This adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel certainly has a cast beyond compare. With all this talent on show you have to wonder whether the actual result will be disappointing under the weight of expectation. It isn't though: Death on the Nile is an excellent adaptation of an excellent mystery.
Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot is played here for the first time by Peter Ustinov. Poirot is in Egypt about to take a trip down the Nile on the same boat as rich heiress, Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles), who has gathered quite a few enemies through her lifetime. She has recently married Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale) but stole him from his fiancée, Jacqueline (Mia Farrow). Jacqueline has decided to make their honeymoon hell, following them from place to place, even surprising them on top of a pyramid. Also on the boat are Mrs. Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) and her daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey) - Linnet is embroiled in a legal battle with romantic author Mrs Otterbourne after she made some defamatory remarks about her in print which makes enemies out of mother and daughter. There's also Mrs. Van Schuyler (Bette Davis), who has taken an interest in Linnet's pearls, and her companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith) who has an ancient grudge to settle with the Ridgeway family, whom she blames for her current dependent position. To round out the list there is Linnet's lawyer, Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy), who has been embezzling his client's funds and risks discovery now she's married; her maid, Louise (Jane Birkin), who has been seeking Linnet's permission to marry for years; Dr. Bessner (Jim Warden) who has been on the receiving end of slander by Linnet and socialist, Jim Ferguson, who believes she should be shot as a lesson to the 'others'. This makes for quite a list of motives when Linnet is killed and almost all of passengers had the opportunity. Poirot, with the help of Colonel Race (David Niven), sets out to discover the culprit but it isn't long before the bodies start piling up.
It could be said that this one takes a while to get going. The murder certainly doesn't happen immediately but this allows the viewer to grow intimate with the various suspects. The various introductions are well-paced, not overwhelming, and impart just enough information without overloading the audience. The writing is superb, which it should be given its origins, and the Egyptian scenery is absolutely breathtaking. You don't just get a formidable cast, you get it against the backdrop of some of the most majestic scenery in the world. Most of the cast getting on camels and donkeys was a sight to see also!
In all honesty, I think Angela Lansbury stole the show as drunk novelist Mrs. Otterbourne. If an actress draws your attention to her in every scene she's in, if she can play someone flamboyant to the point of invoking utter frustration in those around her and if she can scare David Niven's character just by dancing with him... Well, you've got a scene-stealer on your hands and that's no small feat alongside such an excellent cast. Bette Davis also has some stinging lines and her scenes with Maggie Smith (mainly in suits!) were pure gold. Their final exchange merits repeating: Mrs. Van Schulyer: "Come, Bowers, it's time to go, this place is beginning to resemble a mortuary." Miss Bowers: "Thank God you'll be in one yourself before too long you bloody old fossil!" Watching this film did nothing to dim my adoration of either Lansbury or Smith - in fact, it increased it which was damn difficult to achieve!
And what of Ustinov as Hercule Poirot? He was so perfect that he doesn't really merit discussion. He played Poirot as he should be played - calculating, manipulative when necessary, amusing in his own way. There was nothing wrong with his performance, only his height. The moment where he faces off with a cobra in his bathroom is incredibly tense. That brings me to my final point: I was exceptionally impressed about how the directors weren't afraid to use silence when necessary. They seemed to accept that it ramped up the tension more than any words could. When an attempt is made on Linnet's life by a stone dropping from the top of some ruins, the viewer is alerted to what is going on by a silent look round at the suspects as they meander through the ruins then we're aware of someone climbing lots of stairs, only distinguishable by their breathing. This and the snake scene amongst others were perfect examples of how you don't need continuous noise to keep the audience on the edge of their seats - you just need something at stake. A perfect lesson to storytellers everywhere.