Saturday, September 22, 2012

EVIL UNDER THE SUN 1982

Of the many films adapted from the Hercule Poirot mystery novels of Agatha Christie, I definitely consider 1974s Murder on the Orient Express to be the most elegant, effective, and classiest of the lot (that cast!). But when it comes to which Poirot film distinguishes itself in my memory as the wittiest and the most consistently entertaining, none can hold a magnifying glass to 1982s Evil Under the Sun. Striking the perfect balance between deliberate camp and the appropriate-for-the-period sophisticated light touch of a 1930s Thin Man movie, Evil Under the Sun is an unflaggingly charming little murder mystery whose many gifts (visually, narratively, and dramatically) become even more pronounced with repeat viewings.
Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot
Maggie Smith as Daphne Castle
Diana Rigg as Arlena Marshall
Roddy McDowall as Rex Brewster
James Mason as Odell Gardener
Sylvia Miles as Myra Gardener
 A suitably chi-chi tone is set from the start thanks to a credits sequence comprised of Hugh Casson’s stylishly character-based watercolor sketches accompanied by sweepingly lush orchestrated arrangements of Cole Porter standards. It should be noted here that the outstanding musical score (arranged and conducted by John Lanchbery) is very nearly my favorite thing about Evil Under the Sun and practically functions as another character in the proceedings. Happily, the soundtrack album is available on iTunes.
Evil Under the Sun doesn’t deviate from the usual tried-and-true Agatha Christie setup: An assemblage of well-heeled characters with hidden agendas and interwoven alliances finding themselves circumstantially confined to a picturesque locale where a murder has taken place. The cast, budget, locale, and designated sleuth may change (either Hercule Poirot, or Jane Marple), but everything else about the Christie formula is as reliably adhered to the plot of a Beach Party move.
Bathing Beauty
Monsieur Poirot prepares for une baignade dans la mer
And beach parties are an apt reference you see, for Evil Under the Sun gives us a Hercule Poirot on holiday. A working holiday in any case, as the eccentrically fastidious detective is dispatched to a tony island resort owned by former courtesan Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) to investigate a simple insurance fraud that (of course) turns into a puzzling case of whodunit. Gathered this season for fun in the sun is a gaggle of guests, all of whom share an unpleasant past association. There’s fey columnist Rex Brewster (McDowall); bickering and boorish theatrical producers, Myra and Odell Gardener (Sylvia Miles &James Mason); ill-matched newlyweds Christine and Patrick Redfern (Jane Birkin & Nicholas Clay); disgruntled industrialist Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely); and, most ostentatiously, abrasive Broadway star Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg) with her new husband (Denis Quilley) and reluctant stepdaughter (Emily Hone) in tow.
Hotel proprietress Daphne Caste (Smith) and guest Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) react in exasperation to some bit of Poirot eccentricity
While the mystery at hand is puzzling enough, with red herrings more plentiful than pebbles on the beach; the particulars of what follows in Evil Under the Sun are of less consequence than the flair with which they are conveyed. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, The Wicker Man) has fashioned a delightfully witty script of clever wordplay, colorful characters, and ceaseless bitchiness. Director Guy Hamilton, who I felt seriously botched the 1980 Miss Marple film, The Mirror Crack’d, redeems himself rather stupendously with Evil Under the Sun, seizing on every opportunity for character-based humor and conflict with a pacing and zest that so eluded him in that earlier film. Granted, Hamilton is greatly assisted this time out by a cast of accomplished British character actors surrendering themselves to creating distinctly vivid personalities while maintaining the genre’s need to remain a tightly blended ensemble piece.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
There's something I find very funny in this collection of testy and ill-tempered society folks trying in vain to relax on their vacation. In a way, each is out of their element (none more so than the seasick prone, non-athletic Poirot), and the strain shows in the All About Eve exchanges and edgy interactions.
Rex Brewster attempts to get the Gardeners to talk about their recent flop:
Rex: "Would either of you care to comment on that?"
Odell- "Why don't you go and play with yourself?"
Myra- "Excessively."
Rex - "Is coarseness a substitute for wit? I ask myself."
And if you're going to have a script crammed with catty dialog, you couldn't ask for better actors than those twin masters of the articulate put-down, Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith.
Arlena- "Linda, do stop standing there like a cough-drop and say hello to Monsieur Poirot!"
Daphne- "I hope you haven't come here to practice your sleuthing games on my guests. They've all got far too many skeletons in their cupboards to join in with enthusiasm."

PERFORMANCES:
The cast assembled for Evil Under the Sun is not only one of the strongest of the Agatha Christie series (it's Ustinov's second go-round as Poirot and he pretty much makes the role his own in this outing), but, stylistically speaking, it's wonderful how they all manage to be on the same page and hit the same notes throughout. The cast plays it serious enough to make the drama work, yet succeed in sustaining an air of caricature and cocktail party flippancy that is so deliciously amusing and makes Evil Under the Sun one of my all-time favorites. Even before I became a Downton Abbey addict, I've worshiped at the altar of Maggie Smith; an actress who has always had a singular way of getting words to do her personal bidding. That she is so good is no surprise; that she upstages even the well-cured hamminess of Ustinov is miraculous. Bad girls are always good fun, and the ever-classy Diana Rigg sinks her teeth into her über-bitch role with assurance.
Nicholas Clay and Jane Birkin are excellent as a mismatched couple
I was taken by surprise by how much Sylvia Miles made me laugh. An unsubtle performance to say the least, Miles is nevertheless perfectly cast in the ugly-American role in a cast of Brits (Lauren Bacall served the same function in Murder on the Orient Express) and the pairing of this vulgarian with the genteel and distinguished James Mason is really inspired. Their scenes together give one a sense of what the life of Lolita's Humbert Humbert might have been had Charlott Haze lived.
The happiest, biggest surprise is Roddy McDowall. An actor who has literally given the same one-note, non-performance in film after film for years, at last decides to create a distinguishable character, and he's marvelous. His Rex Brewster has the attitude of Rex Reed, the body language of Noel Coward, and the voice of Tallulah Bankhead. It's as if after all those years in the closet, McDowall could only let loose by playing an openly gay character in a film. He's the best I've ever seen him in this film.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
As a movie fan who's also a fan of the male physique, I can't tell you how weary I've grown of the decades-long tradition of mainstream films always representing the heterosexual male gaze. It's a given that if a camera is going to focus on a comely face, appealing chest, desirable derriere, or long leg; those body parts will belong to a woman, and the surrogate eye of the camera, that of the male. Let's go back to the Beach Party reference made earlier. Here's an entire genre of film that never missed an opportunity to train a camera lens on a wiggling female butt or heaving bikini top, yet never considered that there were those in the audience (women, gays, guys OK with their masculinity) who might want a close-up of Frankie Avalon's behind for a change. No such luck. The heterosexual male gaze was all that counted.
When one happens to come across that rare film that keeps its female stars clothed and trades the cheesecake for beefcake, attention must be paid. My hat is off to Evil Under the Sun for providing so much memorable footage of the handsome physique of actor Nicholas Clay (a fave since Excalibur) in nothing but a barely-there swimsuit. I've seen Evil Under the Sun at least 10 times over the years. Seven of those times were chiefly to get another look at Nicolas Clay's ample derriere. Vive la différence!

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
There's no way to talk about Evil Under the Sun without making mention of the wryly outrageous costumes by Anthony Powell (101 Dalmatians), the only man who can design clothes with a punch line. Seemingly taking his inspiration from a Wonder Bread wrapper, Powell's whimsical creations are the physical embodiment of the arch wit and self-aware humor of the film.
Sylvia Miles sports a black & white ensemble (check the gloves!) worthy of
Cruella De Vil
I first saw Evil Under the Sun at a theater when it opened in 1982. During certain scenes the audience laughed so loud and long that you couldn't hear the dialog for long stretches. I thought the film was going to be a big hit, but it's seldom spoken of today and only rarely shows up on cable TV. As I said, it remains my favorite of the Agatha Christie films and is definitely worth discovering if you've never had the pleasure. Certainly if only to see a pre-Downton Abbey Maggie Smith continuing to lay waste to the unwary. 

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
I got this autograph of Maggie Smith  when she was in L.A. making "Hook"

The late actor Nicholas Clay is not very well-known, but apparently very well-liked:
 Random Ramblings,Thoughts & Fiction has a great Nicholas Clay post HERE
Another good post on Nicholas Clay can be found at Poseidon's Underworld HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson

17 comments:

  1. Oh Ken, you've posted about my favourite movie as a child!
    I adored this; for the junior me it was the epitome of style, class, glamour and sophistication with its witty and beautiful cast, elegant score and sun kissed locations. I was an avid Agatha Christie reader as a boy and was disappointed to find that this novel was actually set on England's South West coast.
    I loved Roddy in this too. As a boy I didn't really know what 'gay' was and his character was just an impish delight, a funny little man-child that kids naturally find endearing.
    Nicholas Clay is an actor I've long admired too and have just been watching him in the TV series Psychos from 1999 which must have been one of his final roles before his tragic all too early demise. I was also a huge fan of him in the early 90s wannabe The Avengers series Virtual Murder which I've previously blogged about myself.
    I was a big fan of Ustinov when I first watched this but the more Christie I read the more my tastes changed and for me, Orient Express and Albert Finney is probably the definitive now. I did actually meet Ustinov when I was 11 years old. A school trip took us to Durham Cathedral where the local University was having a graduation day and Ustinov was involved with the Uni. He was very nice and took time out to speak to a bunch of kids.

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    1. Hi Mark
      I really enjoyed reading about your memories associated with this film. I can well imagine how glam this all must have seemed to a kid, and especially an Agatha Christie fan.
      I can totally relate to what you say about not knowing what "gay" is when you're a kid. I had the same experience of Paul Lynde. He never seemed gay, just a silly comic. your description of the appeal this kind of character would have for a kid is spot on.
      I liked Nicholas Clay a lot, but I admit that a large part of that had to do with the fact that he seemed to takeoff his clothes in every role. I read your post and found it so informative I've included a link to it in the body of my post for this film. More people should know about him.
      And getting to meet Ustinov!! Very cool! On talk shows he always seemed so interesting and eccentric.
      Thanks a heap for sharing your thoughts on this film, Mark

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    2. Thanks for posting your thoughts; a great review. And thanks for putting the link up and the other link to, which I've just enjoyed reading :)

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  2. If you'll permit or are interested here's the link to my ramblings on Clay in Virtual Murder http://randomramblingsthoughtsandfiction.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/virtual-murder.html

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  3. Four of the first six screen captures reveal the true theme of this film: polka-dots!

    Look at that woman speaking to Roddy McDowall on the beach, she looks like a giant bag of jelly beans! Also, check the Stepford Wives hat on Sylvia Miles!

    I can't say that I knew about this film before reading the above review, but that dialogue between Rex, Odell and Myra seems priceless!

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    1. Yes indeed Mark, you spotted it(terrible pun intended); polka dots are a MAJOR theme in the film, appearing in all colorful variety and permutations in the costumes of the cast. The hats too are ENORMOUS! The clothing in "Evil under the Sun" are every bit as fun as the film itself.
      This would a wonderful one for you to see on the big screen, the Malta scenery is beautifully photographed, plus, the dialog is frequently hilarious.

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  4. Please stop reaching into my mind and drawing out my thoughts! LOL I loved reading this and I so love this movie. I am cracking up about the Wonder Bread (and your latter day decision to post a photo of a loaf within the post to drive the point home!) Hysterical.

    I am in awe that you not only breathed the same air as Maggie Smith, but scored a personalized autograph as well. One of my friends, Joe, would wrestle you to the ground for that.

    I always liked Nicholas Clay from Excalibur and Lady Chatterley's lover, but this movie sealed the deal and I've worshipped him ever since. He's jsut so humpy! I read the post and kept thinking WHEN is he going to mention the swimsuit?! You were just tantalizing us by making us wait. :-)

    The dialogue in the movie is to die for and it's hard to pick a favorite line, but this one from Maggie about Diana Rigg is close! "Arlena and I were in the chorus of a show together, not that I could ever compete. Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us... and wider."

    Ken, did you happen to see my old post in which I went through this AC mystery and three others all at once? It wore me out at the time, though now most of my posts are that long. lol I miss these sort of gorgeous, all-star outings and fear there really never will be anything like them again.

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    1. Poseidon, our tastes criss-cross so frequently. There are times I'm looking over my DVD collection and I just know a certain film will be one that you do/would like. "Evil Under The Sun" succeeded to me where the Miss Marple camp-fest "The Mirror Crack'd" didn't, in that it had all that terrific dialog and actors capable of delivering it. Liz Taylor and Kim Novak just tried so hard.
      I'm glad you enjoyed reading this and picking out similar points of interest: costumes, dialog, Maggie Smith, & Nicholas Clay. Guys in movies who you WANT to take their clothes off so seldom do, so he was always a favorite of mine after "Excalibur." When I was in school and all my straights friends would go on and on about what actress was topless in what movie, I realized they would never understand how young gay kids seek the same in movies, but so films deliver.

      By the by, that Maggie Smith quote you note is the exact one I wrestled with posting before choosing the Poirot dressdown. I could listen to Maggie Smith talk all day.
      I have not seen your post on the Agatha Christie films, but of course now I have to seek it out. If you get a chance, could you perhaps post the link here for anyone who might like to read it? Thanks...and thanks for stopping by!

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  5. Here is the link. (Just FYI, I deliberately DO NOT reveal any of the endings to these mysteries - Who would do that??!), so it shouldn't spoil anything for those who have yet to see them. http://neptsdepths.blogspot.com/2010/06/evil-murder-on-crackd-nile.html

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    1. Thanks so much for providing the link, Poseidon. Your piece on all the Christie films is really marvelous, with several laugh-out-loud observations about "Evil Under the Sun" especially. I really enjoyed reading it and we share similar opinions (like on how disturbing that opening sequence is in "Murder on the Orient Express").
      It's really amazing to look back at the stellar casts these films attracted.

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  6. I never would have known about this film if it weren't for this blog. I watched it tonight after reading your post and had so much fun. The Cole Porter induced score made me smile whenever played. The costumes were just heavenly -- I admit sometimes I may have paid more attention to them than the actual dialogue. Polka dots galore! The cast was genius (McDowell getting more flamboyant with each scene!) and the script was so witty. We need more wit in films today. Thank you for writing about this film or I probably would have never seen it.

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    1. It makes me happy that in some small way I brought this very fun film to your attention! The arrangements for those Cole Porter songs are so witty, in keeping with the light tone of the entire affair.
      And i know what you mean, somehow the plot comes in a distant second to the costumes and bitchy dialog. I so appreciate your thanking me, but it's I who should be thanking you for reading my posts and being inspired to check out a new film or two. Much appreciated!

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  7. Also my very favorite Agatha Christie! My best friend Eric prefers Orient Express and Death on the Nile, but I guess I can't resist Cole Porter tunes, lush Adriatic scenery and a well-built man in a black speedo...not to mention the deep basso singing of Diana Rigg and the spot-on comic timing of Maggie Smith ("that finicky Belgian fart will find it all on his bill"). I agree that this is one of Roddy's greatest roles (I met him once; he showed us the most amazing slideshow of all his brilliant photography). Also love the costumes--Diana's peculiar red Chinese hat and Jane Birkin's smashing Chanel-type suit at the end...

    Though I also have a soft spot for Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Rock Hudson and the gang in The Mirror Crack'd, this movie is much more cleverly plotted, and Ustinocv as Poirot is so much more fun than Lansbury's dowdy Miss Marple.

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    1. Hi 66,
      Yeah, there;'s just something about the cast, locale, music, dialog , and costumes in this Christie outing that seems to have the others beat for charm and style. Your comments mirror my sentiments.
      I so wanted to include a pic of that outfit Jane Birkin wears at the end., but it's so over the top stylish that for those who've never seen the film, it's a marvelous final twist.
      And i like you, I have a lot of nostalgic affection for the cast of "The Mirror Crack'd", but it lacks the spark of this one. Thanks for reminding me of some of my favorite parts of this film!

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  8. I love this and Murder on the Orient Express about equally but in different ways.

    Orient Express is the zenith of the all star glamour outing will a solid story wrapped up with tons of style and design steered by a top flight director. Every role is cast to perfection-even Ingrid Bergman who I know has many detractors. I don't think she was Oscar worthy but I enjoyed her performance. My one disappointment with it is more a case of wishful thinking, I love Wendy Hiller and her work as the imperious Princess Dragomiroff but it would have been awesome had the producers allowed Lumet to follow through on his initial intent to cast Marlene Dietrich in the role, they thought she might be too campy, as if that was possible with Betty Bacall around!

    Evil Under the Sun has that camp value in spades but still manages to keep it in just enough check so it doesn't intrude on the mystery. While both Finney and Ustinov are great as Poirot with widely divergent interpretations I prefer Peter's fussy Belgian fart, as Maggie refers to him, I think because there's so little artifice involved. Finney's makeup job is impressive but I'm conscious of it throughout the film, Ustinov relies solely on expression and gesture, he utilizes an accent but even his speaking voice is not that dissimilar from the actor's own.

    While the star power in Evil Under the Sun isn't quite as bright as in Orient Express everybody but one is fantastic. That one is the horrendous Emily Hone as Linda, I know she's supposed to be churlish because of Arlena's treatment of her but her performance is flat and grating and the less of her onscreen the better. Not hard to understand why she only did one other film and disappeared.

    Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith should have worked together more! Dame Diana needs to drop by Downtown Abbey pronto. They had great lines to speak but a bad performer can kill a great line, these two greats make them into scalpels slicing into everyone around them and of course each other. The look on Diana Rigg's face after the higher and wider line is brilliance. My other favorite in this is Sylvia Miles, an actress I have a limited endurance for usually, but here the very things that normally set me off: her braying voice and crassness she turns to her advantage and she never looked this good before or since.

    Love the Wonder bread comparison, I had always thought of gumdrops when watching but with the visual of the loaf I was amazed I'd never thought of the other before.

    You mentioned The Mirror Crack'd, while I don't think its the worst Christie adaptation, that would be the dreadful Alphabet Murders with Tony Randall, but it's a weak entry. Everybody seems a bit off except Kim Novak, who seems to be having a whale of a time being able to cut loose and be a sarcastic bitch, and does have some great one liners but it hews much too closely to the Gene Tierney tragedy, I know Orient Express used the Lindbergh kidnapping but only in the abstract, but this one is a blatant exploitation and as such always comes across as seamy to me.

    Really enjoyed your recap and I concur with everyone else that the late Nicolas Clay was a dreamy dish who's allergy to clothing was quite welcome though he looked good all dressed up too.

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    1. Glad you're a fan of this movie, also. Had no idea Dietrich was considered! She would have been marvelous, I think. Very fun reading your thoughts on the film, especially re: Emily Hone and the dynamic duo of Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg.
      And I'm glad you mentioned Kim Novak in "The Mirror Crack'd"...she really does get into the spirit of things and is quite lively in a film that promised more than it delivered.
      Another great read, Joel! Thank you.

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  9. My real intro to Agatha Christie & Hercule Poirot was "DEATH ON THE NILE", which my Dad & I saw in the theatre twice-- something we never did. The 2nd time (2 weeks later), it was a completely different movie, as the thing was so incredibly well-written, we had no trouble remembering every detail, while the 1st time around, we had no idea what was really going on, until the end.

    I longed for a 2nd Ustinov Poirot... and was overjoyed when this one turned up, on HBO. While "THE MIRROR CRACK'D" disappeared in 7 days around here (I was very lucky to see it-- on New Year's Eve), I never even heard of "EVIL" until it turned up on cable. How on Earth could such a wonderful, incredible film go that completely unnoticed?

    Over the years, each time I'd watch, it would be like a new film. I figured they picked this one for the sequel as it may be the single most complex AC story I've ever seen. Try as I might, I could not remember who did what, when or why. Despite this, when I felt some years back inspired to write an AC tribute, it was THIS one I was crazy enough to model it after!!

    A few years back, I was so drowsy while watching, I missed the last 20 minutes. Frustrated, I rewound the tape, and watched the ending again. Miraculously-- and after about 25 years-- I FINALLY "got" the plot. ALL of it. It just suddenly sank in. A big part is realizing that the mystery really started at the very beginning of the film, which allowed me to grasp both the physical action on the island, and more importantly, the motivations. (Without understanding the latter, the former can never quite make sense.) As a result, a week later I had to watch it AGAIN. "Got" the whole thing from the beginning that time.

    I love the story, the locations, the cast, the dialogue, the music. ALL of it. And here's my own favorite bits...

    "Linda, didn't your parents ever tell you that rudeness is unbecoming in a young lady?"
    "No-- but they did tell me not to talk to VERY STRANGE men."

    ...and...

    "Oh-- OH!!! I see what you mean. You mean... NOBODY did it!!"
    "And yet-- we still have-- a body."

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