Saturday, January 31, 2015

SEXTETTE 1978

“Do you have a thing about older women? That’s sort of faggoty, isn’t it?”
                      Carrie Fisher interrogating Warren Beatty in Shampoo (1975)

Thinking back to those old Popeye the Sailor Man cartoons I watched as a kid, I used to think it was funny the way Olive Oyltall, gangly, needle-nosed, granny-voiced, and severe-of-hairdosaw herself as this breathtaking dreamboat, irresistible to men. Funnier still was the fact that in the bizarro world of Popeye cartoons, especially in episodes featuring shapely females of more conventional appeal, not only did Popeye and Bluto pay little heed to the flirtations of more comely lasses, but, obviously sharing Olive’s delusion, fought each other tooth-and-nail for her affections. Of course, it helped that the writers and animators of Popeye were in on the absurdist joke. A factor that goes a long way in making Olive’s subversively contagious brand of self-enchantment feel more like nonconformist self-acceptance than uncurbed mental illness.

Alas, not a trace of fun or self-awareness is to be found in Mae West’s live-action feat of self-delusion titled Sextette. A film that started out as novelty, slipped into curiosity, careened into embarrassment, and, through its plodding execution and pedestrian lack of wit, leapfrogged right over camp. Its ultimate destination: Bizarre, has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed cult oddity.
Mae West as Marlo Manners the female answer to Apollo
Timothy Dalton as  Husband #6 Lord Michael Barrington 
Dom DeLuise as Manager, Dan Turner
Tony Curtis as Husband #3  Russian diplomat Alexei Karansky
George Hamilton as Husband #5 gangster Vance Norton
Ringo Starr as Husband #4 film director Laslo Karolny
Keith Moon as Roger, the excitable dress designer
Sextette takes place in a world where an 84-year-old silver screen siren is enthusiastically pursued and fawned over by throngs of amorous males; the mere sight of her inciting near-riots of inflamed masculine passion and desire. Obviously, such a place does in fact exist in the real world...it’s called the world of the gay fanbase. It’s the world of the camp aficionado, the admirer of the drag queen aesthetic, the diviner of covert gay sensibilities in mainstream entertainment, and the upholders of that enduring mainstay of queer culture: diva worship. Had Sextette installed itself in this world, the only world where it made the slightest bit of sense for men in their 20s to go ga-ga over a woman old enough to be their grandmother, a hint of verisimilitude might have graced this otherwise preposterous Hollywood (it can’t be helped) fairy tale.

But were talking Mae West here. The unapologetic egoist who once told a reporter she never wanted children because, “I was always too absorbed in myself and didn't have time for anybody else.” A woman so self-serious and protective of her image that she slapped Bette Midler with a cease and desist order when she saw the up-and-coming performer do an impersonation of her on The Johnny Carson Show.  A woman who adored her gay fans yet bristled at any suggestion that her appeal to them might have anything to do with camp.

And so although Sextette’s existence as a film at all is wholly due to the efforts and participation of a battery of gay men both behind and in front of the camera (not to mention a gay sensibility running through it with a ferocity unmatched by any movie until Can’t Stop the Music); gays don’t really figure in the absurdly heteronormative world of Mae West, Sextette, or geriatric sex-goddess Marlo Manners (except as the setup for a tiresome running gag).
(Above) Alice Cooper, the singing waiter, serenades Mae West on a glass piano. (Below) The glass piano - and also, by the looks of it, Alice Cooper's wig - appeared first in the 1974 Lucille Ball musical, Mame.

The world of Sextette is the world of Mae West, and in Mae West’s world, all men are straight (despite flaming appearances to the contrary), and frail-looking octogenarians mouthing puerile vulgarisms while dressed in 1890s finery are the stuff of wet dreams. Watching the film as anything other than a colossally bad joke played on both the actress and the audience is a Herculean task worthy of West's small army of porn-stached bodybuilder co-stars.
To be asked to accept the plot particulars of this wheezy sex farce while pretending to ignore the fact that the object of unbridled lust and erotic desire at its center is in serious danger of falling and shattering her hip, is more than any viewer should have to take on. Small wonder that the film (completed in 1977) took a full two years to find a distributor, and then only enjoyed a brief, money-losing limited release before taking its place in the annals of misguided movie megaflops. How could it be anything but? The experience of watching Sextette is like a Vulcan mind-meld excursion into the delusional, soft-focus fantasy world of a real-life Norma Desmond.
Hooray for Hollywood
Slow-moving Marlo is welcomed to her honeymoon hotel by a phalanx of singing bellboys

The story is simple…simple for a farce, anyway. Amidst much hoopla and fanfare, movie star and international sex symbol Marlo Manners (West, who else?) checks into London’s ritzy Sussex Court Hotel to honeymoon with husband number six, one Lord Michael Barrington (Dalton). The never-to-materialize comedic hilarity arises out of the happy, horny couple being unable to consummate their marriage due to an endless stream of ex-husbands, show-biz obligations, and a world peace summit taking place in the same hotel (you can't make this stuff up).
While the wacky Love, American Style disruptions are painfully labored and unfunny, they do at least serve to keep West and Dalton from ever getting anywhere close to doing “the deed,” and for that we can all be grateful.

Given how enjoyably smutty Mae West was in 1970’s Myra Breckinridge (the film that brought West back to the screen after a 26-year absence) I thought Sextette made a full seven years later in the hedonistic atmosphere of disco, gay liberation, porno chic, and Plato’s Retreat had the potential to be a fun, over-the-top, musical comedy capitalizing on everything that there was too little of in the Raquel Welch film. No such luck.
Instead of a hip, off-beat entertainment like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) or cheesy curio like The First Nudie Musical (1976), Sextette was just a crass throwback to those smirking, sexless “wholesome” sex comedies of the '60s. All wink-wink, nudge-nudge, but for a few touches of '70s bluntness, Sextette would have fit right in among those neutered, pre-sexual revolution comedies like A Guide for the Married Man, Boy, Did I Get the Wrong Number!, or Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?.

Shot in that murky, flat style so prevalent in on-the-cheap exploitation films of the era, Sextette doesn't recall the Mae West’s glory days or even the glamour of old Hollywood. It feels very '70s, very desperate, and very much an ill-conceived, opportunistic attempt to meld the nostalgia craze with the new permissiveness.The film Sextette most resembles, in both style and content, is the tawdry soft-core vaudeville of trash like The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977)
Before it turned into a career embarrassment, Sextette was envisioned as something of a "best of" tribute to the career of Mae West. It was the hope that fans would delight in all the visual and verbal references to her old films. Here, West's famous Swan Bed from her 1933 film, She Done Him Wrong (below) is recreated (and widened) for Sextette (top).


There would be no movie stars without their fans, but sometimes fans can be an artist’s worst enemy. Fan disapproval kept the talented Doris Day trapped in virginal, goody-two-shoes roles well past the age of expiration, and fans allowed Mae West to believe there was actually a public clamoring to see her shimmy and sashay one last time on the big screen.
I totally get how Sextette came into being: The '70s nostalgia boom was in full swing. In 1976 alone, the following nostalgia-based films were released - W.C. Fields & Me, Gable & Lombard, Bugsy Malone, Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, That’s Entertainment II, Silent Movie, Nickelodeon, A Matter of Time, & The Last Tycoon
That almost all were resounding flops might have raised a red flag for seasoned producers, but in 1976, two first-time movie producers in their early-20s, Daniel Briggs and Robert Sullivan (Danny and Bobby as they were youthfully known in the press) paid no heed and followed instead the clarion call of Late Show fans everywhere. Gable was gone, Bogart was gone, but Mae West, one of the last living legends was still with us, and that's all they needed to know.
Hollywood columnist, Rona Barrett
Sextette also features appearances by journalist James Bacon (the white-haired reporter in the hotel lobby), Regis Philbin, and sportscaster Gil Stratton.

Although I can’t imagine she needed much convincing, Briggs & Sullivan came to West with an opportunity to pay tribute to her career while giving her fans what they'd been clamoring for: one last chance to see their idol in all her glory. She'd trot out her old gowns, sing a few songs, recite a few of her famous lines...everybody would be happy. The idea must have seemed like money in the bank. (I suspect West always felt the failure of Myra Breckinridge rested on there being too much Welch and not enough West).
The finished product proved far more dire, of course, with Mae West's performance in Sextette evoking the out-of-control narcissism of Sunset Blvd.'s Norma Desmond making Salome. Aghast critics responded to West's elderly sex symbol act with a virulent stream of misogynist, gerontophobic insults on par with the "Old woman's p*ssy" jokes leveled at Valerie Cherish aka Aunt Sassy (Lisa Kudrow) in The Comeback.
Do Not Disturb
Although she appears to be napping here, Marlo Manners is actually helping leading man Ronald Cartwright (Peter Liapis) with a screen test. Mae West was reportedly only pleased with Dalton and Hamilton as her co-stars. She thought Tony Curtis and Dom DeLuise "too old," and was less than thrilled at the lack of sex appeal of younger stars Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. Alice Cooper likes to repeat the story that West propositioned him, but I have a feeling he means she asked him to help her out of a chair. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Miscalculations of this caliber are rare and should be treasured. Sextette is valueless as a straightforward musical comedy, but it's priceless as a glimpse into a certain kind of insanity possible only through ego (you know who), greed (a good argument could be made for the producers cruelly exploiting West's delusions), and bad decision-making at almost every turn. Perhaps most shocking of all is that Sextette was directed by Ken Hughes, the director of the charming (if overlong) children's film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
A few of my favorite things.

1. The grab bag of songs comprising this musical's soundtrack are not only odd, but sound as though they were culled from scratchy recordings made at wildly divergent points in West's career. In one scene the tinny arrangement sounds as if started up on a Victrola. Another sounds overcranked, and many of the recordings have the hollow sound of demos.
2) The ungainly musical numbers were choreographed by 60-year old Marc Breaux (The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins) and assistant, Jerry Trent (Xanadu). I would like to think the post-dubbed taps coming from the busboys on the hotel's carpeted staircase is an intentionally camp touch.
3) Mae West has exactly two spot-on perfect line readings: (Following a knock on the door) DeLuise: "Who's that?"  West: "It ain't opportunity!". The second comes at a moment of exasperation when she says (with all too much feeling) "I don't know how I got into this!"
4) In a film with so many obviously gay men playing straight, casting Keith Moon as a flamboyantly effeminate dress designer is more than a little perverse.
5) In Mae West's opening interview with the press, I love the way everyone laughs uproariously at everything she says, only to stop in unison while they await her next quip.
6) The way she just kind of slams into that table during the "Next, Next" number.
7) The weird, decidedly sexist reverse alchemy that goes on when older women are paired with men a third of their age (think Judy Garland, Martha Raye and Margaret Whiting): They don't make the woman look younger, she makes then look gayer.
8) Mae West to an athlete- "And what do you do?"  Athlete -"I'm a pole vaulter."  Mae - "Aren't we all!"
9) The way DeLuise's dialog referencing Marlow's insatiable sex drive has a way of backfiring when you realize it's in relation to a senior, senior citizen: "This is her wedding night and Marlow's going to need all the oxygen she can get." or "By the time Marlow gets out of bed there'll be a new Administration."
Mae West made her first and last film with George Raft
West made her film debut in Raft's 1932 film Night After Night. As a favor to West, he agreed to appear in what turned out to be the last film for them both, Sextette. Story has it that West didn't want Raft to wear the grey hair toupee he always wore (he'd look too old, you see), and Raft refused to wear the jet-black wig they'd picked out for him. Compromise: the hat

PERFORMANCES
Mae West made a total of twelve films, always playing a variation of the Diamond Lil character she created way back in 1928. As a writer, actress, singer, and comedienne, she's a genuine trailblazer and groundbreakingly feminist icon from early days of Hollywood. But, (unlike her quote "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!") I find a little of Mae goes a long way. I like her a great deal in some of her old movies, and she isn't without a little bit of charm even in this misbegotten horror show, but her act can feel a bit one-note without some keen support help. And W.C. Fields is nowhere in sight.

Mae doesn't bother me too much in Sextette, possibly because she is virtually impossible to take seriously. Sure, she makes you gasp or laugh at first viewing, but later you kind of have to give it up to the old girl for still being in there pitching. Also, at her absolute worst, lowest ebb, Mae West is still more talented and interesting to watch than today's no-talent Kardashians or Lohans.
In 1964 Mae West made an appearance as herself on the popular TV sitcom, Mr. Ed. She wore the same gown in that episode (below) that she wears in the final scene of Sextette (above). If you've never seen this episode, I recommend it. Five minutes of it are funnier than the entire running time of Sextette.

Mae West never carries on a conversation. People feed her straight lines, she delivers the gags. This leaves the other actors adapting an every-man-for-himself approach to the material. Every "guest star" doing their bit independent of what anyone else is doing, and then disappearing to the sidelines. George Hamilton comes off perhaps best, with Dalton achieving the near-miracle of escaping the whole mess unscathed. There's a curious prescience in Sextette in casting Hamilton as a mafia lug (he would appear in The Godfather:Part III in 1990), and Dalton playing a spy (of course, he became James Bond in 1987).
Keith Allison of the 60s pop group, Paul Revere & the Raiders
In spite of the film's aggressive-but-unconvincing heterosexual thrust (Hmm, sounds like a West-ism), the casting of Sextette veers more to the gay-friendly. Sextette's entire cast of extras and dancers looks like gay pride weekend in West Hollywood. Timothy Dalton first came to my attention playing gay/bi-sexual roles in The Lion in Winter and Mary, Queen of Scots. Dom DeLuise always had a kind of comedy style that seemed very queer as well. And then of course there's the whole bodybuilder thing which has always seemed more gay than heterosexual in its appeal.
"They're flushin' my play down the terlet."
Mae West speaking to companion Paul Novak as overheard by Ringo Starr  

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Images of Mae West surrounded by bodybuilders were used extensively in advance publicity for Sextette. Her gymnasium musical number promised to be more outrageous that Jane Russell's beefcake-heavy "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love" number in 1953s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Unfortunately, like everything else in Sextette, the end result was a disappointment. While there is plenty of eye candy on hand, the entire sequence is little more than a lot of guys standing around feeding West straight lines for her familiar comebacks.
Like my own high-school locker room experiences, this scene is awkward, uncomfortable, full of exposed male flesh, and you'll want to avert your eyes but find you can't.
Former Mr. America Reg Lewis was an alumnus of West's 1954 Las Vegas act 
To the left is Cal Bartlett as the coach of the US Athletic Team. Front and center is Ric Drasin. Recognizable to fans of '70s physique porn as Jean-Claude(!)
Roger Callard (aka Stacy) is another 70s alumnus of Colt Studios, a studio specializing in nude male physique photography. At the center is Denny Gable, to the right, former Mr. USA Cal Szkalak
That an Olympic team has for its "mascot" a blow-dried and dewy-eyed male starlet (Rick Leonard) is far more provocative than anything Marlo Manners had to offer. Here Leonard greets Miss West with his best Gloria Upson (Mame) straight-arm handshake. Next to him is Mr. Olympia, Jim Morris

THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
Those musical numbers....
Love Will Keep Us Together
Baby Face
Next, Next
This upbeat Van McCoy disco composition was a replacement for the ballad "No Time for Tears" which Mae West vetoed for being out-of-character
One might have thought that the best way to deal with Mae West's age is to not make reference to the subject at all. Perversely, most of the songs seem to go out of their way to the topic. There's "Happy Birthday, 21" ; a disco version of "Baby Face"; and the reworked lyrics of "Love Will Keep Us Together"  - "Young and beautiful, your looks will never be gone!"  Um...OK.


Walter Pidgeon as the chairman of the World Peace summit.
To the right is Van McCoy, composer of the popular disco classic, The Hustle, and contributor of  Sextette's "Marlo" theme song, and the finale "Next, Next." Some sources list him as the film's musical director.

BONUS MATERIAL
You have a chance to hear Alice Cooper singing "No Time For Tears", the finale song from Sextette vetoed by Mae West because (as everyone knows) Mae West never cries over any man.

Watch the season 4 episode of Mr. Ed titled: Mae West Meets Mr. Ed (1964) on YouTube

A 1976 interview with Mae West by Dick Cavett. Not really an interview, he feeds her a lot of lines, and she says the very same quips you'd expect. However, there's one terrific moment when she talks about the loss of her mother where you get a fleeting glimpse of a real person and not an image. See it on YouTube
Miss West and the boys bid you goodbye
I'm not exactly sure why an international sex symbol chose to bundle herself up like this, but note that she was savvy enough to have the standing bodybuilder help to both cover and cinch in her waist. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, January 24, 2015

DEATH ON THE NILE 1978

On the occasion of having completed a collection of Agatha Christie mystery novels gifted to me by my partner at Christmas (in hardback yet!), I’ve taken the opportunity to revisit 1978’s Death on the Nile, the second film in the unofficial Poirot Trilogy from British producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin (Murder on the Orient Express -1974, Death on the Nile -1978, Evil Under the Sun - 1982).

Released in the fall of 1978 at the height of America's Tut-Mania born of the 1976-1979 tour of The Treasures of Tutankhamun museum exhibit, Death on the Nile was a less stylish, not quite all-star follow-up to the wildly successful Murder on the Orient Express, and marked the first appearance of Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. It seems Albert Finney declined the opportunity to reprise his Oscar-nominated performance from that first film after considering the rigors of applying and wearing the extensive Poirot makeup and prosthetics in the triple-degree heat of the Egyptian desert.
Lacking, for my taste anyway, the star quality Finney brought to the role which made him more an equal participant in the proceedings, Ustinov nevertheless brings a character actor’s zest to his interpretation of Poirot, making the character uniquely his own. Ustinov would go on to play Christie’s Belgian sleuth in two more feature films (Evil Under the Sun and the awful-beyond-imagining Appointment With Death) and three contemporized TV-movies.
Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot
Bette Davis as Mrs. Marie Van Schuyler
David Niven as Colonel Race 
Mia Farrow as Jacqueline De Bellefort
Simon MacCorkindale as Simon Doyle
Lois Chiles as Linnet Ridgeway
Jack Warden as Dr. Bessner
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Salome Otterbourne
George Kennedy as Andrew Pennington
Maggie Smith as Miss Bowers
Jon Finch as Mr. Ferguson
Olivia Hussey as Rosalie Otterbourne
Jane Birkin as Louise Bourget

As a huge fan of Murder on the Orient Express but having missed the opportunity to catch it on the big screen, I made sure to see Death on the Nile the day it opened. I recall the audience as being sparse but appreciative, and I remember enjoying the film a great deal; albeit more for its cast and surprising twists of plot (it’s quite a puzzler of a mystery and hands-down the bloodiest film in the series) than anything particularly noteworthy about its execution.

Murder on the Orient Express was a glamorous, cinema-inspired recreation of an era, purposefully romanticized and steeped in nostalgia. Death on the Nile, under the journeyman, traffic-cop guidance of large-scale-logistics director John Guillermin (The Towering Inferno, King Kong), is, on the other hand, a murder mystery well-told, but one devoid of either mood or atmosphere. The claustrophobic tension of a luxury passenger train is traded for the more scenic vistas offered by a majestic paddle steamer cruising down the Nile. Anthony Powell’s dazzling, Academy Award-winning costume designs do most of the heavy-lifting in the glamour department; meanwhile, the visual splendor of the British countryside and sunny, travelogue-worthy scenes of Egyptian landmarks offset the film's otherwise straightforward, TV-movie presentation.
  
Putting the best spin on it possible, Death on the Nile’s competent but indifferent direction and utter lack of visual distinction immediately put to rest any inclination on my part to compare this film to its (to my taste) far superior predecessor. Divested of any expectation to duplicate that film’s elegant, diffused-light visual style or compete with its first-class pedigree cast, I was able to better appreciate Death on the Nile on its own modest, nonetheless worthwhile, merits.
Intelligently and wittily adapted by playwright Anthony Schaffer (Sleuth) from Christie’s 1937 novel (which began life as a stage play alternately titled, Moon on the Nile and Murder on the Nile), Death on the Nile finds Poirot (Ustinov) vacationing in Egypt aboard a river vessel jam-packed with potential victims and suspects. The guests include: Poirot’s distinguished friend Colonel Race (Niven), an imperious dowager (Davis) and her mannish nurse (Smith); a dipsomaniacal romance novelist and her soft-spoken daughter (Lansbury and Hussey); a pompous Austrian physician (Warden); a peevish Socialist (Finch); a calculating American lawyer (Kennedy); a rancorous French maid (Birkin); and a too-rich, too-beautiful, too-happy couple on their honeymoon, (Chiles and MacCorkindale). Oh, and there's also a vengeful scorned woman (Farrow), MacCorkindale's former fiance.

As is to be expected, not a single soul aboard the good ship Karnak is there merely by chance, each life connecting and intersecting in the most intriguing, mysterious ways. The fun to be had in Death on the Nile is seeing these diverse personalities clash. The entertainment is found trying to stay one step ahead as the details of the masterfully intricate mystery at the center of the story come to be revealed.
Bette Davis  looks to be channeling a future Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, while Maggie Smith is putting out a serious Tilda Swinton vibe

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Death on the Nile is one of those movies which plays much better today than when it was released.
When Murder on the Orient Express opened in 1974, its all-star cast and artful recreation of a bygone era rode the crest of the '70s nostalgia craze and the public mania for star-studded disaster films. But by the time Death on the Nile was made, the cultural climate had changed significantly. Thanks to the popularity of the TV miniseries, the guest star face-lift parade that was The Love Boat,  and the last gasps of the disaster film mania (Airport 77, The Swarm, Avalanche): all-star casts no longer meant glamorous...they became synonymous with cheesy.
And while not officially a sequel to Murder on the Orient Express (although conceived as one) Death on the Nile was perceived as a sequel in the minds of the public, and thus also fell victim to the overall cultural disenchantment with the glut of uninspired sequels Hollywood churned out in hopes of duplicating earlier successes: The Godfather Part II, Jaws 2, The French Connection IIThe Exorcist: The Heretic.
People seeing Death on the Nile today see the classic stars of All About Eve, My Man Godfrey (David Niven, the 1957 remake), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Rosemary’s Baby, The Manchurian Candidate, Romeo and Juliet, and The Great Gatsby, all appearing in the same film. But back in 1978, the film's biggest stars, Bette Davis and David Niven, were appearing on TV or in low-rent Disney movies, Peter Ustinov was best known as "That old dude in Logan's Run," Mia Farrow had not yet hitched her wagon to Woody Allen, Angela Lansbury was better known on Broadway, and George Kennedy was like the James Franco of the disaster genre: unavoidable and seemingly in everything.

Time has been kind however, and the biggest treat now is being able to enjoy all these great stars - many of them no longer with us - in a handsomely-mounted old-fashioned film, looking so outrageously young, entertaining us with the kind of marvelous, once-in-a-lifetime talent it was once so easy for us to take for granted.
Swag
If you ain't got elegance you can never, ever carry it off

PERFORMANCES
Just to lodge two main performance complaints from the getgo: 1) Lois Chiles is drop-dead gorgeous, but I've never understood how she landed so many plum roles in high-profile films. When it comes to flat line readings, she really gives Michelle Phillips (Valentino) a run for her money. 2) Simon MacCorkindale's performance would have improved tenfold had he just been given a scene or two shirtless or pants-less. It's a proven fact (See: Evil Under the Sun / Nicholas Clay).
Dressed to Kill
I love ensemble films, but its almost impossible to write about individual performances without appearing to intentionally slight those not mentioned. I like the cast assembled for Death on the Nile, the weaker actors benefiting from roles requiring them to play a single note; the stronger ones running with the opportunity and creating memorable, ofttimes hilarious, characterizations. Anyone studying acting should keep their eye on David Niven, his silent reactionswhether exasperation at having to play audience to one of Poirot's frequent self-aggrandizing speeches, or delighting in seeing his friend taken down a pegare more eloquent than most of the film's dialogue.

As a fan of bitchy dialogue, I find every scene with Bette Davis and Maggie Smith to be pure gold. Their pairing is genuinely inspired. Jack Warden is the master of comical bluster, George Kennedy cleaned up isn't half bad, and I like seeing Mia Farrow and Lois Chiles reunited—they played best friends in 1974s The Great Gatsby—their roles here casting Farrow as a Gatsby-esque character losing her true love to the dazzle of wealth. It helps that Farrow is much more compelling as a woman on the edge than she was as Gatsby's dream girl.
The radiant Olivia Hussey (last seen sliding around on bookcases in Lost Horizon) and the late Jon Finch. Finch, looking thinner here than he did in Macbeth, was diagnosed with diabetes in 1974. 

Even after having read three Hercule Poirot novels, my mental image of the detective is not so defined as to find any fault with Ustinov's portrayal. Although I personally prefer Finney, Ustinov's more sensitive take on the detective (he has a marvelously heartbreaking exchange with Farrow near the end) is quite good.
Although I read somewhere that the actress feels she went a little over the top in the theatricality of her performance, I absolutely adore Angela Lansbury in this. Light years away from Murder She Wrote's Jessica Fletcher, or her Miss Marple in 1980's lamentable The Mirror Crack'd (but with a hint of Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett) Lansbury's tipsy romance novelist:  "Snow on the Sphinx's Face", "Passion Under the Persimmon Tree" - is the comic highlight of the film for me.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Death on the Nile's only Oscar win is also its only Academy nod. Anthony Powell won Best Costume Design for his eye-popping period creations; costumes which indelibly establish the identities of each member of the sizable cast with style, wit, and considerable theatrical panache. Although I'm surprised to learn his equally astonishing designs for Evil Under the Sun failed to get a nomination, as a six-time nominee and three-time winner (Travels With My Aunt, Tess, Death on the Nile), I don't suppose Powell is losing any sleep over it.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
There's a sense of one having one's cake and eating to  that comes with my reading Agatha Christie so many years after first seeing the films. I was able to enjoy the mystery and suspense of the films as intended, with no foreknowledge of their outcome or the identity of the killer, but reading the books after the fact had the pleasant effect of filling in some of the narrative blanks and backstory impossible to include in a film.
What I liked so much about the film version of Murder on the Orient Express is that in addition to a crackling murder mystery, it offered, by way of subtext, a poignant illustration of the manner in which a single act of violence can have a rippling effect resulting in the harm done to one ultimately wounding a great many others. The film version of Death on the Nile I’ve always felt suffered from being too much of a tale told expediently. It’s a great mystery with interesting characters and many surprises, but I never felt it had anything larger to express. Certainly nothing to justify that aforementioned choke in Poirot’s throat at the end of the film.
Poirot and Colonel Race call the attention of the ship's manager (I.S. Johar) to a matter not at all pleasant
Happily, the novel (which, short of a few excised characters, has been faithfully adapted for the screen) expounds upon the larger thematic threads connecting the characters and their actions. Themes relating to secrets kept, risks taken, and fatal sacrifices made in the name of protecting those we're afraid are incapable of taking care of themselves.
And while I feel fairly safe in stating that little to none of these themes factor in John Guillermin's film adaptation, keeping it in the back of my mind as I rewatched Death on the Nile did wonders for my reappraisal of it.


BONUS MATERIAL
Because so many fans of Death on the Nile feel so shortchanged by Simon MacCorkindale remaining fully-dressed throughout, by way of compensation I offer this screencap of Mr. Mac from the 1987 straight-to-video film: Shades of Love: Sincerely, Violet. A least that director knew (gay) man cannot live by Sphinx alone.
Simon Says: Eat your heart out
Copyright © Ken Anderson