Starring Peter Ustinov, Lauren Bacall, Piper Laurie, and John Gielgud
My rating: ★ star
Bland and disappointing—for Christie and Bacall completists only.
Appointment with Death is the fourth “all-star” Christie adaptation to follow Murder on the Orient Express. I have to use ironic quotation marks here, as the level of stardom of this movie’s cast hardly compares with that of the earlier films. The biggest stars here are Ustinov, John Gielgud, Piper Laurie, and Lauren Bacall. The rest are second, third, or no tier actors—Jenny Seagrove, Carrie Fisher, David Soul, Hayley Mills, Nicholas Guest, Valerie Richards, John Terlesky, and Amber Bezer.
It’s not the lack of star power that makes this movie a failure, though—although it does make it obvious who the killer is (I shall say no more for fear of spoilers). The film has deep flaws in writing and directing that it couldn’t possibly recover from even if the performances were interesting—which they’re not (save for Bacall, who manages to have good moments despite poor direction that allows her to overact through most of the film). Even Ustinov seems bored. This film marks the sixth time Peter Ustinov played Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Perhaps, he was tired of the role.
The whole film seems tired, and it’s tiring to watch it lumber to its inevitable conclusion. The filmmakers expended no energy in casting the film. Only Bacall and Laurie are suited to the parts they played. Nor was any effort put into location work. Even if the filmmakers weren’t allowed to film at Petra, the setting of Christie’s novel (although Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade managed it), they could have found a location in the Middle East that looked remotely cinematic and not one that looked like Generic Desert Location #17 (for all the distinction it has, with Carrie Fisher there, it could have been Tatooine). The movie was reportedly filmed in Jaffa, Israel, which looks more interesting in photos on Wikipedia than it does in the movie. The music in the film is similarly uninteresting. Murder on the Orient Express has a fantastic score. Death on the Nile’s is very good. Evil Under the Sun has one of the greatest scores of all time. Appointment with Death sounds like the music was taken from a collection of royalty-free music made to sound like 1980s film scores. The score isn’t just bad. It’s bad and intrusive.
Some debate exists as to whether the source novel was “classic Christie” or “lesser Christie.” Published in 1938, it certainly comes from Christie’s most creatively successful period. It was preceded by Death on the Nile and followed by Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, two inarguably classic Christie novels. Like its predecessor, Appointment with Death has an exotic location. Like its successor, the novel focuses on family relations. While the father is the toxic member of the family in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, it’s the mother here, the sadistic Mrs. Boynton (Laurie), who poisons her family, torturing her grown children with petty games while controlling them financially. Unlike Nile or Christmas, the crime in Appointment with Death is simple. The murder of Mrs. Boynton (naturally, she’s the victim) is a crime of opportunity. The story lacks the labyrinthine plotting, the unravelling of which makes many Christie stories so enjoyable. It does, however, pick up a key theme of the Poirot novels: that people, no matter how innocent, lie. It’s Poirot’s job to get them to talk and, in talking, accidentally reveal truths.
The screenplay wisely keeps the line where Poirot explains this method for solving crimes. However, it drops entirely the explanation of the title, which comes from the ancient Middle Eastern folktale about a man trying to outrun Death, which had been recently popularized in stories by W. Somerset Maugham and John O’Hara. This folktale is not important in understanding the narrative, but it adds flavor, something the film is sadly lacking. The screenplay lacks the wit that permeates Christie’s novels. Every scene in the film seems bland and perfunctory.
As with most Christie adaptations, the middle part of the film consists of the detective questioning suspects. Sidney Lumet’s outstanding direction and the quality of the performances kept this section riveting in Murder on the Orient Express. That’s not the case here. Director Michael Winner doesn’t know how to make two people talking interesting. The shots are static, the performances wooden. Viewers may be tempted to check repeatedly the remaining time in the movie as Poirot has one dull conversation after another, and they may be dismayed to discover that only 3-4 minutes have passed since the last time they checked.
I wanted to like this movie. I’m a big fan of Christie adaptations. I count some of them among my favorite movies of all time. But, every time I watch this movie, I experience renewed disappointment. I always hope I’ll find something to like. I always fail.
*Normally, I include the original poster for the movie. However, the poster for Appointment with Death reveals the killer, so I’m using a publicity shot instead.