Evil Under the Sun is an Agatha Christie whodunit with a style that’s more arch than serious. It’s not the best adaptation, but it’s never really boring and in the end, it plays fair enough that if you’re paying attention you’re likely to figure it out in one way or another before the legendary Hercule Poirot. It’s a perfect movie to escape to on a lazy afternoon.
Guy Hamilton is no stranger to Christie adaptations, as he directed The Mirror Crack’d just two years before. Anthony Shaffer adapted the Christie novel as he has done numerous times before. Both Hamilton and Shaffer seem to be aiming for a much more self-aware tongue-in-cheek retelling of Christie’s story.
Poirot is played by Peter Ustinov, a great character actor whom modern audiences will most likely know as the voice of Prince John from the Disney animated Robin Hood. Ustinov’s Poirot isn’t as fastidious as some other versions we have seen, as Ustinov plays him more of a frumpish vain detective. “Rest assured with Hercule Poirot, mysteries never last for long.”
Evil Under the Sun moves the location to a seaside resort in the Adriatic off the shores of the fictional country of Tyrania. Shaffer’s script differs from most others in that the main body doesn’t turn up until at least an hour in. I say main body because the film starts with a death on the moor and then moves on to insurance fraud. Poirot is asked to look at a diamond that has been insured by a millionaire industrialist with the wonderful name of Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely). The mystery is that the diamond is an obvious fake, but if it is fake why would someone like Sir Horace Blatt try to pass off such a cheap fake?
Hamilton makes quick work of all of this in the span of the first ten minutes before we even arrive at the sun drenched landscape of the luxurious seaside resort.
In true Agatha Christie fashion, Evil Under the Sun is one of those murder mysteries where all the characters treat murder as an inconvenience rather than any kind of moral or legal issue. The hotel owner Daphne Castle, played by Dame Maggie Smith, pulls Poirot aside and asks if he could handle the murder without getting the authorities involved. “You know how peculiar people can be about a spot of murder.” She’s afraid that a scandal would ruin her.
Poirot accepts and sets out to try and solve the murder of the great actress Arlena Stuart Marshall (Dianna Rigg). Could it be Arlena’s husband, the wealthy Kenneth (Denis Quilley), or his daughter Linda (Emily Hone)? Perhaps it is even Daphne herself, after all the two came up together as chorus girls before Daphne quit the stage and went into the hotel business.
Maybe it’s married producers Odell (James Mason) and Myra (Sylvia Miles) Gardner, who Arlena all but ruined when she quit their show during its smashing successful run. It couldn’t possibly be Patrick (Nicholas Clay), the dashing young man who flirted openly with Arlena in front of the rest of the guests, even in front of Patrick’s meek wife Christine (Jane Birkin). Though it’s impossible not to suspect the flamboyant Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowell), who desperately needs Arlena to sign off on a biography he has written of the legendary actress.
Once the murder is discovered and Poirot is on the case, Evil Under the Sun becomes considerably more joyous. The first half of the film, though enjoyable, begins to sag in the middle. A consequence of just a little too much set up and a too relaxed pacing. Though Hamilton and Schaffer do their best to keep scenes lively by giving every character a scene to nibble at, so we in the audience can start arranging our lists of suspects.
Evil Under the Sun doesn’t take itself as seriously as some of the other adaptations. Hamilton allows for moments of camp, nothing so grand as to be over the top, but just catty enough to be delightful. Arlena and Daphne have a wonderful rivalry both with each other and it seems for the affections of Arlena’s husband. Rigg’s withering glare at Dame Maggie Smith as she tries to horn in on her impromptu solo is worth watching the movie alone.
Ustinov is having a grand old time waddling around and speaking in an exaggerated Belgian accent and twirling his little mustache. He never misses a chance to correct some poor person who mistakenly calls him French. His usual caustic wit is still present, as when young Linda shows him a picture of the cliffs by the bay painted by the temperamental Christine. “She has talent that one. Those are undeniably…cliffs.”
Once the body shows up though, Evil Under the Sun finds its stride and the last half flies by like a brisk sea breeze. Poirot soon finds himself faced with a boatful of suspects all with airtight alibis. Most Christie mysteries have a sense of awareness about them but Shaffer’s treatment seems to be acutely aware of the genre and its set up.
Mason’s Ordell confesses to Poirot that he no alibi. “Now, I’m well aware, Monsieur Poirot, that in your world, when a murder takes place, everyone automatically comes up with a watertight alibi. However, I belong to that great world of millions of innocent men and women who curiously enough, don’t have the foresight to provide themselves with an alibi when a murder is taking place of which they know absolutely nothing.” Shaffer is poking fun at the tropes of the genre but he does so while making sure to follow them to the letter.
The litmus test of any Christie adaptation is of course the penultimate scene in which Poirot gathers all the suspects together and proceeds to unravel the tangled mystery yarn. A test that Evil Under the Sun passes with flying colors. Hamilton stages the whole thing so simply and yet in a way that allows Ustinov to command the scene while allowing us to also see the suspect’s disbelief. For after all, in case you may have forgotten, as I did, there’s another murder and a case of a forged diamond to be tied up as well.
The score by Cole Porter makes it so Evil Under the Sun is never dull and gives the film an air of laid back frivolity. Christopher Challis photographs the landscape not as another character but as a way of reminding us of just how out of the way everything is. It’s the filmmaker’s way of reminding us that none of this is all that serious.
Evil Under the Sun is not a great movie but it is well made, and all in all, quite fun. It’s a respite from the doom and gloom of the world around us. A pleasant jaunt into a world where there has been regrettably a death or two, but we shouldn’t let it bother us that much. After all, they have a tennis court.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures Associated Film Distribution
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