Today, an all-star cast isn’t always the sign of a great movie. It gets people in seats, but once the gimmick wears off there’s often not much left. 1978’s Death on the Nile and 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d, however, are good examples of when a star-studded cast proved to be more than a marketing stunt. Both films were produced by Richard Goodwin and John Brabourne, who adapted four Agatha Christie novels for the big screen. The first was Murder on the Orient Express and the last was Evil Under the Sun. The Mirror Crack’d is the outlier, in that it is the only one without Christie’s famed detective, Hercule Poirot. Death on the Nile has some significance, too, though, for being the first time Peter Ustinov played Poirot (Albert Finney played him in Orient Express).
Simon (Simon MacCorkindale) and Jackie (Mia Farrow) are engaged when John Guillermin‘s Death on the Nile begins. It’s Simon and Linnet (Lois Chiles), however, who end up honeymooning in Egypt on a boat where every passenger has a reason for wanting to see Linnet dead. Someone gets murdered, of course, and it’s up to Poirot to figure out who did it. Along the way, he’s assisted by David Niven as Colonel Race, who is his usual, charming self. Bette Davis (All About Eve) and Olivia Hussey (Black Christmas) are two of the suspects, along with Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey), who looks impeccable in menswear. Angela Lansbury steals every scene she’s in as Salome Otterbourne, a romance novelist who calls Poirot ‘Monsieur Porridge’ for some reason and convinces Colonel Race to dance the tango with her. In typical Poirot style, the film ends with Poirot having everyone gather to learn the identity of the killer. While the answer isn’t predictable, it’s not splashy either, and considering how few tears are shed in this movie, the violence is quite graphic.
To say that Death on the Nile left me excited for Lansbury’s turn as Mrs. Marple is an understatement, but while Mrs. Marple is a more iconic character, Lansbury had more to do as Mrs. Otterbourne. Unlike Poirot, Mrs. Marple doesn’t have the authority to ask people questions. Consequently, she sits most of Guy Hamilton‘s The Mirror Crack’d out while her nephew, Dermot (Edward Fox), leads the investigation.
Luckily, Fox is up for the job, but if Lansbury isn’t the reason to watch The Mirror Crack’d, Elizabeth Taylor definitely is. On the page, ‘actress trying to stage a comeback’ sounds like a showy part (and no one could chew scenery better than Taylor). But in The Mirror Crack’d, she gets to give an understated performance while Kim Novak plays the diva. Rock Hudson is moving as well as Taylor’s director/husband who is concerned that his wife might’ve been the murderer’s real target.
Kino Lorber’s Death on the Nile Blu-Ray include a making-of-featurette that starts out quiet, where you almost think it might be silent, and includes some overlong clips, but ends up containing some great interviews with the producers and production designer, Peter Murton. Jon Finch is saddled with one of the thinner characters in the movie, but it’s interesting to hear from him on the holes in his character’s backstory.
Both Christie films come with a commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson. The Mirror Crack’d commentary is especially good, as they talk about the relationship between Lansbury and Fox’s characters and compare the movie to the book.
The Mirror Crack’d and Death on the Nile are available now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.