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The Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon: Death on the Nile

And stay close to Bette Davis
‘cos hers was such a lonely life
[the Kinks, Celluloid Heroes]

Was she the greatest actress of old Hollywood?
To be completely honest, I don’t give a damn – Bette Davies had such power and subtlety, such an energy charge, that she “pierced the screen” like they used to say.


And this is the Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, and I invite you to follow the link to In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood blog to find the complete list of all the fine blogs that will entertain you and inform you with posts about the movies of Bette Davis.
As for Karavansara, you know what our topics are, and so we’ll go for a true classic of exotic adventure and mystery – Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile

I first saw this movie in a drive-in movie theatre, the year it came out.
It featured two actors I admired even as a kid, Peter Ustinov, in the role of Poirot, and David Niven, as his sidekick Colonel Race (why not Captain Hastings? Ah, it’s a mystery), and one of the actresses I would much later come to love unconditionally, Maggie Smith. But the whole cast is, as they say, “stellar”: Jane Birkin and Fred Ward, Jon Finch and Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy and of course Bette Davis.


Filmed in 1978, a time in which big screen movies were feeling the competition of TV, EMI & Paramount put their money on two elements TV could hardly match: the above-mentioned stellar cast, and the stunning locations, shot with class by cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
The music by Nino Rota is also worth mentioning, and contributes to a perfect confection.

The plot in a nutshell, without giving anything away: heiress Linnet Ridgeway and her freshly-married husband are stalked by Linnet’s former best friend (and husband’s former fiancee) while on their honeymoon on the Nile. On the boat carrying the newlyweds and their embittered ex, a mixed cast of assorted individuals is reunited, each one of them with a good reason to kill the heiress, and when Linnet turns up dead…


The movie runs like clockwork, the plot is tight and the cast is of course up to it with an ease and a panache that are hard to match.
Admittedly, Angela Lansbury steals the movie as the wildly eccentric Salome Otterbourne -and her dancing scene with David Niven is absolutely hilarious, but it is hard to single out a throwaway performance.
Peter Ustinov is still a convincing, almost-comedic Poirot, and he channels wonderfully the more ridiculous side of Christie’s detective.


And if Egypt is certainly the extra star of the movie, shooting on location certainly came with a price to pay – and not just in terms of money.
The seven weeks shoot was a gruelling experience for all people involved, with temperatures in the range of 50°C (130°F). Due to some administrative oversight, the crew was not provided with hotel rooms, and the technicians had to move from hotel to hotel, in some cases on a daily basis.
Due to the staggering heat, shooting took place between four and 6 am, and still, trapped in Anthony Powell’s wonderful costumes, the actors had little protection against the blistering heat.
Maggie Smith, Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury shared a dressing room, as no private dressing rooms were available, and apparently Davies commented on the whole situation

“In the older days, they’d have built the Nile for you. Nowadays, films have become travelogues and actors, stuntmen.”

Bette Davis was evidently not so fond of travelling, and indeed she brought her own make-up, mirror and lights – just in case they had none in Egypt.
Hers is a domineering presence – both in terms of character and acting – as the old and cantankerous Marie van Schuyler and her interaction with Smith, that plays her androgynous companion Miss Bowers, is a delight.


The end result is probably the best adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel – true, Murder on the Orient Express came first and it also featured a stellar cast and Sidney Lumet as director, and I am very fond of the follow-up to Nile, Evil Under the Sun (that features Diana Rigg and Roddy MacDowell, plus Maggie Smith and Peter Ustinov). But Death on the Nile is so beautiful it’s simply stunning, the music, costumes, photography and locations complement the excellent work of the cast, and I still remember all those years ago, sitting in a hot drive in on a summer night, the shock and the surprise of the finale.
Mercilessly logical, exhilarating in its presentation, and completely out of the left field.
This is another one of those movies I always re-watch with pleasure, but it has to be experienced on the big screen to fully appreciate the scale and majesty of the Egyptian locations.

The movie was not the huge success everybody expected, and I still wonder why.
Probably because people are stupid, I don’t know.

And in case you wondered why the costumes won an oscar – and Angela Lansbury was nominated for best supporting actress…


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