Appointment with Death

Did you know that Peter Ustinov was slated to play the Inspector Clouseau role in the original Pink Panther movie, and that Peter Sellers got the role only after Ustinov dropped out? It’s true. Ustinov, who has probably kicked himself a few times over that one, seems to be making up for it by appearing with some regularity as Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famed detective.

Ustinov is even using Clouseaulike vocal mannerisms. When, in the new Appointment with Death, Poirot is welcomed to 1929 Palestine by an old Army friend (John Gielgud), Gielgud asks, “What brought you out here, old chap?” To which Poirot replies, in best fractured accent, “Oh, I don’t kneeoow—a neeose for muerdeur, perhaps?”

As always, Poirot’s nose is busy, sniffing through a cluster of possible culprits. Actually, it takes this movie more than half its running time to get to the murder; the first half is taken up with a vacation cruise to and sightseeing in Palestine, as we get to know the soon-to-be suspects. The latter part of the film, needless to say, clicks into Poirot’s method of detection: questioning the suspects (and, as he bellows rather paganly, “everybody’s a soospect!”), then gathering them together into a large room and explaining it all to us.

The usual suspects include the familiar collection of has-beens and second-raters. These Agatha Christie things have gone downhill since Murder on the Orient Express, a high-class ride (in which Albert Finney played Poirot). Lauren Bacall gives a touch of class as a witchy socialite, but then the drop-off is severe.

David Soul, Carrie Fisher, Piper Laurie, Hayley Mills are among the actors who got trip to the Middle East out of this. They’re going through the motions, which is more than can be said for some of the smaller roles, acted with extreme amateurishness.

The best element in this sluggish whodunit is Jenny Seagrove, who plays a doctor, the most sympathetic member of the traveling company. She’s so intelligent and lovely, she seems to have gotten into the wrong movie.

Michael Winner (Death Wish) directs, with a minimum of commitment. The movie drags and drags, and the characters even make fun of the detective-movie conventions; when Poirot announces that he needs to gather everyone together for one last meeting, someone says, “And we need a really dramatic location, right?” The creators of Airplane! surely need to do a full-scale parody of this formula, and put it well to rest.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

Perhaps not as bad as Ordeal by Innocence, but who would want to find out? I assume Death on the Nile was the most popular of the Ustinov Poirots, and this one was truly cut-rate. By the way, I believe the somewhat geeky “It’s true” in the first paragraph was me channeling an obscure SCTV joke that had lodged itself in my head.


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