Sunday Thoughts – The Egyptian Edition


Warning: The following contains some opinion stated as fact, which doesn’t mean it isn’t open to reasonable discussion. 

The good thing about classics, the very thing that made them classics in the first place, is that you can come back to them again and again, always to find something new or that eluded you on previous meetings. I hadn’t seen the 1978 Death on the Nile movie in years, even decades – I was actually a kid when I last saw it – and for some reason I expected to be disappointed. I mean, I’m hopefully more mystery and cinema-savvy than I was at age ten and how would Peter Ustinov’s now widely derided portrayal of Poirot stand in comparison to Suchet’s allegedly definitive one?

I needed no worry. Death on the Nile is still a gem, one of the few truly great whodunits ever made, and not only was I able to recapture teen Xavier’s enthusiasm but I found it remarkable food for thought regarding Christie, her universe and the uneasy but sometimes fruitful relationship between the traditional detective story and the silver screen.

The first and maybe most important thing that struck me as the end credits rolled was that Death on the Nile, while often and rightly praised as one of many Christie triumphs, is also one of Poirot’s many… failures. He admittedly solves the case in brilliant fashion but the body count is quite high, something he was unable to prevent. Also the guilty party escapes the gallows, which he couldn’t prevent either. A pyrrhic victory at best, and neither the first or the last in his career. For all the talk about restoring order being at the heart of Christie’s literary ethos, Poirot often ends up doing so only on the edges. What’s more, he may be the only one of the Great Detectives whose some of the most celebrated cases end either with no one being brought to justice or with him having to arrest someone he actually likes. Poirot may not be as fallible as Ellery Queen but that doesn’t mean he always gets his man (or woman)


Regarding Ustinov’s Poirot, which was my first and for a long time only cinematic experience with the character, I find most of the criticism levelled against him to be misguided. Suchet is certainly closer to the character Christie had in mind and the way English-speaking readers experience him, but Ustinov benefits from a better and closer knowledge of the French culture and above all language. One of Ustinov’s many talents was that he spoke French fluently and without any accent, which made him very popular here (the French have a peculiar fondness for foreign celebrities « qui parlent français ») and allowed him to appear in local productions and even do his own dubbing. Ustinov while not being a perfect match for the « canonical » Poirot gives nevertheless a more Gallic flavour to the character and is thus more convincing for someone born on this side of the Pond. He behaves and speaks the way French/Belgian people expect one of them to do, which is highly laudable in the absence of any actual French or Belgian actor ever playing the part.

220px-Green_For_DangerDeath on the Nile was not my only whodunit movie of the week as I also finally watched Green for Danger after years and years of waiting for a subtitled print to come my way. I loved both movies as they proved that whodunits in good hands can be great flicks too – they also made me understand why the genre was often so badly served cinematically. The problem with whodunits when it comes to film adaptation is not that they lack action or that the characters are not interesting enough; the problem is that all too often authors think in novelistic, not cinematic, terms. Both Death on the Nile and Green for Danger have very complex and clever plots that can nevertheless be explained away in a few sentences, which makes it easier for a screenwriter then a director to show it onscreen without it being confusing or boring for the viewer.  What’s more, both Christie and Brand in their own different ways wrote in a fashion that translates well to the screen. Christie’s streamlined narration and emphasis on dialogue and Brand’s highly visual prose (see the very cinematic opening of Fog of Doubt) made them naturals for movies. This is not to say that other Golden Age writers are doomed never to make the jump to the movies – I’d love to see a really good Carr movie – but that it may take harder work and even greater talent. « Qui vivra verra » as Poirot would say.

8 commentaires sur “Sunday Thoughts – The Egyptian Edition

  1. I’m very much enjoying your Sunday Thoughts, Xavier. There is a high body count in Death on the Nile, but in the book at least, Poirot is aware of the second pistol and allows Jackie and Simon to take an easier way out than death by execution, as he does on a number of other occasions.

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    1. Comments that reveal the unexpected climaxes of books should be regarded as violations of the concordat between blogger and reader. Especially when the blogger has been so scrupulous about observing the concordat himself.

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  2. I was curious to see how Gilliat would resolve the long last third of Green For Danger. Most of it takes place in the characters’ heads and there’s no action. I was happy to discover that he simply removed it. Alastair Sim is superb, but he’s not Cockrill. It’s a manic performance with only a hint of the world-weariness I associate with the character. In that regard, it’s similar to Albert Finney’s comedic portrayal in Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express.

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  3. Very interesting point that Ustinov captures the French-Belgian/French/Gallic speech and culture of Poirot better than Suchet or anyone else did. Oddly enough, this might actually be a reason why Anglosaxon viewers have criticized Ustinov’s performance.

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  4. I agree on every count, Xavier.

    I think that another criticism leveled against Ustinov’s Poirot is that the humor is broad and buffoonish. There’s no doubt that the humor is broader than in the Suchet adaptations, but— In NILE at least— I really don’t find it all that broad. It really has worked for me. And again, I’ll repeat that Christie’s detective characters are vessels for the plot, not the core of her works, so I don’t find canonical fidelity in that respect all that important.

    I also entirely agree about the relative simplicity of the central plots of these two films. Despite the somewhat complex nature of the conspirators plan in NILE, it is straightforward to be made very clear in the denouement of both adaptations of it, whereas none of the four English-speaking versions of ORIENT EXPRESS have succeeded made the game-change-necessity aspect of its plot clear.

    Incidentally, though the flashback aspect of GREEN FOR DANGER is quite limited (and not found in the denouement) it is really one of the— if not THE— most audacious uses of flashback in cinema history. For it requires the reader to consider the meaning of the technique (is it a hypothetical consideration, an illustration of the detective’s words, a personal memory) and to dismiss the true one of the options because “surely the filmmaker wouldn’t go there!”

    And are you aware of the fascinating connection between these two films? They are both excellent films (among the best of the genre, IMO) that are adaptations of highly lauded novels of the Golden Age, written by women who were praised most highly for their puzzle-plotting skills. In each, the second murder victim intimates important knowledge of the first crime which is damaging to the culprit. In each, this second murder victim— a brunette female— is duly dispatched by a red-haired female culprit with a doctor’s scalpel. And in the second film this second victim was played by Jane Birkin, the daughter of Judy Campbell— who played the second film in the first film!

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  5. I realize that Sim’s Cockrill may not be Brand’s Cockrill, but I don’t see it as analogous to Finney’s Poirot, as I consider Finney’s portrayal to be more of a disguise than a characterization— like a refugee from THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER. I’d say that Ustinov’s Poirot is more of a parallel to Sim’s Cockrill— broader and more humorous than the written character, but entertaining and still recognizably human. And not taking away from the plot.

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