APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH
An Invitation To Murder!
In early May 1987, the press reported that Peter Ustinov would return for a third time as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot in the new film Appointment With Death. The film, being made by the Cannon Group, was going to be directed by Michael Winner and was to be filmed in Israel later that month. Anthony Shaffer and Peter Buckman had written the script.
Appointment With Death was Shaffer's fourth Agatha Christie outing (if we include the uncredited work he did on Murder On The Orient Express) and this was his least favourite. In So What Did You Expect? Shaffer refers to it as 'perfectly dreadful' and film director Michael Winner made every mistake he could by changing the films location from the book (the novel is set in Petra in Jordan not Israel) and also re-writing most of the script. Winner also edited the film himself under his famed pseudonym 'Arnold Crust.' Shaffer had wanted to remove his own name from the credits but was stalled by the cost of $50,000.
Agatha Christie's novel was first published in 1938 and she later adapted it for the stage which received rave reviews when it opened at the Piccadilly Theatre, London in 1945. However, her
As with the previous Agatha Christie films, Appointment With Death was to be cast with major names in the business, though this production didn't quite bring the names quite as high in the stellar world as the other Christie adaption's. There is Peter Ustinov of course and this time he is joined by Piper Laurie, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Jenny Seagrove, Haley Mills, Carrie Fisher and David Soul. Interesting to note that John Gielgud and Lauren Bacall had appeared together in Murder On The Orient Express. John Gielgud later told Shaffer that Appointment With Death had the most leaden script he had ever read, a sentiment Shaffer shared. Winner had wanted Ava Gardner to be cast but serious illness prevented her from doing so. Winner met his partner Jenny Seagrove on this film and they remained together for over six years.
As stated earlier, Winner changed the books location and set his film in Israel, mostly around Jaffa and the Dead Sea. Italy was briefly used as was London which appears early in the film. The production company reported that to recreate Palestine in 1937, Winner and his vast Israeli-British crew used some of the most famous landmarks in the world. The historic Red Sea archaeological site of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, is where the murderer finally strikes. Other locations included some of the famous churches on the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Flagellation, and an area of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Old Square in Jaffa, dominated by a large Italian church, was transformed to represent the Italian port of Trieste. The old port of Haifa was recreated in Jaffa, where the luxury of the old Colonial Hotels at the time of British rule in Palestine is still evident. Winner used the city of Acre more than Jerusalem, which has become somewhat modernised and lost much of the classic architecture that dominated the city during the ‘30s.
Filming wasn't always easy for the cast, not just because of the heat but also Winner's approach to directing. The Peter Ustinov biography 'The Gift Of Laughter' tells how Michael Winner had a reputation for blowing his top and shouting at people. Hayley Mills was astounded when he told Lauren Bacall, 'He was directing the film, not her, and until she was directing it she’d better shut up.' She was just gobsmacked and didn’t retaliate; she could have sent him from there to kingdom come if she’d decided to.”
Hayley Mills observed that this kind of boorish behaviour seemed to have very little impact on Peter, who just let it roll off him, like water off a duck’s back. He disapproved of the director’s strong language but responded with a joke. Filming at night in the Old City, they had the occasional problems with passers-by. When one white-garbed figure wandered into view, wearing a transparent burnous, Michael Winner screamed, “Cut! Fuck you, what are you doing there in that shot?” Peter said, “Do be careful. It’s Jesus.”
“The trouble with filming Agatha Christie,” said Winner, “is that she always has so many people hanging around. There are always ten or twelve principle suspects, often together in the same place. That meant providing all those air-conditioned caravans along with the necessary support vehicles, to say nothing of catering for crowds of 300 to 400 each day.”
At the old port of Jaffa, senior members of the U.S Diplomatic Corps played American tourists as an enormous “dummy” ship, 80 feet high and 200 feet long, floated nearby with passengers strolling down the gangplanks. Winner, who stood nearby, was approached at one point by a group of English tourists. One of them asked the ship’s destination, to which Winner replied, “It doesn’t go anywhere.” The tourist insisted otherwise and asked where he might purchase a ticket. “From that gentleman over there,” answered Winner, pointing to actor David Soul, who was sitting quietly in a deck chair.
Michael Winner later said in his book 'Winner Takes All': "I’d never wanted to shoot in Israel. All the Israelis I’d met seemed guttural and arrogant, even though I greatly enjoyed Menahem and Yoram.” He added: "I’d always been told how hard-working the Israelis were. I found them rather lazy. In England and America we always shoot a full six-day week. In Israel the crew absolutely refused to work past lunchtime on Friday. They worked a five-and-a-half-day week. Saturday was off as it was the Shabbat or Jewish Holy Day. I’d say to them, ‘Fellows, what’s all this nonsense about stopping at lunch time on Friday?’ They’d say, ‘It’s the Shabbat.’ I said, ‘Shabbat starts at sunset. The sun doesn’t set at two o’clock. It sets at seven-thirty.’ They said, ‘Ah yes, but we have to get home to the synagogue.’ I said, ‘None of you go to a synagogue! Furthermore, home is only about forty-five minutes away from almost all of our locations.’ My greatest triumph in crew handling in my life in motion pictures was getting an Israeli crew to work until three-thirty one Friday afternoon. They never forgave me for it. I said in frustration to one of the Israeli crew members, ‘I don’t understand you people. You fought six wars and you’re absolutely dynamic. Yet you need more people to do the job than I need in London or America. And you want to clock off every Friday at two o’clock.’ He replied, ‘Yes, Mr Winner, but you know fighting all these wars has quite exhausted us. We’re very tired now. We need more rest!’
About the cast Winner stated: “All the actors on the film, with the exception of David Soul, who I found a total pain, were very pleasant people. Betty Bacall was famous for being extremely difficult. She certainly wasn’t to me. But she was rough on the crew. Six of her drivers quit and she went through four wardrobe assistants.”
When Peter Ustinov died in March 2004, Winner said: "He was a very dear friend for over 50 years. He was very caring and gave of himself unsparingly. He had this great eccentricity, he could say lines that were very tedious, but he could say them with a wit that made them interesting. A great raconteur of course. He was quite irascible, he was not the cuddly teddy bear he put out.
Appointment With Death was released in the US in April 1988 and in Europe in the August. The critics were not as kind as they had been with the other Agatha Christie adaptions. The Washington Post said: "Even the pretence of going through the motions seems to have been too much for the filmmakers. Providing even the meagre pleasures of vicariously visiting exotic climes is beyond the ability of the director, Michael Winner. He does something here that you'd think was darn near impossible -- he manages to make the Holy Land look dowdy." Variety followed with the same theme: "Director Michael Winner has some fine Israeli locations to play with, but his helming is only lacklustre, the script and characterizations bland, and there simply are not enough murders to sustain the interest of even the most avid Agatha Christie fan."
The New York Times had their own point to make: "The scenery is exotic, the unravelling of the murders most perplexing, and the actors in enthusiastic form. Mr. Ustinov could - and possibly did - phone in his performance, but it barely shows. Miss Fisher somehow manages to suggest a subversive sense of humor even when saying straight lines. Miss Laurie sets a high comic standard early in the film when told that her newly deceased husband changed his mind and left a second will. ''Nonsense!'' says the widow in a voice that would shatter crystal. ''Elmer changed his mind only under my direction.'' You better believe it. "
The films score was handled by Pino Donaggio who is also credited for scoring Carrie, Don’t Look Now, Piranha, The Howling, Raising Cain and The Seed Of Chucky - just a few of his many film & TV credits. The Arabian music was composed by Rafi Kadishzon and the European music was composed and arranged by Frank Barber.
Hercule Poirot.....................Peter Ustinov
Produced By: Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus and Michael Winner
Directed By: Michael Winner
Based on the novel Appointment With Death by Agatha Christie (1938)
Production Company: Cannon Group
We see Emily Boynton at her home hearing the details of her late husband's Will. She is alarmed to hear that her husband made out a second Will two days before he died without her knowledge. In this new Will he has requested that his estate is to be divided equally with her and his children. Emily Boynton a hard, straight talking, woman demands the lawyer to destroy this new Will before her step-children find out.
EMILY: "Elmer knew the children were not fit to take control of their own affairs."
JEFFERSON: "He must have changed his mind."
EMILY: "Elmer changed his mind only under my direction."
Jefferson is reluctant to do this, but Emily tells him she knows about a time when he did a discreditable act in which he was share pushing in another case. She reminds him he would be struck off by the Law Society and sent to prison. He puts the new Will in the fire. Jefferson reads the original Will to the children in which everything is left to Emily and the children receive nothing. Their protests are muted by Emily telling them she is taking them to Europe and the Holy Land for a holiday.
We see Emily Boynton and the children touring the sites of London before moving on to Italy. Here we encounter Dr Sarah King who aids Emily when she collapses. We learn that Emily is on medication for a weak heart. Her step-children talk amongst themselves about their fathers Will knowing that it must have been changed. The family lawyer Jefferson arrives unexpectedly and we find that he is having a secret affair with Nadine Boynton, the wife of Lennox Boynton. We are also introduced to Lady Westholme and Miss Quinton who are there for a sightseeing trip and Lady Westholme is causing a disturbance by accusing her guide of stealing Miss Quinton's cigarette case. Raymond Boynton shows interest in Dr Sarah King. While all this is taking place, we see Poirot relaxing on holiday and he is happy to see Sarah King too.
Emily Boynton and her family are on board a ship heading for Jaffa. Poirot is on the same ship too, as are the others who were sightseeing in Italy. Poirot overhears Lennox and Nadine talking about his step-mother and later overhears Raymond and Carol Boynton talking about their step mother.
RAYMOND: "She fixed the Will. We're trapped. You do see, don't you? She's got to be killed."
CAROL: "She's not even our Mother."
RAYMOND: "Look what she's doing to us now."
CAROL: "She treats us like we're puppy dogs."
RAYMOND: "Exactly. Can you think of any other way?"
Emily is not happy that Jefferson has joined them, or about his affair with Nadine, and tells him to leave when they arrive at Jaffa. He tells her the children know about the Will and suggests she gives them a bit of the money. She makes it clear to him that there was no second Will but he hints about telling the step children. Sensing the danger, she apologises to Jefferson and suggests he stays with them for dinner.
We see the family seated at the dinner table on the ship. Emily orders them champagne and pours the drinks herself. She secretly pours a lethal dose of her own medicine in Jefferson's drink. He is about to drink it when Lennox suddenly bursts in and punches Jefferson to the ground. He had found a cigarette case in Nadine's possessions in which Jefferson had inscribed to her.
When they arrive in the Holy Land, Poirot is greeted by his old friend Colonel Carbury who he introduces to Sarah.
COLONEL CARBURY: "What on earth's brought you out here, old chap?"
POIROT: "Oh, I don't know. A nose for murder perhaps."
COLONEL CARBURY: "Murder? Where?"
POIROT: "Oh no, it hasn't happened yet!"
At the port Jefferson turns his attentions to Miss Quinton. Nadine watches him. Emily Boynton confronts Jefferson and tells him it would be best to distance himself from the family. He tells her that he has already made plans to go his own way. He walks away with Miss Quinton. The others make their way to the town and wander around the sights.
That night Poirot sees Emily counting out a large amount of money to an Arab. The next day Colonel Carbury tells Poirot that an American has gone missing near the Dead Sea. Poirot tells him its Jefferson Cole and offers his assistance. Later, Raymond makes to speak to Sarah, but is stopped by Emily. Poirot listens with some interest when Sarah goes to speak to Emily and tells her she's pathetic and ludicrous.
DR SARAH KING: "Why be an ogre? You could be kind if you tried."
EMILY: "I never forget. Remember that. I never forget anything. Not an action, not a name, not a face."
Poirot, Sarah and Lady Westholme go by car to an archaeological dig. Emily and her family follow soon after. Jefferson and Miss Quinton appear on camels and explain they had gone away for the night. At lunch Raymond tells Sarah how he feels about her but she tells him he should stand up for himself and behave like a man. Colonel Carbury arrives for Poirot who leaves with him by car. Emily suggests to her family that they all go off by themselves for a walk. They head off into the hills leaving their step mother seated by her tent. Only Lady Westholme remains as she has work to do.
Seeing Jefferson with Nadine, Lennox tells his brother that he's had enough and is turning back. He leaves and makes his way back to the tents. Raymond kisses Sarah and tells her he's going back to the site. He wants to go alone because there's something he has to do.
Later the family are looking around the finds from the dig that day. Sarah is talking to Lady Westholme as Poirot arrives back in the car. Sarah notices an Arab trying to wake Emily who is still seated in her chair outside the tent. She goes over to see and finds Emily dead. She breaks the news to the family and Poirot takes a look at the body.
Poirot speaks about the death to Sarah and suspects she was murdered. There are marks on the dead woman's arms and Digitalis medicine has been taken from Sarah's medical bag. Poirot talks to Colonel Carbury and tells him he can solve the case in two days.
COLONEL CARBURY: "You seem very certain."
POIROT: "I am very certain because, you see, people like to talk and in talking they tell the truth.
Poirot sets out to question the family and guests including Sarah King, Lady Westholme, Miss Quinton and Jefferson Cole. He talks to them one by one pointing out to each of them that they all had a motive and the means in which to kill Emily Boynton. His suspects give their version of events and all deny murdering the woman.
That night Hassan asks Poirot to meet him the next morning which he does. However, Hassan suddenly runs off and Sarah chases after him. They run through the market and town and down narrow streets. There is a shot and we see Hassan lying on the floor, dead. Standing over him with a gun is Sarah. The locals gather round her but are stopped by the police. Later, Poirot tells Colonel Carbury that she couldn't have fired the shot that killed Hassan and has her released from the cells.
Poirot has assembled his list of suspects for afternoon tea, and talks over the case with them. He points out their individual roles leading to the death and the evidence he has against them. Still, he does not reveal who the murderer can be.
Colonel Carbury invites them all to attend the Coronation ball later that night, which they do. Here, Poirot continues with his theory of how the murder came about and who the murderer really is. He reveals that Lady Westholme was the one who killed Emily Boynton and how she did it. Her motive for the murder was that she was once a prisoner in a prison where Emily Boynton once worked and was sure Emily Boynton had recognised her and would speak out about it. She knew she would have to be silenced. Lady Westholme confronts Poirot alone.
LADY WESTHOLME: "Do you know what it is to come from nothing? To climb inch by inch to respectability?
There is a shot from Lady Westholme's room a short time later. She lies died on the floor. Poirot tells Colonel Carbury she died while cleaning her gun. The Colonel looks at him blankly.
POIROT: "Suicide would mean another investigation. She had trouble enough while alive. Give her peace in death."
The next day the family and guests leave for home.