As innocuous as Evil Under the Sun can get–and expecting anything else from it seems unintended–the film does have a slightly discomforting feel about it. Perhaps it’s the extraordinary level of benignity, but at times, it really does seem like Peter Ustinov (as Hercule Poirot) is going to be murdered by each and every person in the film. Murder on the Orient Express, not to ruin it for anyone, along with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, makes Agatha Christie suspect. If there’s no good way out, she’ll just push on through… M. Night Shyamalan owes more to her than anyone else, in terms of wasting people’s engagement with a story and characters, anyway.
The difference between an Agatha Christie novel and an Agatha Christie filmic adaptation, as I just got done telling my fiancée, is simple. It’s about the actors, the location, and the running time. Evil Under the Sun runs around two hours and was filmed on a beautiful island in the Mediterranean. Ustinov’s amusing–though not as funny as when Ustinov’s really being funny, Maggie Smith and Denis Quilley have some good scenes, and James Mason has fun. No one’s particularly bad–Diana Rigg’s supposed to be incredibly annoying–though Nicholas Clay’s accent appears and intensifies after a certain point. It’s harmless, even if it isn’t particularly interesting.
Evil Under the Sun has an interesting structure–there’s no murder for the first hour. Then there’s a half hour of questioning, maybe a little less, then there’s a ten minute reveal and the end. While the scenery is pretty and the cast is okay, there’s nothing particularly dynamic about it. The film keeps the audience with the promise of the murder, as I imagine the book does, and offers them little else to do with their time. Guy Hamilton’s direction does very little with interiors–outside it’s pretty, inside it’s boring, but there are two days inside before anything happens and it could use some oomph. After a certain point, deep in the monotony of the supporting cast’s dramatics, I’d forgotten Ustinov was in the movie.
The end payoff, as delivered by Ustinov, makes the experience moderately worthwhile. Certainly nothing to watch again, but not a complete waste. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer wrote The Wicker Man, so he’s obviously capable of a good twist and a good end, but the adherence to the novel really handicaps him….
Directed by Guy Hamilton; screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on a novel by Agatha Christie; director of photography, Christopher Challis; edited by Richard Marden; music by Cole Porter; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Colin Blakely (Sir Horace Blatt), Jane Birkin (Christine Redfern), Nicholas Clay (Patrick Redfern), Maggie Smith (Daphne Castle), Roddy McDowall (Rex Brewster), Sylvia Miles (Myra Gardener), James Mason (Odell Gardener), Denis Quilley (Kenneth Marshall), Diana Rigg (Arlena Marshall) and Emily Hone (Linda Marshall).