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Film / Death on the Nile (1978)

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Death on the Nile is a 1978 British mystery film directed by John Guillemin, adapted by screenwriter Anthony Shaffer from Agatha Christie's 1937 novel of the same name. Nino Rota composed the score. Made following on the success of Murder on the Orient Express four years earlier, this was the first of six theatrical and television films in which Peter Ustinov played Poirot.

Middle-class Jacqueline "Jackie" de Bellefort (Mia Farrow) introduces her handsome fiancé Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale) to her beautiful, wealthy friend Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles). This proves a mistake, since within a short time Simon falls in love with Linnet. They get married and rush off on a honeymoon trip to Egypt, which culminates in a cruise up the Nile River aboard the paddle steamer SS Karnak. Unfortunately, a maniacally jealous Jackie follows along.

As it turns out, the boat is full of people who seem to be following Linnet and have a grudge against her or problem with her. Among the passengers are:

  • Marie Van Schuyler (Bette Davis) and her servant Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith). Marie actually doesn't know Linnet, but she has a compulsion for stealing things and can't help but notice Linnet's pearl necklace. Miss Bowers resents Linnet because her father ruined his father in business, leaving the Bowers family broke and forcing Miss Bowers to work as domestic help.
  • Louise Bourget (Jane Birkin), Linnet's own maid. Linnet was supposed to give her a sum of money that Louise would use as a dowry to get married, but she reneged.
  • Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) and her daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey). Salome writes ridiculous romance novels. Unfortunately one of them was a Roman à Clef about Linnet that was too thinly disguised, and Linnet has filed a libel suit that could be ruinous for the Otterbournes.
  • Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy). Linnet's American business manager, who has been embezzling from her. Now that Linnet has gotten married she has gained control of her assets, and Pennington needs to cover his tracks. While Pennington is following Linnet, Colonel Race (David Niven) is following Pennington; he represents Linnet's British business interests and wants to make sure Andrew doesn't scam her again.
  • Dr. Bessner (Jack Warden), a doctor who runs a very shady clinic. He resents Linnet for spreading nasty (and apparently true) rumors about him around the European smart set.
  • James Ferguson (Jon Finch), who doesn't know Linnet, but who is a communist and hates Linnet simply because she's a parasitic aristocrat.
  • Also on the boat is the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov), who is on a pleasure cruise.

Sure enough, Linnet is murdered. The boat immediately pulls into port—no, just kidding, the boat keeps sailing up the Nile, as Hercule Poirot sets out to find the killer.

First of three screen adaptations of Christie's novel with a 2004 episode of the Poirot series with David Suchet and the 2022 film Death on the Nile by and with Kenneth Branagh.


  • Accidental Misnaming: A perpetually drunk Salome keeps calling Poirot "Porridge" or "Parrot".
  • Adaptation Distillation: The film simplified the plot of the novel by trimming several smaller mysteries and plot beats, and merged or outright removed characters to keep the movie manageable.
  • Adaptational Badass: Simon puts up far stronger resistance and a more convincing denial than in the book; Poirot and Race have to resort to a bluff in order to cause him (and Jackie) to confess. Some of his lines during this passage are drawn from Christie's stage play, as is the bluff of the moulage test. In the original book, all it takes to break Simon down is the shock of Poirot hitting him with all that he knows.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: Downplayed with Jacqueline de Bellefort. It is she, not Simon, who advocates for killing Louise instead of paying her, and a large part of her exposition to Poirot at the end is omitted and replaced by a denial act in conjunction with Simon's. The latter of these points is drawn from the final scene in Christie's stage play.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy:
    • Simon Doyle comes out looking slightly better, but only in small details that do not change the plot in any way. For example, he is initially reluctant to go through with the killing of Louise, preferring to pay her (before Jackie convinces him otherwise), and in the final summation his backstory is given slightly more sympathy than in the book.
    • Mr. Ferguson comes across more sympathetically, since his character replaces Tim Allerton from the novel as Rosalie's love interest, becoming engaged to her in the final scene.
  • Adaptational Wimp: Downplayed with Poirot, in that he does not deliberately allow Jackie to kill herself, but instead she simply steals the original gun and performs the double suicide right in front of him, to his shock. His response: "Quelle tragédie."
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: In the film, Lois Chiles' Linnet has dark brown hair while Mia Farrow's Jacqueline is strawberry blonde. In the novel, Linnet was stated to be golden-haired and Jackie dark-haired.
  • Adapted Out: The film omits Cornelia Robson, the Allertons, Mr Fanthorp, Joanna Southwood, Lord Windlesham, Signor Richetti, and Linnet's maid Marie.
  • The Alcoholic: Salome. She's not Lady Drunk as she seems pretty cheerful and happy about life, but she is pretty much constantly drunk. In one scene she's surreptitiously buying liquor from a ship's steward.
  • Animal Assassin: As Poirot's investigation progresses, the culprit tries to get rid of him by leaving a cobra inside his cabin.
  • Asshole Victim: Linnet, much more than in the book. She manages to give at least three cast members reasons to kill her within the three days prior to her death!
  • Blackmail Backfire: Louise sees Simon leaving the murder scene, and blackmails him. She's rewarded with getting her throat cut by Jackie.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: When Simon says Poirot has no proof, Poirot says he'll conduct a paraffin test for gunshot residue on Simon's hand. Simon then confesses. Afterwards Col. Race notes that they didn't have any wax on board to do the test.
  • Book Ends: The film opens and closes with the same shot of the swirling waters of the Nile.
  • Brick Joke: During Mr. Choudhury's first scene, there's a gag where he tries and fails to identify the passengers on sight, rather than just asking their names. It comes back during the Summation Gathering when Poirot, after a rundown of everyone else's motives for killing Linnet, stops on Choudhury and suggests it was a case of mistaken identity.
  • Busman's Holiday: Poor Poirot, can't even take a river cruise without having to solve a murder.
  • Composite Character: Rosalie Otterbourne is a composite of three separate characters from the book: Rosalie, Cornelia Robson, and Tim Allerton. However, Ms Bowers is given Cornelia's backstory regarding her history with the Ridgeways. Louise takes Marie's role, and Jim Ferguson is a composite of Mr. Ferguson, Mr. Fanthorp, and Tim Allerton (in the latter, being Rosalie Ottorbourne's love interest).
  • Continuity Nod: During the Dénouement, Poirot tells Miss Van Schuyler that he was hoping to tell her about his recent case aboard the Orient Express.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: The letter "J", presumably for Jackie, is found written in blood on Linnet's headboard. Poirot and company dismiss this as misdirection as Linnet obviously died instantly from a shot in the head.
  • Crime After Crime: The second victim was murdered because of having witnessed the first murder, and the third because of having witnessed the second.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Mrs. Van Schuyler and Miss Bowers, though Bowers's exasperation might downplay the "deadpan" part.
      Mrs. Van Schuyler: How would a little trip down the Nile suit you?
      Miss Bowers: There is nothing I would dislike more. There are two things in the world I can't abide: it's heat and heathens.
      Mrs. Van Schuyler: Good. Then we'll go. Bowers, pack.

      Mrs. Van Schuyler: Come, Bowers, it's time to go, this place is beginning to resemble a mortuary.
      Miss Bowers: Thank God you'll be in one yourself before too long, you bloody old fossil!
    • Colonel Race as well.
      Col. Race: What are you thinking?
      Poirot: I was thinking of Molière, "La grande ambition des femmes est d'inspirer l'amour."
      Col. Race: [sighs] I wish you'd speak some known language...
      Poirot: "The great ambition of women is to inspire love."

      Col. Race: "What a perfectly dreadful woman. Why doesn't somebody shoot her, I wonder?"
      Poirot: Well, maybe the world's lending libraries will band together and hire an assassin!
  • Disability Alibi: Simon is not considered a suspect in the murder of his wife because a crazed Jackie shot him in the leg immediately beforehand, leaving him incapacitated. It turns out to have been a ruse in which the two of them faked the shooting, only for Simon to shoot himself in the leg for real, immediately after killing his wife.
  • Distress Call: Poirot, being unpleasantly surprised by finding a cobra in his bathroom, raps out an SOS on the wall. Luckily Col. Race is in his stateroom next door, which allows him to hear the call and come running in to kill the cobra with his Sword Cane.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: When driving to Linnet, Simon worries about whether Linnet will like him or not. Jackie promises that she'll adore him, and he'll be perfect for the job. They then talk about a trip to Egypt. We now know they're talking about whether Simon will be able to seduce Linnet and convince her to marry him to set up the murder.
  • Every One Is A Suspect: The movie ramps this up by taking characters that had no direct motive for killing Linnet Doyle in the book and giving them motives in the film. Specifically, Salome Otterbourne is facing libel charges from Linnet, which by extension also gives Rosalie a motive. Linnet is also being quite vocal in her denunciation of Doctor Bessner, due to a friend of hers succumbing to a mental illness while under his care. Miss Bowers is given Cornelia Robson's backstory of her father being financially ruined by Linnet's father, only that Miss Bowers is much more bitter and resentful of this fact. Louise is given Marie's backstory and is more persistent in asking Linnet for money for a dowry, Linnet coldly rebuffs these requests. Mrs. van Schuyler simply covets Linnet's jeweled necklace — and indeed steals it, but returns it when Poirot obliquely warns her he knows who stole it. Poirot lampshades this.
    Poirot: Mon Dieu, how she makes enemies of them all.
  • Exotic Backdrop Setting: The setting of Egypt and the Nile River looks cool, but does not affect the story at all.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Jackie tells Poirot that losing Simon will make her take her own life, putting a small pistol against her temple. It's exactly how she kills herself at the climax.
    • Colonal Race unwittingly predicts one of the murders.
      Race: [speaking of Mrs. Otterbourne] What a perfectly dreadful woman. Why doesn't somebody shoot her, I wonder?
  • His Name Is...: Mrs. Otterbourne, being typically drunk, takes her time telling who was behind Louise de Bourget's death, only to be shot while saying "and I saw that it was—".
    • She takes a long time because Simon tells her to. Ostensibly to get all the proper details, but in truth, to give Jackie time to get her gun and shoot her.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Mrs. Van Schuyler and Miss Bowers argue and bicker Like an Old Married Couple, but always stay together. Miss Bowers dresses in a butch manner when Mrs. Van Schuyler threatens to fire her, retorts: "this town is filled with rich old widows willing to pay for a little groveling and a body massage."
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: The other passengers on the boat regularly take offense to Poirot discussing their secrets and pointing out that they're suspects for the murder, and call him things like "you filthy Froggy eavesdropper" or "you perfectly foul French upstart". He only ever takes offense to the part where they call him French. He's a Belgian eavesdropping upstart, thank you.
  • Large Ham: You could make a whole plate of sandwiches out of Angela Lansbury's performance, and she's obviously loving every minute.
  • The Living Dead: When Poirot, Colonel Race and Dr Bessner are examining Linnet after she is found dead by Louise, the “body” can clearly be seen to be breathing throughout the scene.
  • Marrying the Mark: It turns out that Simon married Linnet as part of a scheme to kill her and inherit her fortune.
  • Mood Whiplash: Done very effectively. A rather humorous scene with Mrs. Otterbourne ends abruptly with her being shot in the head.
  • Mooning: Mrs. Van Schuyler sees some boys do this at the steamer as they run alongside it on the riverside. She isn't very pleased about it.
  • Murder-Suicide: Jackie grabs the gun that Poirot carelessly laid on the table, and proceeds to kill Simon and then herself, rather than get arrested.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Said verbatim by Jackie after she shoots Simon in the leg.
  • Navel-Deep Neckline: Many of Linnet's evening dresses have plunging necklines, and/or an Impossibly-Low Neckline.
  • Never One Murder: Christie stories usually didn't stop with one murder. In this film as in the novel, both Louise and Mrs. Otterbourne get murdered in the second half to keep the plot moving along.
  • Noodle Incident: “The curious affair of the decapitated clergyman”.
    • The Sacher-Torte Murderer, who got off thanks to Bessner’s testimony.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Mia Farrow does an excellent job of portraying Jackie as an Englishwoman. However, her natural American accent is quite noticeable during the bar scene where she is drunk. In particular her line to Rosalie, "Go on. You were saying something about being somebodies daughter."
  • Poirot Speak: Dr. Bessner manages to outdo Poirot in this trope.
  • P.O.V. Cam: A POV shot of the person who climbs up a tower at the Temple of Karnak and heaves a huge stone off the top. Simon pushes Linnet out of the way down below.
  • Pretty in Mink: A fur stole is used as part of the murder, specifically to muffle a second gunshot.
  • Psycho Ex-Girlfriend: Jackie, stalking Simon and Linnet everywhere they go on their honeymoon.
  • Roman à Clef: In-Universe, Salome Otterbourne's novel Passion Under the Persimmon Tree, which apparently is really about Linnet. Linnet has filed a libel suit which could be ruinous for Salome.
  • Running Gag: People mistaking Poirot as French and him correcting them.
  • Rustproof Blood: Subverted. The gun is fished out of the river, and is found to be wrapped in a handkerchief stained pink. However, Poirot notes correctly that a bloodstained rag would not look like that after it was thrown into a river. He figures out that the blood is actually ink, and this turns out to be a vital clue.
  • Sarcastic Clapping: The killer does this after Poirot finishes his summation near the end, believing that Poirot has no evidence to back it up.
  • Scenery Porn: Oh dear God, yes. Legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff and Egypt are a match made in heaven for the film.
  • Servile Snarker: Bowers definitely qualifies.
  • Sexy Backless Outfit: Both Linnet and Jackie wear backless dresses for just about every formal occasion.
  • Simple, yet Opulent: Linnet's costly white dress.
  • Slain in Their Sleep: Linnet is killed in bed.
  • Slipping a Mickey: The killers drug Poirot's wine to put him out of commission on the night of the murder.
  • Spanner in the Works: Most inconvenient to carefully plot out a murder, only to have a world-famous detective as one of the passengers on your pleasure cruise.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Murder on the Orient Express (1974).
  • Staged Shooting: Simon and Jackie stage her shooting him, complete with red ink for blood, to give him an alibi for his murder of Linnet.
  • Stealing from the Till: Pennington has been embezzling from Linnet and is desperate to trick her into signing a power of attorney which will stop her from finding out what he's been up to. He fails, as Linnet refuses to sign a document without reading it.
  • Sticky Fingers: Miss Van Schuyler is such a kleptomaniac that she steals the pearls out of Linnet's cabin after Linnet's murder. She eventually winds up putting them back on the corpse.
  • Summation Gathering: All the suspects were present at this, making for a suspenseful scene in which all the characters are looking at each other nervously. In the book, only Colonel Race, Dr. Bessner, and Cornelia Robson are present for Poirot's summation.
  • Sword Cane: Colonel Race saves Poirot from the Cobra left inside his cabin by bursting in with his sword from within his cane, and kills the snake with it.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: Linnet has a different outfit every day, and a different evening gown and a different set of jewellery to go with it every night, while every other woman in the cast has two or three day outfits (Bowers and Mrs Van Schuyler seem to wear the same thing, though it could be a uniform and copies respectively), and wears the same evening dress (or alternates between two) every night.
  • Unreliable Voiceover: As Salome Otterbourne is saying "I was talking to one of the crew, who was showing me a most intriguing sight, a buffalo and a cow yoked together tilling the soil", a flashback is shown in which she is in fact secretly buying alcohol from a crew member.
  • Whatever Happened to the Mouse?: Did Pennington heave that giant stone off the top of the tower in an attempt to kill Linnet at the Temple of Karnak? Poirot accuses him of it but he doesn't cite any evidence.
  • Woman Scorned: A furiously jealous Jackie has stalked Linnet and Simon from England all the way to a boat cruising up the Nile.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Poirot begs Jackie to "bury the dead" and forget about Simon.