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Old Movie Review: Agatha Christie's "Evil Under the Sun" with Peter Ustinov

Updated on November 19, 2011

Tip: Always plan a murder on a secluded island; it narrows down the suspects.

Dragonera Island, used as the setting of the film. (In reality, it's off the coast of Spain...shh!)
Dragonera Island, used as the setting of the film. (In reality, it's off the coast of Spain...shh!) | Source

Evil Under the Sun

Evil Under the Sun
Evil Under the Sun

Directed by Guy Hamilton, 1982.

 

A Hercule Poirot Film

Campy acting by an all-star cast, a good old-fashioned Agatha Christie whodunnit, Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, and a chance to see Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith on the screen together -- when I stumbled across Evil Under the Sun while browsing Netflix, I pounced upon it.

It did not disappoint me. I don't think it was Oscar-worthy, as the pacing was a little slow and the quality slightly choppy, but it's still enjoyable. Here's a brief summary, to avoid spoilers: at a quirky resort/retreat for aging actors and theater types in the Mediterranean, practically every hotel guest has sound reasons to murder the victim, and practically everyone has an alibi. Prior to the murder, there are catty quips and zingers, adultery, quite a lot of eccentricity, and some truly ridiculous hats. Poirot solves the case in a suitably theatrical performance at the end of the story.

I nearly figured out whodunnit through surprisingly acute knowledge of Diana Rigg's anatomy -- her kneecaps, to be precise -- but I still needed Poirot to explain it all to me. The "revelation" sequence should surprise you.

The cast is a mix of Shakespearean and character actors: Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith (introduced to a new generation of fans as Professor Minerva McGonagall), Diana Rigg (lots of serious work, but I'll always adore her for Ms. Emma Peel in The Avengers), Nicholas Clay (Merlin, Excalibur, New Adventures of Robin Hood and a lot of other second-rate films), Colin Blakely, Jane Birkin (excellent work in this film), Roddy McDowall, Denis Quilley, and others. Nearly all of them are playing seedy characters; there are few saints on the island besides Poirot.

Maggie Smith is entertaining while trying to "solve" the mystery for Poirot, but I was most amused with her startlingly blunt exchanges with Diana Rigg. There are some gruesome and unconfortable scenes as well; this is a murder mystery, and people aren't always terribly kind to each other. However, all is not quite what it seems.

I regret that I have not read the original Agatha Christie mystery book on which the film is based, so I do not know how faithful is the adaptation. I understand that the setting was moved from a UK seaside retreat to the Adriatic to make it more picturesque.

At any rate, if you are poking around on streaming Netflix cursing its limited selection, here's an unusual forgotten film to sample. It's not Orient Express caliber, but a toothy two-hour mystery for a quiet evening.

Fun trivia: when Poirot examines the hotel register, I noticed the names of Cole Porter, who wrote the musical score, but also Fred Astaire and Charlie Chaplins. Apparently all the famous stars of the 1930s (Poirot's contemporaries) visited this resort for aging celebrities!

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    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      6 years ago from Germany

      I love the films of Agatha Christie´s books who´s character is Hercule Poirot played by a brilliant and a very good actor, Peter Ustinov. Thanks for sharing.

    • brandasaur profile image

      brandasaur 

      6 years ago from Planet X

      Im so addicted with Agatha Christie, I even have flash games of her mysteries :)

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judi Brown 

      6 years ago from UK

      Yes, it's the original hotel that Agatha Christie stayed in. I believe it became dilapidated but has been restored in the past decade.

    • Greekgeek profile imageAUTHOR

      Ellen 

      6 years ago from California

      Thank you! I'm not sure I'm qualified to be a discerning film critic, since I don't watch enough films, but I do love watching classic character actors and Shakespearean actors having fun.

      I assume the Art Deco hotel you're describing is the original in the novel, not the one in the film. I wish I could see it, as I've a soft spot for Art Deco. Sea tractor? Better than the mules we used to have to take to get from the harbor of Santorini up to the town!

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judi Brown 

      6 years ago from UK

      It's a very entertaining film. You are right about the novel - the story was set in Devon, at a hotel on Burgh Island - also the inspiration for another of her novels. The hotel is a fine example of Art Deco and you reach it via a strange contraption, a sort of long legged sea tractor.

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