Evil Under The Sun (1981, Dir. Guy Hamilton)
A selection of guests, including the famous detective, Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) gather on a small island off the coast of Tyrania, somewhere in the Mediterranean. One of the guests, Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg), a former dancer and actress, seems to be hated by almost every guest, having upset, annoyed or reneged on promises to each of them. It’s then perhaps not terribly surprising that she is found strangled on one of the island’s beaches. What is surprising is that every single guest seems to have a water tight alibi, confirmed by someone else. Poirot must once again exercise his “little grey cells” in order to discover the murderer.
I will admit here and now, and without a trace of shame, that I’m huge Agatha Christie fan (and in fact of period murder mysteries in general). In my early teens I read many of the Miss Marple books and would regularly watch the various film and tv incarnations of both of Dame Agatha’s most famous detectives , from the black white films featuring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple right through to the superb tv series of Poirot, featuring David Suchet as the title character, which was then just beginning to be broadcast. In more recent years, I’ve watched them again, first with my wife who’d not having grown up in the U.K. had not seen many of them, and then in the last few months with my children, who are now at an age where they too can enjoy the cleverness of the plots and the charm of the characters.
As much as I enjoy Suchet’s extremely faithful take on Poirot, the most effective of the many episodes, for me, were always those that were based on a Poirot short story. The scope and limitations of a tv budget were less apparent on these stories, whereas later when they attempted to film the novels on an expanded but nonetheless TV movie budget, they often somehow fell short.
This particular film however, whilst not a huge budget movie (in fact, the budgets of each of the film versions of Poirot, starting with Albert Finney’s take on the character in Murder On The Orient Express, would have successively smaller budgets, climaxing in the terrible modern day Ustinov Poirots such as Thirteen At Dinner -which had David Suchet as Inspector Japp- and Appointment With Death which are absolute travesties) is a textbook example of how to do Christie properly with decent locations (Majorca standing in for the fictional Tyrania and slightly more glamorous than the original novel’s setting on Devon!) and superb cinematic adaptation by none other than Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, The Wicker Man), which stays faithful to Christie’s plot but dispenses with the often laughable (and not in a good way) dialogue that is often a problem with adaptations of her work (even, or perhaps especially when she did the adaptation herself — pick up any of the novels that she adapted personally for the stage and you’ll quickly see what I mean).
Ustinov’s version of Poirot, whilst straying considerably from the character described in the novels, is nevertheless so enjoyable to watch here, that all such details are rendered unimportant. From his first entrance, where his name is mispronounced by a secretary and he replies with the wonderful line: “No, no madam: “Poi-rot”, purse your lips, as if bestowing a kiss”; He is quite simply a joy to behold. In his previous screen outing as Poirot, Death On The Nile, Ustinov was more restrained but here, with the support of Director Guy Hamilton he is given free reign to inject the character with all the wonderful comic eccentricity that he’s always excelled in as an actor. It’s never overdone however, and everything from the many subtle facial expressions, to the wonderful little forced chuckle he’s given the character, work perfectly.
He’s helped by superb ensemble cast, all of whom seem enjoy themselves in roles, which like so many of those in Christie’s work are only a short step away from becoming charactures. They’re all great but special praise must go to Maggie Smith as Daphne Castle, who runs the hotel on the island and has (aside from Poirot) some of the best lines in the film, delivered with the wonderful timing that she always has had for comedy. Diana Rigg as the fabulously bitchy Arlena and a lovely campy performance from Roddy McDowall as gossip columnist, Rex Brewster, are also great fun.
As with all Christie’s work the plot is superb and this story, where every one of the characters seems to have a cast iron alibi, is one of her most interesting and is perfectly executed here with lots of seemingly unimportant details later coming back in the story, to the extent where it’s almost more fun to watch it a second time and check whether all the clues you missed where actually there to begin with.
Add to this the nice touch of adapting Cole Porter songs for the underscore and you have a really great Agatha Christie adaptation that you can still “get a kick out of” no matter how many times you watch it.