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.
Death 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.