On board a steamer S.S. Karnak heading down the Nile there is murder most foul when a rich heiress turns up minus her mortal coil. Luckily, although not for the culprit, the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poriot is also a passenger.
If you exercise those leettle grey cells and ponder the vast filmic output based upon the books of Agatha Christie, those teasing whodunits cast from an unchanging mould, none embody the easy (taxing of brain is purely optional) treats of the formula as perfectly as this middle-order star packed vessel (literally) from the Ustinov era.
Ustinov, a garrulous and watchable, if limited, actor, made Hercule Poirot an avuncular charmer who seemed to happen upon solutions as if they were punchlines to long winded anecdotes. He was fun, but lacked the edges, the cold brilliance of Christie’s most famous creation. The previous twirler of his moustache, Albert Finney, in Murder On The Orient Express, gave him bite and bustle, a cantankerous determination.
The plot here follows Christie’s eloquent mechanics to the tee. An exotic circumstance lubricated by money — here a boat trip down the Egyptian chapter of the Nile —populated by a set number of suspects of varying aspects (all with a credible motive) and the addition of our portly homemade detective. As became the fashion for these get-togethers, they took on the guise of Hollywood retirement homes, filling their casts with former greats up for the easy glide of Christie’s stock characters.
Here it’s an especially good selection of has-beens at the murder-mystery party: Bette Davis, David Niven, Maggie Smith, a young Mia Farrow, and a rare sighting of Jane Birkin. In a curious side order of trivia, Angela Lansbury, who would become Ustinov’s bland equivalent as Miss Marple, takes a small but memorable role as a dotty old flirt.
If you feel obliged you can follow the trail of clue and red herring alike, to figure out the murder of an heiress (who wants all that money?). Alternatively, you can soak up legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s lush views of the Egyptian shores and watch this gaggle of weathered old luvvies hamming up Anthony Shaffer’s witty translation of Auntie Agatha’s death fixation. There are few more relaxed pleasures in the movie game.
Ustinov may not be the Poirot that we all think of now, after the David Suchet series, but this is pure Agatha Christie, steeped in nostalgia and atmosphere.