It always goes like this: I re-watch Death on the Nile, and a week later I re-watch Evil Under the Sun. So why not write a post on the movie?
Four years after Death on the Nile, EMI made another Agatha Christie adaptation, choosing the 1941 novel “Evil Under the Sun”.
The ingredients were basically the same of the previous movie: a stellar cast (with Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin and Maggie Smith returning, even if the ladies were cast in different roles), an exotic location (Mallorca, doubling for an unspecified Adriatic Island), the same screenwriter (Anthony Shaffer) and the same Oscar-winning costume designer. Even the poster concept was similar.
The result is on a par with the previous film: a good adaptation, with a cunning plot and an unexpected finale, with a beautiful look and a great selection of great actors.
The plot in a nutshell: on a small island off the coast of fictional Tyrania, in the Adriatic Sea, former actress Daphne Castle (Smith) manages and owns a luxury hotel. Here the usual group of characters is reunited, to witness the bitching and wild shenanigans of Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg), that ends up dead, and everybody had a good reason to want her dead. But there’s also a missing diamond, a body found on the Yorkshire moors, and a number of red herrings.
But Hercule Poirot is also a guest of miss Castle’s establishment.
In the end, it’s the same old story: select a bunch of eccentric characters, trap them somewhere (a train, a steamboat going along the Nile, a luxury hotel on island), give each one of them a good reason to kill, then off the most insufferable of their number, and let Poirot loose. It’s been working for almost a century, in book, theatre, movie and TV series. You can’t kill a good plot structure.
Ustinov plays Poirot in a light, humorous way, and has a great cast supporting him: James Mason and Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg and Roddy McDowell, Colin Blakely and Jane Birkin, among others.
The original story was set off the coast of England, but here we are in an exotic locale, with a hint of Ruritania – Tyrania is basically Albania with the number plates changed
Once again I saw this movie in a drive in during the summer, back in 1983, and it was there that I was completely fascinated by Cole Porter’s music, which is used extensively on the soundtrack. My love of Cole Porter lasts to this day, and it was fun, much later, noticing that as an in-joke Porter appears in the movie, if just as a signature in the hotel’s register, together with Ivor Novello, Maurice Chevalier, Fred and Adele Astaire, Charlie Chaplin and a mysterious “M.D.” from Berlin (Marlene Dietrich?)
Locations, music and costumes once again are a big plus for the movie. It’s light entertainment, and Christie purists (of which I am not a specimen, being more of a Dorothy L. Sayers guy myself) tend to dismiss Ustinov’s somewhat ridiculous Belgian sleuth, pointing out that Poirot was a more nuanced character.
Others have criticised the looks of the movie, the costumes and make-up that are louder and less coherent, probably, than those in the previous film – but still they work, and if a few items in the ladies’ wardrobe are over the top, they are so coherently with the fashion of the 1930s in which the movie is set.
No, if there’s something off with the movie this is, to me, the fact that all* the characters in the movie are quite unpleasant and somewhat querulous. This did not happen in **Death on the Nile, where even the most cantankerous characters were still amiable. Probably because of this I usually consider this movie inferior for half a point to its predecessor.
But still Evil under the Sun makes for a nice viewing on a lonesome Saturday night, with the sole consolation of a cup of tea and a few jaffa cakes.
And just like Death on the Nile, back when I saw it the first time, the solution of the enigma was quite surprising.