My late father was French-Mauritian, a distinction that he always made very clear to people. And I think that is perhaps why he was such a devotee of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective. My father took great delight in the parts where British characters insulted Poirot by calling him a French so and so, and Poirot deftly replied something to the effect of “I am a Belgian so and so”.
My mother is also an enormous fan of anything Agatha Christie, and so I was raised on Poirot and Miss Marple. Whilst other children watched Disney movies almost exclusively, in addition to The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas, I watched David Suchet as the great Belgian sleuth, Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, and, of course, Peter Ustinov in his several Poirot outings. Whilst my father rarely watched anything more than once, perhaps twice if it was a Steven Siegel film, he watched the Ustinov Poirot films many, many times over several decades.
My dad’s favourite was Death on the Nile, and even though I think that film is splendid, my favourite has always been Ustinov’s second outing, Evil Under the Sun. Like its predecessor, Evil Under the Sun is chockablock with stellar actors, from Maggie Smith, to James Mason, Nicholas Clay, Jane Berkin, Roddy McDowell, and last but not least, former Bond girl herself, Diana Rigg.
This adaptation takes many liberties with the source material, such as moving the setting of the novel from Devon to an island in the Mediterranean, and has the hotel run by the former mistress (played magnificently by Maggie Smith) of the King of “Tyrania”. Several of the character’s motivations and backstories are also changed, but the central plot is still the same: although the setting is beautiful, the shadow of evil lurks beneath the glare of the sun.
A veritable cast of characters come together on the very exclusive resort island, run by Daphne Castle (played by Maggie Smith). These include Poirot (of course), who is investigating the attempted insurance fraud perpetrated by the rather “common” Sir Horace Blatt (played by Colin Blakely). It seems that the famous stage actress, Arlena Marshall (played by Diana Rigg), has run off with Blatt’s incredibly valuable jewel, and is going to Daphne’s island with her new husband, Kenneth (Denis Quiley), the man she left Blatt for. In addition to these escapades, Arlena is also carrying on an extremely obvious affair with the slick gigolo type, Patrick Redfern (played by Nicholas Clay), much to the chagrin of Kenneth, and Patrick’s mousey wife, Christine (played by Jane Birkin). Naturally, when Arlena is murdered whilst sunbathing, the suspect list is rather long. Poirot has to root out the culprit amongst a sea of people intent on burying the skeleton in the sand.
I can’t emphasise enough what a delight this film is. Even the titles are wonderful, with water colour sketches by Hugh Casson, and Cole Porter songs sprinkled throughout.
One of my absolute favourite scenes in the film is when Arlena tries to perform You’re the Top, and Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith show their brilliant comedic timing. Arlena is in full, performative, diva mode, acting as if she isn’t thrilled at the opportunity to have centre… lounge, so to speak. Daphne wastes no time in deflating Arlena’s narcissistic display, going so far as to whip her scarf into her ex-rival’s face at one point.
Guy Hamilton’s direction is also wonderful. It was rather wondrous for me to discover many a moon ago, that one of my favourite Bond directors was at the helm of a film that could not be more disparate than that output. He gets wonderful performances out of everyone, emphasising Ustinov’s comedic abilities as the Belgian detective. He even manages to somehow make Emily Hone seem less wooden, even if he can’t quite avoid her looking like she’s reading lines off the floor half of the time. His experienced direction is also vital to making the various intersecting events leading up to Arlena’s murder, and eventual denouement of the film, engaging, rather than confusing. Richard Marden’s deft editing adds to the overall atmosphere of the film, with Christopher Challis’ cinematography bringing the Adriatic setting to life in rich vibrant colours. I must also mention Anthony Powell’s costume design, which is particularly wonderful in regards to conveying Arlena’s dramatic persona, and Daphne’s slightly brassy charm.
But, of course, it is Diana Rigg who shines in the very memorable role of Arlena, an utter succubus who has no care for the feelings of others. From the moment Rigg appears on the screen she is a venomous delight, giving a local taxi driver a cutting criticism for his car lacking shock absorbers.
Thank you for those three hours of sheer, and unadulterated hell! This may come as a nasty surprise to you but shock absorbers have been standardized equipment on motorized vehicles for thirty years!IMDB
She is the epitome of the stereotypical man eater and gold digger, who obviously has rather dubious origins, due to her being intent on crushing the tell all biography written by Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowell). Her poisonous wit is especially cutting in regards to her very awkward stepdaughter, Linda, who she brands a “cough drop”, “cretin” and a “dromedary with dropsy”. Rigg delivers all her lines and Arlena’s myriad of insults with deadpan flare, which shows why, several decades later, she would be utterly terrific as Olenna Tyrell. As I said earlier, my favourite parts of the film are between she and Maggie Smith, whose character gives as good as she gets.
Arlena and I were in the chorus of a show together, not that I could ever compete. Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us… and wider.IMDB
Whilst I am fully aware that most people consider 1978’s Death on the Nile to be the better film, and I must admit that in some ways it is; I feel that Evil Under the Sun’s irrepressible frothiness is irresistible in every way. But it’s not just the frothiness that makes me love the film. As an ardent reader of true crime stories and watcher of serial killer documentaries, I think this story really does get to the rotten core of the matter: sex, greed and murder often go hand in hand.
The opening of the film, grey and stark in contrast to the later sun kissed scenes, and Poirot’s assessment of Patrick Redfern as a “hardened adventurer and ruthless swindler” and not the “romantic figure” Redfern wants people to buy into; shows the audience that killers are killers. The scene in which Patrick murders Arlena in cold blood, is a momentarily disturbing slice in an otherwise light cake. That opening scene always makes me think of the Moors Murders perpetrated by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Although Brady and Hindley wanted people to believe that they were glamorous and sophisticated, they were just a pair of ruthless murderers. As Poirot tells Christine Redfern:
Yes, you are right, Madame; the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and yet you forget that everywhere there is evil under the sun.IMDB