Monday, August 31, 2009

One Success Too Many

This ultra-stressful August is just about over now and during such a time where you need to find some way to breathe easy for a little while you sometimes pull out one of those comfort movies which for a few hours help things seem a little more laid back. The adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel EVIL UNDER THE SUN is just such a movie. Released in the States in 1982 it seems like one of the last quality examples of that sort of old-school entertainment where it would have been appropriate to have each of the stars featured in a box at the bottom of the poster, even if the poster didn’t really feature this. The location it’s mostly shot in certainly helps things as does the laid-back nature of the whole thing. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the man behind several of the more iconic James Bond films, you could almost say that the arch approach it takes could very well be read as an attempt by Hamilton to make an ultimate Hercule Poirot movie just as GOLDFINGER might be his initial stab at an ultimate James Bond movie. It's not at all meant to be taken seriously but the mystery holds together pretty well and it does paint a pretty enjoyable picture of the idle rich lounging around an island on vacation, doing little more than sun, drink and, well, drink. In such an environment, even the annoying matter of a murder isn’t going to stop them from putting on the appropriate evening wear.

Working for the London Trojan Insurance Company, legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is investigating the situation behind a diamond belonging to Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) which is revealed to be a phony. Blatt insists that a switch was made when he gave the diamond to a woman he intended to marry, who later dumped him for another man. Poirot agrees to meet Blatt at “Daphne’s Place” an exclusive hotel on a small island in the Kingdom of Tyrania run by the King’s former mistress Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith). There, Poirot meets the woman in question, the famous, much despised stage actress Arlena Marshall (Mrs. Peel herself, Diana Rigg). As it turns out, just about all of the guests (played by the likes of Nicholas Clay, Jane Birkin, James Mason, Roddy McDowell and Sylvia Miles) have their own nasty past with Arlena. In spite of this seething hatred the holiday for everyone continues, until of course one of the guests turns up strangled on the beach. This results in ending the ongoing revelry for nearly an entire scene. Urged into solving the crime at Daphne Castle’s urging, Poirot begins to question everyone, but matters are complicated when every single guest has a cast-iron alibi. Not to mention the whereabouts of Blatt’s diamond, which Poirot has yet to recover.

One thing is for sure—you can imagine anyone seeing this film wanting to immediately go vacation in the beautiful surroundings where it was filmed—not in the Mediterranean where it was set in the fictional kingdom of Tyrania but actually Majorca, Spain. At least, watching it always makes me want to go there. It’s a beautiful place to spend a few hours in a movie but more importantly Hamilton always seems to have just the right idea of how to shoot and make good use of it, adding to the feel of frivolous glamour throughout. Essentially a bitchy drawing room comedy which just happens to have a mystery element to serve as its plot, the screenplay was written by Anthony Shaffer and barely a scene goes by without at least one flamboyantly quotable line popping up (“Such a valve still has to be invented, Madam”) that will be remembered always. Director Hamilton has added to this by continually letting his actors, even bit players, have bits of business throughout and all of this combined with the continued use of Cole Porter music as the score make it all extremely enjoyable—the score continues throughout to such an extent that when long stretches finally go by without it as Poirot is investigating and then solving the crime, its absence makes us alert to the fact that we now have to pay attention. Nothing much ever appears to be at stake even after the murder and there seems to be so little concern that a killer is among the guests that everyone still turns up in formalwear for evening cocktails only hours after the body is discovered. Of course, these characters are for the most part the idle rich (observing a passing yacht Sylvia Miles offers, “Odell and I were on it once…I think.”) with little that concerns them beyond their own cash flow problems and signs of the coming war are never in evidence.

The mystery element is well mapped out, with numerous devices to aid in keeping track of things including the “noon day gun” and it gives the audience the chance to pick out certain holes in various character’s alibis (though, cleverly, not all of them). At times the film is more than willing to just sit back and let the music and images play, particularly during an extended montage of the various island activities culminating in the big discovery and except for a certain disturbing shot of a dead rabbit to foreshadow the titular evil under the sun there’s very little attempt to set the stage for such doings. You get the feeling that Guy Hamilton would have been perfectly happy to not have a murder mystery upset all of this fun, but he never lets things get at all grim--it’s just a murder among the wealthy after all, nothing to get too worked up about (even glimpses of the dead body are pretty discreet). There is a place in this film world for much more serious genre exercises but the sunny, twisted comic flavor feel that pervades this entire film thanks to its director and screenwriter, not to mention the beautiful setting, makes it an impossible film for me to dislike. And it’s extremely rewatchable as well. It’s not as good as Lumet’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS but it is much more fun than the grim and overlong DEATH ON THE NILE, the first time Ustinov played the character. Not to mention that it’s a good deal better than Hamilton’s previous film, the Christie-based THE MIRROR CRACK’D, which has some interesting elements in the story (all from the author) but even with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Lansbury, Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson and Kim Novak in the cast it still managed to be completely unmemorable. Either way, if Hamilton decided to learn from that misfire in order to mix the ideal cocktail of intriguing mystery and sharp one-liners in EVIL UNDER THE SUN, then the second attempt certainly paid off. Diana Rigg sings, too.

No real surprise, much of the enjoyment comes from the cast, particularly Ustinov who Poirot seems to believe that so gesture or movement can ever be too grandiose as well as the great Diana Rigg, every inch a star in every shrill, unlikable moment she spends on camera. Maggie Smith is very enjoyable as well in the role of hotel owner Daphne Castle with some nice moments with Ustinov in particular (this film would be ideal as the lighter cocktail to follow Robert Altman’s Christie-inspired GOSFORD PARK on a double bill and it would be interesting to compare the degrees of cynicism found in both). Though it’s tempting to say he is underused, James Mason in fact has one of the most enjoyable moments in the whole film as he carefully, methodically explains how he doesn’t have an alibi and there’s nothing he can do about it. Not to mention that after Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor in THE KILLING, the concept of Mason and Miles as a married couple has to rank as one of the more unexpected unions in cinema history.

I saw it in the theater when I was a kid so there’s a certain nostalgia factor in it as well but putting that aside watching EVIL UNDER THE SUN during this time of year just seemed right. Particularly lately when things have been so crazed and hot here in Los Angeles. Peter Ustinov played Hercule Poirot several more times, on TV and in APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH, a Michael Winner film released by Cannon. If memory serves, it’s not a good movie and it seems to be forgotten now. It would be nice if there were another breezily welcoming Poirot effort like EVIL UNDER THE SUN from Hamilton and Shaffer, but this sort of thing was probably falling out of fashion by the early 80s and how many murder mysteries can be scored with non-stop Cole Porter anyway? I can understand someone wanting a more serious approach to these things—or to Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot in general, for that matter and I’m usually one of those people. But this one managed to nail the tone just right and as long as it’s there to watch maybe once a year when you need to take such a vacation to a far-off island with a fully stocked bar, it does just the trick.

“Couldn't we make this a private investigation? You know how peculiar people can be about a spot of murder.”


Ned Merrill said...

Here's a long-winded story related to this film...I found an old run of FILM BULLETIN magazines in my college library many years back--if you can find copies of it, it's a gold mine of industry ads and news from the '70s-'80s.

The magazine had a regular section with updates on films in production, organized by studio. In one of these updates I learned that SUMMER LOVERS, one of my guiltiest pleasures, was titled UNDER THE SUN at some point, but the title was changed because of the existence of EVIL UNDER THE SUN.

Unrelated note: the best ad I can recall from FILM BULLETIN was a full-page B & W ad announcing John Travolta in AMERICAN GIGOLO. He is shown in a light suit, cigarette in hand. Apparently, by the time Richard Gere joined the cast suits had already been fitted for Travolta. Could the travesty of MOMENT BY MOMENT somehow made him skittish about the Schrader film?

Richard Doyle said...

I also saw this in the theatre in 1982 ... I must have been 14. I remember liking it a lot, even though I had no clue who most the cast was.

I miss the days when movie posters had the pictures of the cast along the bottom. I think actor's salaries finally got to be too large to support "all star" casts.


Wonderful reflection on this classy Christie entertainment. Favorite Poirot was Finney ... he was so fastidious and more eccentric, but, even so, we do not get classy gems like this on the screen anymore.

Off topic, but right now you are featuring a movie poster at the right hand part of your blog under Now Showing. It is a coupling of THE ODD COUPLE and ROSEMARY'S BABY ... obviously 2 Paramount features of 1968, but what a strange pairing. It is, in fact,an actual "Odd Couple". Two stories of apartment dwellers in Manhattan, but dwellings featuring comedy and then tragedy.