“People like to talk, and in doing so they tell the truth. It puts less of a strain on the memory.”

After wrapping production back in 2019 and suffering numerous delays, Death on the Nile, director Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, is here. Branagh’s follow-up to 2017’s surprise hit Murder on the Orient Express sees him once again taking on the lead role of Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot for a voyage down the Nile on a yacht filled with glamorous people played by the likes of Gal Gadot, Annette Bening and Russell Brand, to name a few. The movie itself is a bit of a dog that’s filled with shaky performances, script issues and a heavy reliance on green screen. While some have walked away from the movie feeling that the delay in releasing it wasn’t quite long enough, Death on the Nile looks poised to be the box-office winner this weekend.

If there’s one thing the movie has done, it’s renew the argument among Christie fans as to which cinematic Poirot was the ultimate. I personally like the way Branagh uses his Shakespeare background to make the character his own as he joins the impressive list of actors who have likewise donned the mustache. For many (myself included), Albert Finney is still the best, Tony Randall is the worst, Alfred Molina is the most head scratching and David Suchet is the sentimental favorite.

But it’s Peter Ustinov that remains the most unforgettable. The only actor to inhabit all of Poirot’s traits, including his ego, humor and panache, Ustinov’s Poirot was so on point, it’s no wonder the actor played him through three feature films and three TV movies. While 1988’s Appointment with Death (his final round as the detective) isn’t as flawless as one would like a Poirot outing to be, it still shows how Ustinov’s interpretation was indelible.

Produced by the Cannon boys (I know, but please trust me), Appointment with Death stars Ustinov as Poirot, who is enjoying a leisurely trip to the Holy Land when his services are called on to investigate the murder of the wealthy vacationing widow Emily Boynton (Piper Laurie). Naturally, all of Poirot’s fellow travelers are suspects, including the dead woman’s daughter-in-law (Carrie Fisher), the family attorney (David Soul), an amateur archeologist (Hayley Mills), a beautiful doctor (Jenny Seagrove) and an American ex-patriate (Lauren Bacall), among others. With a British colonel (John Gilegud) by his side, Poirot sets out to unmask the killer in his own signature way.

The producing duo of Golan-Globus and action movie director Michael Winner seem like the unlikeliest of teams to take on a Christie production. Every fan knows that, at the bare minimum, any film version of a Christie novel should always have interesting locales, starry stars and that specific level of prestige that has always accompanied the best of the author’s film adaptations. Some of the concerns about the filmmakers’ ability aren’t altogether unfounded. A of the story’s elements could be explained better, a slower sense of pacing would help and some of the supporting characters could definitely use better dialogue.

But Appointment with Death also shows Winner to be more than just the helmer of Death Wish and other explosive fare. The director manages interesting angles, especially during the flashback scenes, which are done with such energy, they almost echo those of Sidney Lumet in his Christie adaptation. The movie’s chase scene is (unsurprisingly) thrilling and tense and the entire sequence around Emily’s murder ranks as one of the best in any Christie film. But it’s the uncovering of the murderer where Winner and Cannon are able to really stray from their reputations. With perfect musical cues, timing and a knowledge of the camera, Appointment with Death delivers a reveal that has the kind of suspense and flair any mystery lover can embrace.

Regardless of who’s behind the camera or taking the producer credit, the one thing all Christie adaptations have in common is their ability to hold onto the author’s subtle and oftentimes telling themes, such as the darkness of grief or the consuming power of love. In Appointment with Death, it’s the fear and threat of imprisonment, both physical and emotional, that reigns over all of the characters. Emily has a firm hold over her family (who would all like to be free from her), while Nadine (Fisher) feels imprisoned in her marriage and Miss Quinton (Mills) appears trapped in an unavoidable friendship by Lady Westholme (Bacall).

While prison is a theme in the movie, so too is freedom, and the lengths some will go to in order to protect it. A liberated Jefferson (Soul) is enjoying his newfound defiance against Emily and the aforementioned Lady Westholme revels in the fact that she’s freed herself from her American identity and is now a full-fledged member of Parliament. Whether it be the feeling of endless suffocation, or the need to guard one’s freedom from any possible threat, Appointment with Death gives enough clues regarding each of the main suspects’ state of existence and why such powerful elements could lead an ordinary person to commit murder.

Ustinov’s final performance as Poirot is one of great pleasure. The actor had not only settled into the character by this point, but he’d also honed in on the traits he so clearly connected with, namely the delivery of sly riddles to his suspects and the humor with which he injects into every crime. Nothing beats 1982’s Evil Under the Sun as far as Ustinov/Poirot fare goes, but Appointment with Death certainly sees the actor going out on a highly worthwhile note.

As with any good Christie adaptation that makes its way onto film, the guest list here is tremendous and each of the big names give their all to the list of suspects. Laurie is so malicious, she’s worthy of inducing nightmares, while Fisher does well in doling out hints about her character’s hidden agenda. Gielgud is engaging, Seagrove is lovely, Soul has swagger (enough to make you instantly not trust him) and Mills leans into the suspiciously flighty qualities of her role. Bacall is the standout here though. Much like she did in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, the legend is a nutty hoot one minute and an unmovable force the next.

Even though Appointment with Death didn’t do terribly well, critically or commercially, it’s still easily the best Christie effort Cannon ever attempted. Ordeal by Innocence is good, but very patchy and the less said about their version of Ten Little Indians, the better. The hope was that this film might be able to save the studio from the impending bankruptcy they were facing, which it sadly did not. Still, it’s as credible and prestige a title as Cannon ever put out and one which hasn’t lost its sense of fun and mystery.

Every time a new Christie film is released, I’m always tempted to write about one of her lesser known works that made its way onto films no one quite seems to remember. Titles like the star-filled The Mirror Crack’d and the psychological Endless Night (also featuring Mills) show why Christie is such an adaptable storyteller with mysteries which continue to hold up, regardless of how savvy genre fans become. I’m sure Death on the Nile will do well enough to bankroll Branagh with enough money for another go at “the greatest detective alive.” Whether the movie lives up to critic and fan expectations is more than ever anyone’s guess, but the spellbinding power of Agatha Christie will forever remain in tact.

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