[I love watching films in pairs. My Netflix queue is constantly being fine tuned so that I have a double feature ready. For example, in September I created "Female Monarchs In Distress", combining The Queen with Marie Antoinette.]
A friend who watched my Murder Mystery Double Feature suggested I check out some other Maggie Smith murder mysteries, Death On The Nile and Evil Under The Sun. I threw in Murder On The Orient Express for good measure.
Each has its charms, and annoyances.
Death is slow, and long. David Niven provides some comedic relief at the beginning, but it is offset by Angela Landsbury's not-quite-funny drunk sexpot performance, and an annoying native caricature of an Egyptian ship captain with an inexplicably Indian accent. And one of the main characters is written as a FREAK, it's a relief when she's finally shot in the head. Unfortunately, this happens only 5 minutes before the 2+ hours film is over. Yet there are several pleasures. Bette Davis. Maggie Smith. David Niven. Peter Ustinov. And a suspenseful, dialogue-free visual trip through the Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt. The closeness of the gigantic stone columns is used to great cinematic effect: as the camera pans between characters, they are all seen observing one another, all guilty, all distant, all hiding from one another, but in visual contact with the camera, and the murder victim.
Murder is slightly less slow, and a few minutes shorter. Albert Finney plays Poirot, and his portrayal is much more precise and studied than Peter Ustinov. He manages to make Poirot more affected, yet more believable at the same time because of his flashes of passion and deep anger. He is a pleasure to watch, offsetting the fact that most of the film takes place in a train that isn't moving. Also offsetting this stillness in scenery is the sophisticated intercutting of newspaper articles and flashbacks to another location. There is also a mesmerizingly brilliant performance by Ingrid Bergman. Yet like Death the characters seem like caricatures, even placeholders that the actors speak words for so the murder plot can be complex. The effect is that I would get restless whenever anyone except Finney or Bergman were on screen, no matter how much I loved the actor.
Evil was my favorite of the three. It is the shortest, most concise, and funniest. It also uses its location to maximum effect. It also uses Maggie Smith to maximum effect: she is by turns funny, sexy, and catty. Roddy McDowell plays a flaming queen that surely tops lists of hilarious flaming queen portrayals in film. The other characters are just as flat and underdevelopped as any of Agatha Christie's characters, yet unlike Death and Murder they are portrayed as intentionally comic, and as such they are far more watchable. Instead of wishing the film would just move on to the next character, I found myself wishing for more Maggie Smith, and all the rest.
One more thing. Evil also has the virtue of using songs and incidental music by Cole Porter. The songs all appear to be from Anything Goes (my favorite musical). The gem was a piece of "You're The Top," a song that never ceases to amaze me at the power of Cole Porter's prowess with clever rhyme. Some of the lyrics they sang were ones that I had not heard before:
You're the top
You're a new invention
You're the top
You're the fourth dimension
I'm a frog without a log
on which to hop!
But if baby I'm the bottom
You're the top!