Originally released 5 Mar 1982
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Starring Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, Roddy McDowall, James Mason, Sylvia Miles, Nicholas Clay, Jane Birkin, Dennis Quilley, Colin Blakely, and Emily Hone
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Stylish, witty whodunit with a touch of camp.
Between 1974 and 1988, audiences were treated to five all-star adaptations of classic Agatha Christie mysteries. (To be fair, by 1988’s Appointment with Death, the definition of “all-star” had been stretched a bit.) The first of these, Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, is a bona fide classic. It was nominated for seven Oscars, winning one for supporting actress Ingrid Bergman (her third). Although it’s not as innovative and analyzed as other movies of its era, no one would deny that it’s a very good film. Similarly, Appointment with Death is clearly awful; even die-hard Christie adaptation junkies like me will admit that. The critical reception of the other three Death on the Nile (1978), The Mirror Crack’d (1980), and Evil Under the Sun (1982) fell somewhere in between. What critics recognized, though, in 1982, was that, whatever they felt about the story, Evil Under the Sun had style.
The story is pretty standard classic mystery fare. An eccentric group of people are gathered in one place. Someone dies. Everyone has a motive for committing the murder. Seemingly random clues pop up. Eventually, a brilliant detective gathers all the suspects in one room and reveals the identity of the killer and how the murder was done. In the best of these whodunits, of which Agatha Christie is the undisputed master, the plot is so tightly constructed that all the clues must fit together perfectly to reveal the only possible explanation. Evil Under the Sun matches this formula exactly.
Actress Arlena Stuart (Diana Rigg) travels to a small island in the Adriatic with her new husband, Kenneth Marshall (Dennis Quilley), and her step-daughter, Linda (Emily Hone). The hotel is run by her frenemy, Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith), and Rigg and Smith deliciously trade fantastic barbs throughout their interactions. In one of the best, Daphne seems to praise Arlena by saying, “Arlena and I were in the chorus of a show together. She could always lift her legs up in the air higher than any of us,” and then she tacks on, “And wider.” Watching Smith and Rigg together is a delight.
All of the guests have some relationship to Arlena. Odell and Myra Gardener (James Mason and Sylvia Myles) are producers she caused to lose a fortune. Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) is a columnist and admirer of Arlena. Patrick and Christine Redfern (Nicholas Clay and Jane Birkin) are a couple acquainted with Arlena—or, at least, Patrick is—intimately acquainted. Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) is Arlena’s ex-lover whom she jilted to marry Kenneth. And famed detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is brought in by Blatt and his insurance company to retrieve a diamond Arlena allegedly stole from him.
Unsurprisingly, given the genre, Arlena soon ends up dead, and it’s up to Poirot to determine the guilty party. The novel, published in 1941, dates from the middle of Christie’s richest period (from 1930-1944) when most of her best novels were written. Her talent for plotting was never sharper. The murder is excellently constructed with a satisfying conclusion. The guilty party reflects Christie’s biggest bugaboo (which I’m not going to reveal, obviously).
The screenplay by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) simplifies this plot, stripping out extraneous storylines (which, again, I won’t reveal to protect book readers from learning what is irrelevant before reading), to its barest essentials, making it sharper and tighter. The inclusion of the subplot involving the diamond adds a MacGuffin to the story, a device that works particularly well in films. The film makes several modifications to characters, eliminating some suspects and combining others. The most interesting change is the alteration of Emily Brewster, an athletic school teacher and implied lesbian, to the columnist, Rex Brewster, an exaggerated figure of a flamboyantly gay man, the type that McDowall, who was reportedly gay in real life, typically played.
The entire film has a slight patina of camp, from the costumes to the dialogue and, especially in the performances. (Let’s face it—people don’t cast Sylvia Myles in a movie unless they want some level of camp.) Everything about the film is deliciously exaggerated—broader and more colorful than Christie’s novel. Many Christie purists don’t like Ustinov’s larger-than-life take on Poirot, preferring the quieter characterization of David Suchet. Ustinov was the first Poirot I encountered, and, thus, I enjoy his performance immensely, even if it varies from the Poirot of the novels. Ustinov had previously played Poirot in Death on the Nile, taking over from Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express. He would play Poirot four more times after Evil Under the Sun, in Appointment with Death and in three made-for-television films, but his presentation of the character is at its peak here. He’s settled into the role, but he hasn’t gotten stale.
Evil Under the Sun is my “desert island” film; if I were stranded on a desert island with only one film to watch, Evil Under the Sun would be it. Even though I know who the killer is and could probably recite the dialogue by heart with no prompting, I don’t get tired of the film. It’s brilliantly plotted and wonderfully witty. It’s snappily directed by Guy Hamilton (best known for a number of James Bond films). It boasts fantastic scenery, and I don’t just mean Nicholas Clay in that skimpy little bit of a swimsuit (although that is a popular element among the movie’s cult following). The setting of the novel is changed from the English coast to the Adriatic, but the locations used in the film were all on Majorca. Distant shots of the island are actually Sa Dragonera off of Spain. The film looks gorgeous.
And it sounds gorgeous. One of the treats of this movie is the lush score composed of various Cole Porter tunes adapted by John Lanchbery. Porter is noted for his clever lyrics, but here the instrumental score highlights his fantastic melodies. If you’re not a fan of Porter before this movie, you will be after. (Well, I guess I can’t guarantee that. You may have no taste.)
Evil Under the Sun is not serious filmmaking. It’s not an important film in the annals of film scholarship. But it has style and intelligence in spades, and that’s more than most films have.