ownership of the role and therefore of her creation. Francis L. Sullivan, who had played Poirot a couple of times, starred in the first production of Murder on the Nile. The action takes place on the deck of the Lotus (the Karnak in the novel) and the heavily reduced cast of characters contains amalgamations of those in the book. Ultimately, although Christie recognized correctly the dramatic potential of her own work, I’m not sure this is quite the exploitation of that potential that it could be. For a Christie play, the dialogue is surprisingly flat and unfortunately one or two moments have not aged at all well.
‘Hercule Poirot: Rendezvous with Death’ (1945), Mutual Radio Broadcasting. Starring Harold Huber, the Hercule Poirot radio series is typical of the craze for such shows on the American radio waves in the 1940s. Only a handful of episodes survive, as far as we know, and ‘Rendezvous with Death’ is a real curio because it’s the only one we have directly based on a published text – although several of the lost ones were. The scriptwriter does a very good job condensing one key element of Christie’s complex plot into less than half an hour. It was first broadcast on 12th July 1945 and exploits the novel’s drama for its own purposes admirably. There really are so few characters that it’s easy to spot the murderer, so it’s maybe more of a howdunit than a whodunit. But it works. Compared to the lamentably rushed 30-minute episode of Suspense! based on The ABC Murders, it comes out easily on top.
Death on the Nile (1978), directed by John Guillermin. Peter Ustinov's first and best outing as the eccentric Belgian detective, with a super-starry supporting cast. The scenery is beautiful, Ustinov is entertaining, with his own spin on the character, and the other players have delicious fun hamming up their roles. I feel like a whole generation of homosexuals needs to be told about this film, in which Angela Lansbury plays a drunk and Bette Davis and Maggie Smith have a waspish double act. [Review originally appeared in ‘Mini reviews #9’ in November 2017]
Death on the Nile (1996) by Paul Lamond Games. There are a fair few Agatha Christie jigsaws around, with the following format: read a booklet containing a heavily condensed version of the story, up to the point of ‘whodunit’, assemble a jigsaw containing a visual clue, then check you’ve got the answer right by reading the solution in either a sealed envelope or mirror writing at the back of the booklet. Death on the Nile was one of the first. What is interesting is that, inevitably, the puzzle is reduced to just a couple of scenes and there aren’t really many characters or possibilities – although in my edition (the first, from the 1990s), you’re given a deluxe list of suspects and motives from the novel, most of which don’t appear in the booklet at all! As always, the jigsaw aspect is enjoyable; anyone who knows the story fairly well can guess what the visual clue will be, especially when it becomes clear that the image centres on the victim’s cabin.
Death on the Nile (1997), BBC Radio 4
. Michael Bakewell’s five-part dramatization is the most faithful to the novel’s intricacies and also – perhaps surprisingly – the best paced. Its episodic nature means there’s always something interesting happening. John Moffatt plays Poirot true to excellent form, and Enyd Williams directs with customary pleasant lightness. There is a definite mix of acting styles here, from the highly accomplished Donald Sinden and Rosemary Leach, to the enjoyable work of the standard Radio 4 players, to one very questionable performance. The only real cock-up is when Linnet Doyle, who has been speaking with an English accent, is referred to as ‘the American lady’. But, overall, a hugely enjoyable adaptation, as we expect in this fabulous series of BBC radio dramas.
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Death on the Nile (2004), directed by Andy Wilson. I remember the day this was broadcast on ITV – 12thApril 2004. I was fourteen and very, very, very excited. I was a little disappointed, although I’ve grown to like it more over time. Kevin Elyot’s take on the novel is consciously trying to be different to and darker than the 1978 film, but I’m not convinced that anything really underscores that darkness. It does make the most of the Shakespearean heights of passion, and the futility of love in the story and the direction is really superb. A pre-Hollywood Emily Blunt pops up as the doomed Linnet, and there is sufficient scene stealing from Frances de la Tour. But ultimately the pacing is a problem, with a great deal of action and plot crammed into the last 20 minutes.
Agatha Christie: Death on the Nile (2008) by Dreamcatcher. An ‘i-spy’ hidden object game, of the typical format: cheaply made scenes where you click on prescribed items and clues among a lot of clutter. The story unfolds passively. It’s perfectly diverting, exactly like any other game of this kind. There are a few Christies in this series, including 4.50 from Paddington, Peril at End House, and Dead Man’s Folly.
Mystery Match Village X Death on the Nile (2021) by Outplay Entertainment. Mystery Match is one of those ubiquitous mobile phone games where you play Candy Crush-style levels between rounds of a hidden-object crime story. By some coup, the developers were able to get permission from Agatha Christie Limited to include a Death on the Nile themed ‘special event’ – that is, a game within the game where you do the same thing on a more basic level (it essentially co-opts their seasonal ‘awards scheme’ where you play special rounds that encourage you to buy virtual bling with real money). Remarkably, they have endeavoured to tell the whole story of Death on the Nile – although their source is clearly the 2004 screen adaptation, not the novel – and the result is perfectly playable but a bit … weird. It really is evidence that Agatha Christie’s genius lay far beyond plotting: while the plot is intact, the characters and dialogue are frankly nauseating. It all feels cheap and silly and like one of 30-episodes-per-week daytime TV mysteries.
Death on the Nile (2022), directed by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is back in what I suspect will be his last brush with Poirot. I’d like there to be more. But this film has been especially beleaguered, not just by the COVID-19 pandemic but also by some very problematic cast members. However, it’s out now and doing moderately well. I really enjoyed this film, and preferred it to Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. Unlike in that offering, the starry cast gets fair screen time. While Branagh still takes up more screen time than he would if he wasn’t the director (surely young Poirot in flashbacks should have been played by a younger actor?), he doesn’t hog his scenes. It helps that the first hour is spelt ratchetting up the drama before the first inevitable murder. That is of course a feature of the book, too, which has led to criticism over pacing. However, this film doesn’t fall into the trap that both the 1978 and the 2004 versions did: the pace feels beautifully controlled, and the third murder, which feels superfluous in the older films, makes sense here. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have made several changes to the book and this is a much lusher, sexier version of the story. As in the stage version, several characters have been amalgamated and some have been completely rewritten, this time to make it more diverse and glamorous – which I think is a very good thing for a big screen film in 2022. It is not something Agatha Christie would have written. But I think it works. And the audience when I dragged my poor spouse to see it was generally younger than us, which was a first. They came for the stars, and clearly enjoyed it.