DEATH ON THE NILE
The only thing that could follow ‘Murder’ is ‘Death’
A murderer strikes on board the luxury Nile steamer Karnak and
Can the killer be found before the ship of clues reaches
Death On The Nile was the next Agatha Christie adaption, produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin, after their award winning Murder On The Orient Express became a box office hit. Brabourne and Goodwin had created a lavish film, by using scenic locations and casting with some of the major stars in the business, they were keen to do it again. Shaffer had some input on Murder On The Orient Express by assisting director Sidney Lumet in the early preparations of the project which then lead him to writing the screenplay for Death On The Nile.
Death On The Nile was originally a stageplay by Agatha Christie called Moon On The Nile. She then adapted it for the novel which was first published in 1937 and later adapted this for the stage as Hidden Horizon in 1944, which played at the Dundee Repertory Theatre in Scotland. In 1946 it was produced at The Ambassadors Theatre in the West End in 1946 as Murder On The Nile. The stage version did not include the Poirot character and some of the main suspects were either missing or had their names changed. The play also featured a different ending to that of the novel.
Brabourne and Goodwin had assigned John Guillermin who had worked on King Kong and Towering Inferno to direct Shaffer's script, and again, gathered an impressive cast consisting of Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith, Jane Birkin, Lois Chilles, Simon MacCorkindale, Jon Finch and David Niven. Jon Finch was making his second appearance here in a Shaffer scripted film - he had previously starred in Hitchcock's Frenzy. Albert Finney was initially asked to reprise his role as Poirot but he had found the make-up he had to wear very uncomfortable in the hot interior of the train, and knowing that he would have to undergo the same experience in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, he declined the role. This time the part of Hercule Poirot was to be played by Peter Ustinov who was to make the part his own.
Asked on one occasion whether he had ever had any doubts about taking over the role from Albert Finney, Ustinov grinned broadly at his questioner: “You make acting sound like a relay race. No, that simply never occurred to me. My biggest reservations always were whether I would be able to do justice to Monsieur Poirot’s high standard of grooming. Since he is essentially immaculate in his person at all times, and I lean towards untidiness, creased garments and a general lack of sartorial elegance with no effort whatsoever, there were certain major differences between us that needed to be reckoned with.”
Producer John Brabourne spoke of how a tough negotiator Agatha Christie was in order to have the first film Murder On The Orient Express made. She wasn't entirely happy to have the film made because of her experience with previous film makers who had adapted her books. It took the producers of Murder On The Orient Express two years to persuade her to release the rights to them. Agatha Christie was pleased with the Poirot portrayed by Finney, but sadly never got to see the Ustinov version.
In October 1977, the cast and crew set out for a seven week shoot in Egypt. Throughout four of the seven weeks in Egypt, the cast and crew filmed aboard a luxury steamer cruising along the Nile, some 200 miles downstream between Aswan and Cairo. The unit filmed on location at Aswan, Abu Simbel and Luxor – where the inspiring ruins of Karnak formed backgrounds for scenes of high tension with all the major artists, and in Cairo – with filming on a top pyramid peak and in the shadow of the Sphinx. In Britain, the unit filmed scenes at oil magnate Paul Getty’s famed Surrey residence, Sutton Place, where a magnificent oak staircase framed important scenes between Lois Chiles and Mia Farrow. Filming also took place at one of England’s country Manor houses, Compton Wynyates, near Stratford-on-Avon, where Henry VIII stayed on several occasions, probably with his Queen, Catherine Of Aragon. A replica Nile set, complete with realistic mudbanks, was constructed at Pinewood for the night scenes on board the Karnak. The steamer itself was a copy of a steamer, the 'Memnon', found at Cairo which was refurbished and restored by the crew and used in the film. The steamer that was used was actually built in 1901 in Scotland!
In 'Niv - The Authorised Biography Of David Niven' it's recalled how David Niven was wary of Egyptian food and ordered a series of Fortnum’s hampers to be sent out to Cairo. In vain: the entire cast went down with stomach trouble, Niv himself inconveniently while riding a camel. He was appalled by flies and the 130 degree heat but kept his cool. Halfway through filming on 4th November Niven’s sixteen year old foster daughter, Kristina, crashed into a tree in her boyfriends BMW in Switzerland. She suffered serious injuries to her head, a broken leg and a punctured lung and spent several months in hospital. Niven returned to Egypt to finish filming Death On The Nile but flew back regularly to see Kristina in hospital.
Shaffer also recalls in So What Did You Expect? the problems of filming with such a major cast. He recalls how in the denouement scene where Poirot has gathered all the suspects to reveal the murderer, Bette Davis complained of having no lines and wasn't happy about it. As filming went underway of this scene, one of the camera operators noticed a flash of light in his track-in. This wasn't happening during the rehearsals but kept showing itself during filming. There was no explanation for this until Shaffer later noticed that Bette Davis had concealed a compact mirror in her sleeve and would quietly produce this during the take in order to bring attention to herself!
John Brabourne knowing Bette Davis had a reputation for being a bit of a dragon on the set, went out to the airport himself to welcome her. In the limousine on the way in, he asked her, “Are you happy about the locations in Egypt?” She turned to him and replied: “Locations? In my day locations came to me.”
Angela Lansbury had worked with her once before, so she knew what they were all in for: “The thing about Miss Davis was that she felt she was the only real professional among the lot of us. She had no time for people who were late on the set, or youngsters who didn’t know their lines, or who didn’t have their hair coiffed in time, or held up the make-up people; she’d make a tremendous fuss about that, so we were all terrified of keeping her waiting. She would be on the set ready to shoot five minutes to nine, when the director had hardly arrived; that didn’t matter, she expected everyone to be on their marks, ready set to go.”
Angela says of Davis: “She once said to me, “The thing about us, we’re character actresses.” She wasn’t a great beauty, and she knew that. She was a tremendous role model for me. She simply encouraged my aspirations at not being a great beauty.”
Angela Lansbury was in love with both the script and the role she had to play: “I nearly knocked myself out of my seat with my vigour and energy. That had come straight from the theatre. I felt I was really quite overdrawn, though, and wished somebody had hit me and made me just tone it down a bit. But people did rather seem to enjoy it, because audiences tend to love a rather theatrical performance. Well, they got it in Death On The Nile.”
Bette Davis said of Angela: “She’s a sweetheart. Angela, whom I adore, is fantastically funny. She’s a riot. She broke us up time after time. It was almost impossible to play a scene with her without cracking up. She and Niven do a tango that is the funniest thing since Rudolph Valentino.”
Mia Farrow on Bette Davis: “In my day we’d have built all this in the studio – and better!” she snapped, as we gazed across the Nile toward the Valley of the Kings. The magnificent structure that had been Bette Davis – the illusion of size and power she had projected so valiantly for so long – had imploded under the weight of her disappointment and honest fury."
At one point, a scene between Ustinov, Niven and Davis was brought forward early and was to be shot the next day. Ustinov, never having worked with Bette Davis but knowing of her reputation in Hollywood, stayed up most of the night learning his lines for the next day. When the time came to do the shoot, a nervous Ustinov and Niven made their way on to the deck and began rehearsing. Bette Davis was smoking through a veil. “We didn’t know our lines very well. She didn’t know any of hers at all. I looked at David, and eventually she threw down her cigarette on the deck, which is not a thing a yachtsman would do, and stamped it out with an angry foot, saying, “Oh Christ, I can’t manage this shit. Goddam it, I didn’t sleep a wink all night. I knew I’d have to work with two profesionals this morning.” Funnily enough, we then all knew our lines at once.”
Angela Lansbury spoke fondly of Peter Ustinov in the Peter Ustinov biography 'The Gift Of Laughter': "It’s lovely to be on a set with Peter, because he is full of bonhomie and jokes and fun and sweetness, and very, very considerate of other actors. He doesn’t send you up, doesn’t make jokes like Danny Kaye would have done, he’s not that kind of performer. He’s not a comedian in that sense, he’s a wonderful comic actor, whose whole approach is through characterisation, not through funny tricks. It’s his quizzical expression and his reaction to what’s going on around him that’s hilarious.”
Ustinov spoke of Agatha Christie's great detective: "He’s a wonderful character, but I do have certain reservations about his way of life. Poirot may always get his man, but I would regard his chances of securing a happy domestic life with any woman a trifle hazardous. I visualize him as someone eternally set in his ways, worrying forever about his cuffs or collars, deeply disturbed about trifling with any aspect of his routine and the rhythms of his life.” He adds:" “The man’s sense of logic is quite extraordinary, for sure, but I have become somewhat disturbed, during my examination of Poirot’s methods, about his sources of information. He does seem to gather most of his facts from conversations overheard in the most unlikely places. He’s forever stepping forward and saying knowledgeably, ‘Ah, but I happened to overhear your conversation with so-and-so,’ always in the most unlikely places. We do know that he is a bachelor and, therefore, all his time is pretty much his own, but there surely must be undisciplined moments in his life when he is not constantly on the receiving end of other people’s conversations.”
On Poirot, Shaffer says “He’s very much a slow starter: that’s why it’s all left to the end. He wouldn’t be my first choice of detective. Usually, by the time the leetle grey cells grind into action, most of his clients would have snuffed it!”
Death On The Nile was released in the US in October 1978 and in Europe from October through to December. The film was an instant success and as with Murder On The Orient Express, the critics were quickly writing rave reviews.
Variety: "Death on the Nile is a clever, witty, well-plotted, beautifully-produced and splendidly acted screen version of Agatha Christie's mystery. It's old-fashioned stylized entertainment with a big cast and lush locations. Peter Ustinov is the fourth actor to play Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. Anthony Shaffer's adaptation doesn't have a hole. When Ustinov reveals the killer in the final drawing room scene it comes as a complete surprise. Every one of the dozen characters floating down the Nile is a suspect. Every one on board could have and might have murdered Lois Chiles, the arrogant millionairess who has stolen her best friend's fiance."
Time Magazine ran a similar report: "Death on the Nile is really very pleasant entertainment—professionally crafted by writer and director, wittily acted, most handsome in its photography, its period sets and costumes. These are all qualities not to be sneezed at in a time when both entertainment and professionalism in aid of amusement, that not very grand but very basic commodity, are in short supply at the movies."
Death On The Nile was nominated for several awards and won many of them too. Costume designer Anthony Powell won an Oscar at the Academy Awards and also a BAFTA for Best Costume Design. Peter Ustinov, Angela Lansbury and Maggie Smith were all nominated for Best Actor/Actress at the BAFTA Awards. John Guillermin won an Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Film and Peter Ustinov won Best Actor. Anthony Shaffer was nominated an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture. Death On The Nile was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.
Hercule Poirot.............................Peter Ustinov
Produced By: John Brabourne And Richard Goodwin
Directed By: John Guillermin
Based on the novel Death On The Nile by Agatha Christie (1937)
Production Company: EMI
Linnett Ridgeway arrives home where she is greeted by Jacqueline De Bellefort. Jacqueline is telling Linnett about Simon, the new man in her life and asks if she would give him a job at the house. The next day Jacqueline introduces Linnett to Simon and it's obvious they are attracted to each other. This cuts to a newspaper photo showing Simon and Linnett on their wedding day.
Andrew Pennington has seen the newspaper article showing his niece's wedding and learns that they are to honeymoon in Egypt. He tells his colleague that he plans to go there and surprise her. We then see Mrs Van Schuyler reading the same article and telling Miss Bowers that they are going for a cruise down the Nile. A trip that Miss Bowers does not want to do.
In Egypt we see Linnett and Simon on honeymoon. As they spend time alone, they encounter Jacqueline who has been following them on their journey through Europe to Egypt. They exchange words and Linnett and Simon ride away on their horses. This exchange was overheard by Poirot who was seated out of view.
That night at the hotel, we see Linnett and Simon alone on the dance floor. They are being observed by Jim Ferguson, Mrs Van Schuyler, Miss Bowers, Rosalie Otterbourne, Mrs Salome Otterbourne and Colonel Race. Louise Bouget watches the dancing couple from behind a curtain. Poirot enters and is delighted to see his old friend Colonel Race who, like Poirot, is there to take a trip on the Nile. Dr Bessner also joins the scene and starts a conversation with Jim Ferguson. As the couple finish their dance, Andrew Pennington enters and calls out to them. Linnett introduces him to Simon and they sit and chat.
Mrs Salome Otterbourne has recognised Poirot and introduces herself. She is a romantic novelist and is in Egypt writing her next book.
ROSALIE: "Somehow, I don't think Mr Poirot is a very keen reader of romantic novels, mother."
MRS SALOME OTTERBOURNE: "Of course he is. All Frenchmen are.
Jacqueline shows up while Linnet and Simon are dancing with the other guests. Linnet and Simon leave the room. Poirot watches with interest. The next day Jacqueline sees Linnett talking to Poirot who later speaks to Jacqueline. He tells her to forget the past and look ahead. She pulls out a small gun and tells him how she would happily shoot Linnett for taking Simon from her. Poirot, seeing she won't be warned, exits.
Simon and Linnett quickly leave the hotel early the next morning for the steam boat down the Nile. Jacqueline sets off to follow them.
The guests from the hotel, including Poirot and Colonel Race have boarded The Karnak. Jacqueline is not onboard. Mrs Van Schuyler starts talking to Linnett and takes an interest in her pearls. Miss Bowers intervenes and we learn that Linnett's father ruined her family. We also learn that Linnett and Salome Otterbourne are acquainted with each other, the latter had written personal comments about Linnett in one of her books, and the case is being handled by their lawyers. Poirot over hears their talk.
Later, we see Andrew Pennington trying to talk Linnett into signing some legal papers. He is troubled by the fact that she wants to read them before she signs. Colonel Race steps in and Andrew exits. Louise Bouget confronts Linnett about some money owed to her, but Linnett won't listen and walks away. Poirot has over heard this and tells Colonel Race that Linnett is making enemies of those around her. Colonel Race informs Poirot that he is working for Linnett's English lawyers and they suspect that Andrew Pennington is embezzling her money. Her father's Will states that Linnett gets control of the money when she marries.
COLONEL RACE: "I think I've scared him off for the moment, but who knows what he'll try next."
POIROT: "Or any of them for that matter."
The next day, the group have landed at the historical sites and are looking around the ruins and columns. While Linnett and Simon are alone, a large stone is pushed from the top of a column and it hurtles towards them, crashing to the floor. Simon and Linnett jump clear and are unharmed. Simon's first thought is that it was Jacqueline. The others run to help them. Poirot is not convinced it was an accident. Simon and Linnett later visit a temple and Jacqueline appears and calls to them. Linnett shouts at her to leave them alone and her and Simon move off.
Back on the boat, Poirot sees Jacqueline standing near the edge, looking down at the waves.
POIROT: "I'm very sorry to see you here, Mademoiselle. Forgive me for saying so,
Dr Bessner confronts Linnett alone about the things she has been saying about him. We learn that her friend was left with mental problems after being in his care. She tells him to sue her if he doesn't like it, but he says any scandal at his clinic would lead him to ruin. She exits and Dr Bessner is startled to see Poirot was in the room the whole time.
While a few of the guests are relaxing in the saloon, Jacqueline enters the room and starts making comments directed towards Simon. The guests leave, except Simon and Rosalie Otterbourne. Jacqueline becomes more agitated and when Simon tries to calm her, she pulls out her gun and fires a shot which hits him in the leg. Jim rushes in and Miss Bowers sedates Jacqueline while Dr Bessner attends to Simon. Jim goes back to the lounge to get the gun but it's not there.
The next morning, Linnett is found dead in bed with a gunshot to the head. Poirot and Dr Bessner are examining her and Colonel Race tells Poirot that they have been authorised to deal with things until they reach the port. Poirot sees that the letter 'J' has been written near the body in blood. Poirot thinks it was put there by Linnett to show who it was that shot her. Dr Bessner says this is not possible because she died instantly. Poirot states that it couldn't have been Jacqueline because she was seen drunk in the lounge and was then sedated by Miss Bowers who spent the night with her in her room. Apart from Simon who was shot, Poirot tells them it could be any of the guests because they all had a motive, including Dr Bessner.
Poirot sets about questioning the guests and we see flashbacks of how each of them could have killed Linnett. While Poirot and Colonel Race go to their cabins to change, a snake appears in Poirot's room. Colonel Race comes to the rescue and kills it. Poirot is sure that it has been put there deliberately. He continues with questioning Mrs Van Schuyler at which point the boat's captain and crew fish the murder weapon out of the river. Poirot tells Mrs Van Schuyler that he suspects she killed Linnett for her pearls and will be searching her cabin.
MRS VAN SCHUYLER: "You perfectly foul French upstart!"
POIROT: "Belgian upstart, please Madame."
Poirot and Colonel Race are caught by Andrew Pennington as they route through his private papers looking for the document he had been trying to get Linnett to sign. Andrew walks in and confronts the two men. Poirot puts him in place by revealing that he knows who he is and that he had been trying to embezzle money. He protests their claims but Poirot stands firm. They later discover the missing pearls have been replaced around Linnet's neck. We see Mrs Van Schuyler hiding in a cupboard and watching them as they leave the room.
After dinner, Poirot and Colonel Race find Louise dead in her cabin. Her throat has been cut. They are then pulled away by Salome Otterbourne who tells them she saw who Louise's killer was. She begins her story but is stopped when a gun shot fires and she is struck in the head. She falls to the floor, dead. Poirot and Colonel Race see a smoking gun lying outside on the deck. It belongs to Andrew Pennington.
Poirot tells the group that they should all meet up in the saloon where all will be revealed. He goes through the facts of the case and reveals Simon was the murderer. He had faked the shooting by Jacqueline and when she was being shown to her room and later sedated, Simon ran to Linnett's cabin and shot her. He then wrote the initial 'J' on the wall with her blood. He then went back to the saloon where he shot himself in the leg. Helping him with this was Jacqueline, who Poirot tells them is still Simon's lover. They had planned the murder and acted in it together. However, their plan was flawed. Louise had seen Simon entering his wife's cabin and heard the shot which killed her. She then saw him leave and run back to the saloon. She blackmails Simon which only leads to her death. She was killed by Jacqueline. She had taken a scalpel from the doctor's medical bag and used it to kill Louise. As she leaves Louise's cabin, she is unaware that she has been seen by Salome Otterbourne. It's only later when she hears voices from the next cabin and Simon saying his words loud, she realises what's happening. She runs to Andrew Pennington's cabin, takes his gun and runs back to shoot Salome Otterbourne.
Simon denies Poirot's accusations and looks to Jacqueline for help. She goes to him and shoots a fatal shot to his head. The group look on in horror as Jacqueline then puts the gun to her own head and fires.
The boat reaches the port and the group say their farewells to Poirot and Colonel Race.