Death on the Nile (1978)

Following the success of the all-star murder mystery Murder on the Orient Express (1974), that film's producers, John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin, followed up with another lavish Agatha Christie adaptation, 1978's Death on the Nile.

As with Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile assembles a group of mostly wealthy travellers taking part in an exotic journey, in this case a steam boat trip along the River Nile in Egypt in the 1930s. Among the passengers on board are a honeymooning couple, wealthy American heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) and her new English husband Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale), as well as the latter's jealous ex-fiancée Jacqueline (Mia Farrow), who appears to be stalking them wherever they go.

The cast of Death on the Nile (1978)
The cast of Death on the Nile

Linnet is later murdered while on board the boat, shot at close range with a pistol. Unfortunately for the murderer, the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov), is also on board. When he investigates, with the aid of an old associate, Colonel Race (David Niven), he finds that Linnet had a talent for making enemies. As a result, there are a range of possible suspects among the passengers, all with a motive for murdering her.

These include an eccentric novelist, Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury), who was being sued by Linnet for defamation; Otterbourne's protective daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey); Linnet's crooked lawyer Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy), whose embezzlement of her finances is in danger of discovery; Dr Bessner (Jack Warden) whose clinic's reputation she was endangering; Jim Ferguson (Jon Finch), a socialist aggrieved by Linnet's massive unearned wealth; Linnet's maid Louise (Jane Birkin) who had been denied the money she needed for a dowry; and a wealthy widow Mrs Van Schuyler (Bette Davis) who covets Linnet's pearls, as well as Van Schuyler's reluctant companion, Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith), who has been reduced to the role of servant after Linnet's family caused her father's ruin.

Murder on the Orient Express had been a considerable and unexpected critical and popular success when it was released in 1974, not only proving to be a big box office draw, but also being nominated for and winning various awards. These included six Academy Award and ten BAFTA award nominations. Spurred on by this success, the producers decided to try their luck again and repeat the formula in a follow up film. 

They received backing from EMI Films, the film production arm of the British conglomerate EMI. EMI had also released Murder on the Orient Express, and the company was a significant player in the film industry for a brief period at the end of the 1970s, also producing Best Picture Oscar winner The Deer Hunter in 1978, and investing in The Deep (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Mia Farrow, Simon MacCorkindale and Lois Chiles in Death on the Nile
Jacqueline (Mia Farrow) introduces her fiance Simon (Simon MacCorkindale)
to Linnet (Lois Chiles). What could possibly go wrong?

Based on Agatha Christie's 1937 novel, Death on the Nile is obviously designed along the same lines as Murder on the Orient Express. Hercule Poirot becomes involved in a murder mystery in a confined setting (a boat instead of a train this time) in a reasonably exotic location. He is provided with a range of suspects represented by a starry cast, and the film is impeccably made, with the accent on expensive production values and detailed period costumes and settings.

Albert Finney was sought to play the role of Poirot for a second time but declined, and so Peter Ustinov was cast in the role instead. Ustinov's interpretation is less extravagant than Finney's. His portrayal of Poirot makes him a more subdued, mildly less absurd, and slightly more sympathetic figure than the character we saw in the previous film. Ustinov isn't really Christie's Poirot, nor does he attempt to emulate the Finney version. But he brings his own understated sensibility to the role, and his portrayal works well enough within the context of the film.

In terms of all-star casts, Murder on the Orient Express has the edge on Death on the Nile, with the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery on board for the first film. The famously punitive tax regime in Britain in the late 1970s had made it more difficult to attract star names to work in British films. Many British actors and directors decamped to the US or Switzerland, or suddenly realised they had always had a deep affinity for Ireland, now that its tax system was so generous to creatives. Attracting American stars became difficult for the same reason.

Death on the Nile can boast a couple of old school screen legends in David Niven and Bette Davis, but its cast, appealing though it is, is mostly made up of well known names rather than big stars, combined with a few up-and-coming young actors of the 1970s. The younger actors include Jane Birkin, Simon MacCorkindale, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch and future Bond girl Lois Chiles.

The supporting performances are more variable than those in Murder on the Orient Express and the actors are not always best served by the script. Bette Davis has a tendency to ham, but it's nothing compared to the flamboyant performance from Angela Lansbury as an extravagant and frequently tipsy romantic novelist. Lois Chiles is only adequate as the reviled heiress, and George Kennedy seems uncomfortable in his role as her American lawyer. Jack Warden, meanwhile, goes for broke as the eccentric quack doctor (“I only prescribed her an injection of armadillo's urine!”) and doesn't hold back wiz ze phoney German accent. The Indian character actor I. S. Johar also overplays as the ship's manager, in a performance that verges on an embarrassing caricature.

Angela Lansbury as Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile
Angela Lansbury as Salome Otterbourne

Despite coming from the same producers as Murder on the Orient Express, much of the key crew on Death on the Nile were new to the series, including the director John Guillermin, cameraman Jack Cardiff, designer Peter Murton, editor Malcolm Cooke and composer Nino Rota.

John Guillermin was more of a journeyman director than his predecessor, Sidney Lumet. Seen as a safe pair of hands for big budget productions, Guillermin's 1960s and '70s output included the WWI action drama The Blue Max (1966), disaster movie The Towering Inferno (1974) and Dino de Laurentiis's remake of King Kong (1976). 

Guillermin's direction is very competent, but less visually distinctive than Lumet's on Murder on the Orient Express, and he seems to have less control of his supporting actors. But then Lumet allowed Albert Finney to ham outrageously, so perhaps the score is even. If Death on the Nile does have an auteur, then it's probably not John Guillermin but the film's producers, John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin.

The film's screenwriter was Anthony Shaffer, the author of the film and play Sleuth, as well as the screenplays for Frenzy (1972) and The Wicker Man (1973). Shaffer had some uncredited input into the script of Murder on the Orient Express, and he would be used again by Brabourne and Goodwin for their next Poirot adaptation, Evil Under the Sun (1982).

The plotting and structure of Death on the Nile are quite predictable, right down to the pivotal scene when Poirot gathers all the suspects together to reveal the identity of the murderer. But this is all part of the ritual, and the predictability is in some ways a necessary part of these films' appeal as a form of comfort viewing.

Peter Ustinov and David Niven in Death on the Nile
Poirot (Peter Ustinov) and Colonel Race (David Niven)

As with other films in this genre, the details of the murder are unlikely and require a fair degree of luck and excellent timing by the culprit. The film also starts to implausibly pile up the bodies in its later stages. However, the mystery is a bit more elaborate than the one in Murder on the Orient Express, and I don't think the solution is that easily guessable, unless you're a devoted mystery reader.

You do have to wonder, though, why the murderers carry out their crimes when such a famous detective is on board. There was at least a plausible explanation for this in Murder on the Orient Express, but it would clearly be wiser for the murderer just to wait until Poirot was no longer around before bumping off the victim. And given that the killing takes place on a boat, it would surely also be easier just to stage an accident in which the victim fell overboard in the night. But then there wouldn't be much of a mystery to solve, and no film either.

As with Murder on the Orient Express, the period sets, costumes and decor are an important part of the appeal, and these are well up to the standard of the first film. Also notable is the music, with Nino Rota contributing a memorably ominous and dramatic score. His grand main title theme not only suggests the majesty of the Nile and the ancient Egyptian sites the characters visit, but also hints at the undercurrent of danger and murder to come.

The film's technical standards are high and it makes excellent use of its Egyptian locations. These grand vistas give the film quite a different atmosphere to Murder on the Orient Express, with its more enclosed and claustrophobic settings. Death on the Nile was photographed by legendary cameraman Jack Cardiff, and I generally prefer Cardiff's crisp Technicolor photography to Geoffrey Unsworth's diffused soft-focus look used in Murder on the Orient Express. Death on the Nile's Egyptian locations include the Pyramids at Ghiza, Abu Simbel and the Temple of Karnak at Luxor.

Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot at the Pyramids
Poirot taking in the sights of Egypt

The film's release was well timed, as it coincided with the blockbuster Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition. The exhibition appeared in Britain and the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, before touring several American cities from 1976 to 1979. It helped to generate enormous interest in ancient Egypt and Egyptology, previously regarded as quite a specialised field, and mostly only seen in movies about murderous mummies. The renewed fascination with ancient Egypt was reflected in other contemporary films, including The Curse of King Tut's Tomb (1979), Sphinx (1980), The Awakening (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), as well as the James Bond opus The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), the latter showcasing many of the same locations as Death on the Nile.

Although not showered with Oscar nominations as its predecessor was, Death on the Nile did win Best Costume Design for Anthony Powell, his second of three (together with Travels with My Aunt and Tess) in the decade. Powell also won the BAFTA Award for best costumes, and the film was nominated for BAFTAs for Peter Ustinov as Best Actor, and for Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury, both as Best Supporting Actress.

Death on the Nile was another substantial hit for the Brabourne-Goodwin team, although receipts were noticeably lower than those of Murder on the Orient Express. The fortunes of their Agatha Christie adaptations declined with The Mirror Crack'd (1980), a detour into the world of Christie's Miss Marple, with Angela Lansbury as the elderly female sleuth, and one more Poirot film, Evil Under the Sun (1982). 

The latter film saw Peter Ustinov return as the Belgian detective and re-used some of the cast from Death on the Nile (Maggie Smith and Jane Birkin) and Murder on the Orient Express (Denis Quilley and Colin Blakely) all four playing different characters. Those two films lacked the epic scope of Murder on the Orient Express and especially Death on the Nile, and evidently held less appeal for contemporary audiences. Dwindling returns meant that the series ended after four films.

Bette Davis and Maggie Smith
Mrs Van Schuyler (Bette Davis) and her quarrelsome companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith)

Another Poirot film with Peter Ustinov, Appointment with Death, was made by Michael Winner, improbably enough, for Cannon in 1988, but was a considerable box office flop. By that time the concept probably really did seem too old-fashioned and it didn't help that Ustinov had become a fixture as Poirot on television as well, playing him in three 1980s TV films, Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man's Folly and Murder in Three Acts.

Death on the Nile is generally up to the standard set by its predecessor, Murder on the Orient Express. Which of the two you favour is probably a matter of personal taste more than anything else. Murder on the Orient Express may be a slightly better film, but Death on the Nile has a more elaborate mystery, a more sympathetic Poirot and is made on a noticeably grander scale.

These two films can be seen as the slightly more upmarket alternative to the all-star disaster movies popular in the 1970s. Instead of a cast of old-timers trapped in a burning building or on a plummeting airliner, we have them assembled in a finely appointed room while Hercule Poirot explains how a murder was committed. And instead of special effects and pyrotechnics, we get Bette Davis and Maggie Smith exchanging withering looks and put-downs.

Both Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express are pretty entertaining films, with strong casts and excellent production values. Neither film has really dated very much, mainly because they were never very fashionable to begin with. And that, I think, is probably part of their appeal.

Death on the Nile
Year: 1978
Genre: Murder Mystery / Period Drama
Country: UK
Director: John Guillermin

Cast  Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Jane Birkin (Louise Bourget), Lois Chiles (Linnet Ridgeway), Bette Davis (Mrs Van Schuyler), Mia Farrow (Jacqueline De Bellefort), Simon MacCorkindale (Simon Doyle), George Kennedy (Andrew Pennington), Angela Lansbury (Salome Otterbourne), David Niven (Colonel Race), Maggie Smith (Miss Bowers), Jack Warden (Doctor Bessner), Olivia Hussey (Rosalie Otterbourne), Jon Finch (Jim Ferguson), I.S. Johar (Manager of the Karnak), Harry Andrews (Barnstaple), Sam Wanamaker (Rockford)

Screenplay Anthony Shaffer, based on the novel by Agatha Christie  Producers John Brabourne, Richard Goodwin  Cinematography Jack Cardiff  Production designer Peter Murton  Editor Malcolm Cooke  Music Nino Rota  Costume designer Anthony Powell  Art Directors Terry Ackland-Snow, Brian Ackland-Snow

Running time 140 mins  Colour Technicolor  

Production company Mersham Films  Distributors EMI Film Distributors (UK), Paramount Pictures (US)

See also:

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Evil Under the Sun (1982)


  1. It's a really fun movie. Not as stylish as Orient Express, and Ustinov isn't nearly as interesting as Finney, but a fun whodunit nevertheless. Love the Bette Davis-Maggie Smith scenes (they deserved their own movie!), and Nino Rota's score is fantastic. P.S. Thanks for solving a mystery for me ... I never understood why there were so many movies about Egypt and mummies in late '70s & early '80s! ;)

    1. You're welcome!

      It is a fun film, and I think a bit underrated compared to Orient Express. I love the Nino Rota music as well, even more than Richard Rodney Bennett's for Orient Express (which is pretty great too, although very different).

  2. I love this movie too and actually like it better than Murder on the Orient Express, mainly because I think Death on the Nile is the better book. I agree about the Bette Davis-Maggie Smith scenes, pure brilliance. Plus Lansbury.

    I like Ustinov better than Finney as Poirot though David Suchet is the best one. Has anybody seen the Suchet version of Death on the Nile? It's actually very good though obviously the budget is smaller. Emily Blunt in the Lois Chiles role is very good and the actress who plays Jacquline is actually better than Mia Farrow, but I admit I'm prejudiced as I sincerely dislike Farrow.
    Margot (I can't sign in)

    1. The received wisdom is that Orient Express is the better film, but I've seen a lot of people online who favour this one, for whatever reason.

      I prefer Ustinov's Poirot as well. I haven't seen the David Suchet version of this, although I've seen some of the other episodes, and he does seem to be much more like the character that Christie had in mind.

  3. You make an excellent case for Death on the Nile. I've never thought of it as being in the same league as Orient Express, but I can see the points you make and they're well taken. For me, it probably comes down to Sidney Lumet, a generally superior cast (Finney's wild hamming does take a moment to get used to), and its dark, elegant stylishness. I also think the plot is more interesting with the twist that comes in the resolution of the murder - it was not the work of one man or woman, but a train full (among them the exquisite Wendy Hiller as the Russian dowager, Princess Dragomiroff). A better made film all around. As for Poirot, David Suchet owns that role. No comment on Kenneth Branagh's recent remake.

    1. I always feel the resolution to Orient Express is a bit of a let down, but maybe it's more effective than I give it credit for. It does at least explain why so many people with reason to hate the victim are all in the same place at the same time, something that seems too much like a coincidence in Death on the Nile.

      I have to agree on David Suchet. Much as I enjoy seeing Ustinov in this role, I don't think he's really what Christie had in mind, and the part fits Suchet much better than it did Finney.


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