Death On The Nile

Death On The Nile (1978)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin, Mia Farrow, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Jack Warden
Extras: Making Of Documentary, Interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jane Birkin, Talent Files, Theatrical Trailer

Watching an Agatha Christie movie is like enjoying a cup of warm mulled wine on a rainy night. Even if viewed now as dusty relics, her mysteries spoke to the autocrat as well as the moralist demanding justice. 1978’s "Death on the Nile" was the big screen follow-up to 1974’s "Murder on the Orient Express, " which scored both critically and commercially. With yet another all-star cast for the gallery of suspects, an exotic, isolated environment and the star detective stealing the show, "Nile" captivated audiences when first released. Now with Anchor Bay’s equally charming new DVD, the quaintness of solving crimes in a tuxedo has been digitally preserved.

In "Death On The Nile," Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) must ferret out the murderer of a newlywed heiress during a cruise down the Nile. Poirot, with his colleague Colonel Race (David Niven), navigates a treacherous list of suspects played by a mix of old and then-new stars including Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury (wonderfully hamming it up), Mia Farrow and Olivia Hussey. True to form, seemingly every character swirling around the victim had a compelling reason to see that person dead. Once motives are established and the murder committed, the investigation reveals sordid details about the suspects with the final denouement in a stateroom or study where all are gathered and the truth dramatically unveiled.

Taking over from Albert Finney in "Orient," character actor emeritus Ustinov made Poirot very much his own. He brought just the right amount of snobbery and sagacity to the role, down to the bristling of his handlebar moustache whenever he is mistaken for being French. A running gag in the film – and Christie’s novels – is that he keeps correcting people of the error. When Mrs. Van Schuyler (Davis) brands him "a French upstart," he retorts: "a Belgian upstart, please." When Poirot brags of his trust in his "little gray cells," his good friend Race cannot resist puncturing Hercule’s ego ("I’ve forgotten your opinion about yourself"). The reasons we forgive Poirot his vain trespasses are two-fold: 1) like comic book heroes, he uses his vast powers of deduction for the forces of good and; 2) he’s just like us. He cannot help but eavesdrop (usually picking up information that ultimately leads to the culprit) and even his appetites seem reassuringly human, enjoying a fine wine at dinner or eating lunch during a calm interrogation of a suspect.

Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (of "Sleuth" fame) and director John Guillermin (graduating here from his previous schlockbusters, 1974’s "The Towering Inferno" and the 1976 remake of "King Kong") honor the formula but manage to have some fun with it. As Poirot explains how each suspect had opportunity, we see a slightly different visualization of the murder in "Rashomon"-like fashion. Shaffer’s verbal thrusts and parries mix the right proportions of catty and couth. Even the red herrings and false leads don’t appear quite as hackneyed and trivial, especially during the "all the missed clues" conclusion (unfortunately, that frustrating element of the Christie recipe lingers.)

The 1.85 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer reads extremely clean and vibrant. The aspect ratio looks closer to a 1.78 measurement however. Jack Cardiff, cinematographer of "The Red Shoes" and "The African Queen," gave an old-fashioned glow to many of the Egyptian exterior shots. Alas, the diffusion also yields film grain in the image. Solid black levels render colors natural looking and accurate, highlighting the opulent Anthony Powell costumes (which won an Oscar) and Peter Murton’s art-deco interiors. There are a few instances of edge enhancement, which balance out the soft blooming in some scenes. Other than the aforementioned concerns, I detected no digital or compression artifacts.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono audio plays back well enough. The dialogue sometimes sounds tinny and when interpreted through a center channel speaker, the audio picks up some high-frequency brightness even with re-equalization engaged. Nino Rota’s delightfully melodramatic score fares a little better, always at the cusp of peaking but not quite. While Anchor Bay maintained the original theatrical format with the mono playback, stereo enhancement of Rota’s music would have been nice.

The supplements all stem from the initial promotion of the film. "Making of ‘Death of the Nile’" is a 24-minute shot-on-film documentary that might have been originally produced for broadcast. (Notes identifying any of the sources for the extras are absent.) While offering behind-the-scenes snippets of building sets, recreating the steamer in a studio tank or the stars going through their paces, we are treated to a generous helping of interviews from both on- and off-camera talent. Producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin (the producers of "Orient"), Peter Ustinov, David Niven and art director Peter Murton all chime in with their "in medias res" observations of the production.

The interviews with the polyglot Peter Ustinov and Jane Birkin ("Louise Bourget") are conducted in Spanish. (Again, neither the source of the footage nor the interviewer is identified). As Ustinov speaks fluent Spanish, his interview runs seven minutes and yields an interesting tidbit or two including his perceptions about Poirot. English subtitles are offered for those of us (mea culpa!) who lack multi-lingual skills. In Birkin’s four-minute segment, the interviewer translates both his questions and her English language responses. She appeared a little uncomfortable with the process, sometimes distracted by her own answers.

The theatrical trailer provided is <$PS,letterboxed> and clean with strong colors, yet the audio sounds a little congested. The talent bios are run-of-the-mill, but wittily presented in the menus under "Suspects, victims and innocent bystanders."

With the days cold and heavy, this time of year is perfect for curling up with a good whodunit. "Death on the Nile" is a one DVD that will beguile everyone… French, Belgian or in-between.