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Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: Evil Under The Sun -1982
EVIL UNDER THE SUN 1982
Of the many films adapted from the Hercule Poirot mystery novels of Agatha Christie, I definitely consider 1974s
Murder on the Orient Express to be the most elegant, effective, and classiest of the lot (that cast!). But when it
comes to which Poirot film distinguishes itself in my memory as the wittiest and the most consistently entertaining,
none can hold a magnifying glass to 1982s Evil Under the Sun. Striking the perfect balance between deliberate
camp and the appropriate-for-the-period sophisticated light touch of a 1930s Thin Man movie, Evil Under the Sun is
an unflaggingly charming little murder mystery whose many gifts (visually, narratively, and dramatically) become
even more pronounced with repeat viewings.
Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot
Maggie Smith as Daphne Castle
Diana Rigg as Arlena Marshall
Roddy McDowall as Rex Brewster
James Mason as Odell Gardener
Sylvia Miles as Myra Gardener
A suitably chi-chi tone is set from the start thanks to a credits sequence comprised of Hugh Casson’s stylishly
character-based watercolor sketches accompanied by sweepingly lush orchestrated arrangements of Cole Porter
standards. It should be noted here that the outstanding musical score (arranged and conducted by John Lanchbery)
is very nearly my favorite thing about Evil Under the Sun and practically functions as another character in the
proceedings. Happily, the soundtrack album is available on iTunes.
Evil Under the Sun doesn’t deviate from the usual tried-and-true Agatha Christie setup: An assemblage of well-
heeled characters with hidden agendas and interwoven alliances finding themselves circumstantially confined to a
picturesque locale where a murder has taken place. The cast, budget, locale, and designated sleuth may change
(either Hercule Poirot, or Jane Marple), but everything else about the Christie formula is as reliable and religiously
adhered-to as the plot of a Beach Party move.
Monsieur Poirot prepares for une baignade dans la mer
And beach parties are an apt reference, for you see, Evil Under the Sun gives us a Hercule Poirot on holiday. A
working holiday in any case, as the eccentrically fastidious detective is dispatched to a tony island resort owned by
former courtesan Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) to investigate a simple insurance fraud that (of course) turns into a
puzzling case of whodunit. Gathered this season for fun in the sun is a gaggle of guests, all of whom share an
unpleasant past association.
There’s fey columnist Rex Brewster (McDowall); bickering and boorish theatrical producers, Myra and Odell
Gardener (Sylvia Miles &James Mason); ill-matched newlyweds Christine and Patrick Redfern (Jane Birkin &
Nicholas Clay); disgruntled industrialist Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely); and, most ostentatiously, abrasive Broadway
star Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg) with her new husband (Denis Quilley) and reluctant stepdaughter (Emily Hone) in
Hotel proprietress Daphne Caste (Smith) and guest Sir Horace Blatt (Colin
Blakely) react to yet another Poirot eccentricity
While the mystery at hand is puzzling enough, with red herrings more plentiful than pebbles on the beach; the
particulars of what follows in Evil Under the Sun are of less consequence than the flair with which they are
presented. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, The Wicker Man) has fashioned a delightfully witty script of clever
wordplay, colorful characters, and ceaseless bitchiness.
Director Guy Hamilton, who I felt seriously botched the 1980 Miss Marple film The Mirror Crack’d, redeems himself
rather stupendously with Evil Under the Sun, seizing on every opportunity for highlighting the character-based
humor and conflict. His direction displays exactly the sort of zest and deftness of pacing missing from that earlier
film. Granted, Hamilton is greatly assisted this time out by a cast of accomplished, largely British actors surrendering
themselves to creating distinctly vivid characters while sticking to the genre's demand to remain a tightly blended
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
There's something I find very funny in this collection of testy and ill-tempered society folks trying in vain to relax on
their vacation. In a way, each is out of their element (none more so than the seasick prone, non-athletic Poirot), and
the strain shows in the All About Eve exchanges and edgy interactions.
Rex Brewster attempts to get the Gardeners to talk about their recent flop:
Rex: "Would either of you care to comment on that?"
Odell- "Why don't you go and play with yourself?"
Rex - "Is coarseness a substitute for wit? I ask myself."
And if you're going to have a script crammed with catty dialog, you couldn't ask for it to be delivered by better actors
than those twin masters of the articulate put-down; Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith.
Arlena- "Linda, do stop standing there like a cough-drop and say hello to
Daphne- "I hope you haven't come here to practice your sleuthing games on my
guests. They've all got far too many skeletons in their cupboards to join in with
The cast assembled for Evil Under the Sun is not only one of the strongest of the Agatha Christie series (it's
Ustinov's second go-round as Poirot and he pretty much makes the role his own in this outing), but, stylistically
speaking, it's wonderful how they all manage to be on the same page and hit the same notes throughout. The cast
plays it serious enough to make the drama work, yet succeed in sustaining an air of caricature
and cocktail party flippancy that is so deliciously amusing and makes Evil Under the Sun a delight from start to
Years before I became a Downton Abbey addict, I've worshiped at the altar of Maggie Smith; an actress who has
always had a singular way of getting words to do her personal bidding. That she is so good is no surprise; that she
upstages even the well-cured hamminess of Ustinov is miraculous. Bad girls are always good fun, and the ever-
classy Diana Rigg sinks her teeth into her über-bitch role with assurance.
Nicholas Clay and Jane Birkin are excellent as a mismatched couple
I was taken by surprise by how much Sylvia Miles made me laugh. Giving an unsubtle performance to say the least,
Miles is nevertheless perfectly cast as the Ugly American in a film loaded with Brits (Lauren Bacall served the same
function in Murder on the Orient Express). And the pairing of this vulgarian with the genteel and
distinguished James Mason is really inspired. Their scenes together smack of an urbane George an Martha, or
perhaps they give a glimpse of what Lolita's Humbert Humbert's life might have been had Charlott Haze not had that
The happiest, biggest surprise for me is Roddy McDowall. An actor who has literally given the same one-note, non-
performance in film after film for years, at last decides to create a distinguishable character, and he's marvelous. His
Rex Brewster has the attitude of Rex Reed, the body language of Noel Coward, and the voice of Tallulah Bankhead.
It's as if after all those years in the closet, McDowall could only let loose by playing an openly gay character in a film.
He's the best I've ever seen him.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
As a movie fan who's also a fan of the male physique, I can't tell you how weary I've grown of the decades-long
tradition of mainstream films always representing the heterosexual male gaze. It's a given that if a camera is going
to focus on a comely face, appealing chest, desirable derriere, or long leg; those body parts will belong to a woman,
and the surrogate eye of the camera, that of the male. Let's go back to the Beach Party reference made earlier.
Here's an entire genre of film that never missed an opportunity to train a camera lens on a wiggling female butt or
heaving bikini top, yet never considered that there were those in the audience (women, gays, guys OK with their
masculinity) who might want a close-up of Frankie Avalon's behind for a change. No such luck. The heterosexual
male gaze was all that counted.
When one happens to come across that rare film that keeps its female stars clothed and trades the cheesecake for
beefcake, attention must be paid. My hat is off to Evil Under the Sun for providing so much memorable footage of
the handsome physique of actor Nicholas Clay (a fave since Excalibur) in nothing but a barely-there swimsuit. I've
seen Evil Under the Sun at least 10 times over the years. Five of those times I'm afraid were strictly so as to take
another look at Nicolas Clay's ample derriere. Vive la différence!
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
There's no way to talk about Evil Under the Sun without making mention of the wryly outrageous costumes by
Anthony Powell (101 Dalmatians), the only man who can design clothes with a punch line. Seemingly taking his
inspiration from a Wonder Bread wrapper, Powell's whimsical creations are the physical embodiment of the arch wit
and self-aware humor of the film.