Thursday, September 27, 2012

Three Agatha Christie Murder Movies

There are three movies based on Agatha Christie novels done by Guy Hamilton. Each of them features a host of stars and each does a great job at telling the story. The three movies are “Evil Under The Sun,” “Death On The Nile,” and “The Mirror Crack’d.” Two feature Sir Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot and one features Angela Lansbury as Jane Maple. This post is about all three of them.

First I’d like to talk about “The Mirror Crack’d” (the novel it is based on is also known as “The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side”). I have to admit that, normally, Angela Lansbury is not among my favourite actresses, but in this movie she does a very good job as Miss Maple, picturing the woman from the novels rather well. While Margaret Rutherford will always be my favourite Miss Maple of all times, even I agree that she is far from the woman depicted in the books. She’s much more hands-on and much less ladylike than the spinster with the eye for human nature Agatha Christie created.
The story of the two divas, the murder, the murders that follow, and the true reason for the first murder is well told and nice to watch. The movie (made in the 1970s) does a good job in recreating a 1920s quaint English town (which Maple’s St. Mary Mead is). As in every Christie novel, the story develops slowly, showing us the calm and normal life that gets overshadowed by crime. There is a movie evening in town, the divas arrive, there is a party Miss Maple can’t take part in because of a twisted ankle. Then a woman dies and it looks as if she was a victim of chance, drinking the wrong drink. But Miss Maple doesn’t buy this theory, even though it all looks like the murderous intent was aimed at one of the divas – a woman coming back to the movies after a long pause, caused by a nervous breakdown years ago.
Who wants to kill her? Is it the producer, her secretary/assistant, her colleague (who wants to be the star of the movie), her own husband and director? Is it another source, not yet discovered? Miss Maple’s nephew is the inspector investigating and he talks things through with his aunt, only to find her seeing more, even from her comfortable chair in her drawing room (which, as she tells her maid at one point, is not a lounge).
As I have read the story a long time ago (and a good memory for plots), I knew from the beginning who did it and why, but it was interesting to see it all playing out in the movie. Overall, I can definitely vouch for it. If you like crime stories that are not about action, but about deduction, you will find it well worth your while.

Second on my list is “Death On The Nile,” a classic Hercule Poirot story, featuring Sir Peter Ustinov as the Belgian sleuth. The movie has a lot of stars in it, including Angela Lansbury as a writer/murder victim, Dame Maggie Smith as a nurse, and Jane Birkin as a maid. David Niven plays Poirot’s old friend who helps with the investigations.
The story has, again, been set in the 1920s/1930s and has been set there well. The deadly trip down the Nile that will cost five lives in the end, starts up long ago, where the basics for the plan were laid out, only to come to a tragic conclusion on board a steamer under the eyes of the surviving passengers.
While “Death On The Nile” is not the most well-known adventure of Hercule Poirot (that is, without any doubt, “Murder On The Orient Express”) and Sir Peter Ustinov isn’t that close to the physical description Agatha Christie gave of her Belgian detective, that does not stop the movie from being great. The first murder victim is far from being an innocent one. In the short time on the ship alone, she manages to make a lot of different enemies. Too bad, therefore, that the most promising, the woman she stole her husband from, has an iron-clad alibi. Too bad most of the other people have none, because they were sleeping at that time. Anyone could have picked up the gun after the husband (shot in the leg by his former girlfriend) has been taken to his rooms. Five minutes are more than enough to pick up a small gun and disappear from the salon again.
But why is the maid killed? And why is a piece of a money bill found in her hand? What about the rather theatrical writer who saw the murderer of the maid? How can she be killed only seconds after saying she saw the murderer? The movie (and the novel) plays with the time and the difference between ‘what you see’ and ‘what is there.’ I’m not spoiling the story here, read it or watch the movie, if you want to know the solution.
The movie does a great job in keeping the tension up and presenting a host of possible murderers, only to reveal the strange truth in the end. Again, if you don’t need oodles of gunfights in your crime story, it’s a great one to watch.

Finally, “Evil Under The Sun” which also happens to be one of my favourite novels. I also love this movie which, again, features Sir Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. You will also find a couple of the same actors that feature in “Death On The Nile” here, albeit in other roles. Diana Rigg plays Arlena Marshall, the murder victim (yes, this one only has one victim, plus one from the past that matters).
Again, the movie is set in the 1920s/1930s and looks very nice. The setting has been changed slightly from the book, where the hotel on the island was situated in England, connected to the main land by a path passable during low tide. Yet, changing the location to the Mediterranean and removing the path (so the island can only be reached by boat), doesn’t change it much. There’s also a slight change in the motif, but that’s not grave.
Arlena Marshal, a former actress and femme fatale, is not the kind of woman incapable of making enemies. She makes them left and right, as it is, from the hostess of the hotel (who is an old friend of the Marshall family), to her step-daughter, to the wife of the man she openly flirts with, to her own husband. For someone like her, it’s not a matter of if they’re getting killed one day, it’s rather a matter of when.
Yet the actual deed leaves Poirot flustered for a little while. Everyone on the island has an alibi, nobody could have done it. Yet Arlena Marshall is dead, so someone must have killed her. People do not strangle themselves, normally.
Details pile up that show Poirot someone is playing with the times here. For the obvious time of the kill, from half past eleven to noon, everyone has an alibi. But was Arlena killed before noon? Why has someone taken a bath and denies it? Who threw a bottle into the sea? The plan is very complicated and has been played out over a long time. In the end it’s only the fact that the murderers copy themselves that leads Poirot to the solution. Which, again, I am not telling here. The movie is a lot of fun to watch, as Sir Peter Ustinov gives Hercule Poirot a funny side that is missing from the original. It’s also nice to watch because of the props, the other actors, and the story. A great way to spend some time on a rainy day or a boring evening.

All three movies described here are good and definitely approved of by me. You can find them on disk or, if you are lucky, maybe on TV every now and then. It pays to keep an eye out, rent them in an online store, or even old-fashioned and offline.

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