Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Death on the Nile (1978)

This movie features without a doubt the smallest amount of Bette Davis of any movie I've seen for this project, and probably could have been replaced with something else had I known how insubstantial her part was. Still, Death on the Nile is an entertaining old-fashioned murder mystery, with Peter Ustinov making his debut as Agatha Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot. Poirot happens to be on a steamer headed down the titular river when an heiress on her honeymoon is murdered. Coincidentally, all of the woman's enemies have gathered as fellow passengers on the ship, so Poirot rounds them up one by one, accuses them of murder, then eventually figures out which one actually did it. It's entirely genteel and even a bit musty, although the dialogue is sharp enough and the acting from a parade of stars strong enough to keep things moving along nicely.

Davis is just one of the sea of famous faces put forth as suspects, along with Mia Farrow, Olivia Hussey, Jack Warden, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury and Maggie Smith, among others. She plays a rich old biddy who's inordinately jealous of the murdered woman's pearls, but she always seems like a minor suspect, and her main points of interest are her absurd outfits (the movie won an Oscar for costume design) and her contentious relationship with her mannish servant/masseuse (Maggie Smith), which came off to me like it had some homoerotic undertones, but I might just have been looking for something interesting to say about Davis' character.

Davis doesn't even get to be the biggest ham in the movie, as she often is this late in her career. No, Angela Lansbury chews far more scenery as a drunken romance novelist (this was a few years before her own turn as a renowned detective). Ustinov is amusing as the droll, somewhat condescending Poirot, and the mystery is engaging enough, although the customary gathering of all the suspects in one room so Poirot can recount the details of the crime goes on seemingly forever, and one character actually gets a bullet between the eyes right as she says, "It was ..." Like I said, quite old-fashioned, a little hokey, but full of enjoyable performances and lovely Egyptian scenery. Just don't expect much from Davis.

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