UK / 1982
Director: Guy Hamilton
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Cast: Peter Ustinov, Diana Rigg, James Mason, Maggie Smith, Denis Quilley, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Colin Blakely, Roddy McDowall, Sylvia Miles, Emily Hone, John Alderson, Paul Antrim, Cyril Conway
Director Guy Hamilton follows the tradition established in previous films such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, by taking a an Agatha Christie novel and adapting it for an all-star cast. Peter Ustinov again takes the role of the fussy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, this time investigating the mysterious death of bitchy actress Diana Rigg on a remote holiday island.
On the island, which is run by failed actress turned proprietress Maggie Smith, Ustinov meets the assembled cast – most of whom have a reason to do in the ineffably unpleasant Rigg. Smith is in love with Rigg’s frequently cuckolded husband Denis Quilley. There’s also James Mason, who is a theatrical entrpreneur threatened with ruin if Rigg doesn’t star in his show, Roddy McDowall, a writer to whom she agreed to give her life story, a deal she later reneged on. Then there’s Nicholas Clay, who is having an affair with Rigg, and Clay’s shrinking violet wife Jane Birkin, who is aware of the situation but seemingly powerless to do anything about it. In addition, there’s Emily Hone, Rigg’s step-daughter to whom she is insufferably horrid and Colin Blakely, an industrialist who has given Rigg a jewel of great value and now wants it back.
As is inevitable in a Christie mystery, Rigg is done away with (this time via a blow to the head) and Smith implores Ustinov to solve the crime before the authorities arrive at the island and close down the hotel. Naturally, though, Ustinov only has to throw a stick at the guests to hit someone with a motive for committing the heinous crime. Taking painstaking time over each of the guests’ alibis, Ustinov recreates the crime time and again – trawling for and discarding each of the many red herrings – until he asks all the guests to join him in the drawing room where he will provide the denoument to the wicked tale.
Scriptwriter Anthony Schaffer plays to the brittle humour of the ’30s high society while director Hamilton (who had previously directed the Agatha Christie mystery The Mirror Crack’d) keeps the action moving along swiftly, playing again to the humour of the characters but keeping the movie from descending into farce. Both Schaffer and Hamilton realise that the fun of the film comes in the interplay of personalities and Poirot’s deconstructing the mechanics of the crime – no matter how implausible – rather than emphasising the social realism of the times.
Variety singles Ustinov out for praise, commenting on the greater degrees of warmth he brings to the Poirot character and then goes on to say: “Next to Ustinov, Maggie Smith shines as the hotel proprietress in love with the murdered woman’s husband. The latter is another nice-but-worried character played with quiet gusto by Denis Quilley. Diana Rigg as the stage star makes it believable in one short song and dance scene that she really is a star… Roddy McDowall is clearly enthusiastic about playing the clown for a change. Jane Birkin is thoroughly convincing as the withering maiden wife of Nicholas Clay, as she is when later emerging as a fashion-conscious beauty. She does some quite funny turns as an actress, too.” For Video Movie Guide, it is a “highly entertaining mystery.”