Tag: Bette Davis

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Dialogue heavy, drama light, war-time propaganda, that was already dated by the time it was released

Director: Herman Shumlin

Cast: Bette Davis (Sara Muller-Farrelly), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Countess Marthe de Brancovis), George Coulouris (Count Teck de Brancovis), Beulah Bondi (Anise), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), Donald Buke (Joshua Muller), Henry Daniell (Baron Phili von Ramme), Kurt Katch (Blecher)

In 1940, dedicated anti-fascist campaigner Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) arrives in the USA with his American wife Sarah (Bette Davis) and their children. They are welcomed by Sarah’s mother Fanny (Lucille Watson), but soon discover that America has little understanding of the dangers of Nazism – and that there is in danger in their refuge. Fanny’s other houseguest is Romanian diplomat Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris) – whose wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is quietly in love with Sarah’s brother David (Donald Woods) – and he has every intention of selling Muller out to the Nazi embassy if he doesn’t pay him thousands of dollars. Can the Mullers escape?

Watch on the Rhine is adapted from a play by Lilian Hellman. Hellman was otherwise engaged and unable to write the script, so her long-term lover Dashiel Hammett came on board to open up the one-set play into a movie, with Hellman providing some additional speeches. Their best efforts can’t hide the fact this is a painfully worthy, preaching-to-the-choir propaganda piece. It’s packed with on-the-nose (if well-written) speeches and horrifically slow in its pacing and plotting.

First staged in early 1941, the original play did at least serve a clear purpose. It preached about the dangers and evils of fascism to a nation watching Europe tear itself apart. It was a heartfelt cry to understand that Hitler and his cronies were wicked men determined to let all the liberties America held dear burn. Its characters speechified at length about the conditions in Europe, the loss of freedom and the wickedness and danger of a political movement many in America felt was basically someone else’s problem.

This would have carried some real power as a rallying cry if the play had been bought to the screen in 1941. But, by 1943, American soldiers were already fighting Nazi forces in Africa and Italy: it hardly felt necessary to cry for intervention. Even by 1943, it was a period piece, looking back at a moment in time when fashionable types went to the German embassy for fancy dinners with black-shirted diplomats. And certainly, viewing it now, even its 1943 perspective looks slightly naïve and uninformed, in light of the horrors we now know were taking place.

Shorn of its original purpose to educate, the film comes across as a mix of heavy-handed propaganda (“This is why we fight!” it might as well be saying) and civics lesson.  It’s because, frankly, there is very little drama at all to take the place of the political lecturing. It’s fair to compare the film to Casablanca – another film that calls for action, released after a point when action had been taken. That could have been a propaganda piece: instead it’s a fast-paced, drama packed mix of romance and conspiracy thriller where Paul Henreid (remarkably similar to Lukas’ character here) struggles to gain the papers to escape from Vichy with a life-and-death urgency this film never musters.

Although Watch on the Rhine eventually works in a blackmail plot, where Muller’s plan to return to Europe and take on the leadership of the anti-fascists is threatened by George Coulouris’s smarmy diplomat, it takes so long to get to this (nearly an hour of screen time) your attention may well already have been lost.

Watch on the Rhine was directed – rather flatly, in one of his only two films – by it’s original Broadway director Herman Shumlin (heavily assisted by cinematographer Hal Mohr). The cast included several actors recreating their roles, including Lukas, Coulouris and Lucille Watson. Obviously, this left it short of heavyweights for the box office so the studio bought in Bette Davis to play Muller’s wife, expanding the role heavily (and insisting, against her protests, that she get top billing). Davis – exhausted after working intensely on Now, Voyager – took the part out of commitment to its message, but struggled with both Shumlin and serious personality clashes with Lucille Watson over their wildly differing politics.

Shumlin was unable to rein Davis in and Watch on the Rhine features one of her more melodramatic performances. Almost every scene features her staring off into the middle distance, voice trembling (not helped by Max Steiner’s music swelling magnificently practically every time she speaks). It’s a performance that never quite rings true, especially when compared to the underplaying from Lukas, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his low-key, restrained performance. He is quiet and genuine – and his pain and desperation when driven into a terrible moral choice is moving – but it’s hard to shake the feeling this fine performance was rewarded more for the words from his lips (especially since he beat Bogart in Casablanca). Watson was also nominated, playing the sort of role beloved by awards ceremonies, an eccentric old snob with a hidden heart of gold.

Watch on the Rhine is a rather dull civics lesson full of worthy speeches and very short on drama. It also has some of the most irritating child actors you will ever see (already infuriatingly precocious, the kids communicate their German background with stilted, precise accents). Even in 1943, its moment had passed and it never manages to create any dramatic point compelling enough to make you want to rewatch it. A film less worthy, and more willing to indulge in espionage thriller, would have been a distinct improvement.

Now, Voyager (1942)

Now, Voyager (1942)

Romance, make-overs and erotic cigarette lighting abounds in this classic luscious romance

Director: Irving Rapper

Cast: Bette Davis (Charlotte Vale), Paul Henreid (Jerry Duvaux Durrance), Claude Rains (Dr Jaquith), Gladys Cooper (Mrs Windle Vale), Bonita Granville (June Vale), John Loder (Elliot Livingston), Ilka Chase (Lisa Vale), Lee Patrick (Deb McIntyre), Janis Wilson (Tina Durrance)

The untold want by life and land ne’er granted, / Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find”. Walt Whitman’s words are the poetic urging of kindly psychiatrist Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains) to patient Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) before she embarks on a cruise that will change her life. Crushed under her imperious mother’s (Gladys Cooper) thumb, Charlotte grew-up an unloved ugly-duckling and self-loathing spinster. How will a taste of freedom change her life – and, with that taste, a love affair with unhappily married would-be-architect Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid)?

It’s easy to see Now, Voyager as a piece of soapy, romantic puff – and there are certainly suds in its DNA – but that’s to do an engaging, heartfelt character-study down. This is a sort of moral rags-to-riches story about a woman who has been mocked her whole life, finding the courage to build her own life. But that life is not the picture-perfect final image you might expect: instead, it’s about compromise and, more importantly, choosing your own compromises. Without knowing it, that is what Charlotte has been striving for. “Don’t let’s ask for the moon: we have the stars” are her famous closing lines, and it’s about the idea that choosing a compromised version of the life she actually wants is better than a life foisted upon her by others.

Now, Voyager works as well as it does, almost exclusively down to Bette Davis. She fought to get the role, hand-picked the director (an old friend) and stars (insisting on Henreid, despite a disastrous test) and reshaped most of the dialogue. It’s all justified by her superb performance. Charlotte Vale, with her ugly-duckling opening appearance, and operatic romance with Jerry, could have been a pantomimic performance. Davis though grounds her in sensitivity, reality and a deep emotional empathy. It’s a complex, heart-stirring performance.

Almost uniquely for stars at the time, Davis was not afraid to get ugly when the part demanded (she practically invented ugging-up). Charlotte Vale’s first appearance – Rapper teases the reveal by focusing first on her hands at her desk, legs as she descends a staircase before allowing her to fully enter frame – is a sight. With an eye-catching, hairy mono-brow, mousy glasses, a flattened haircut and dumpy clothing, she’s a million miles from our idea of 40s glamour. But Davis doesn’t make her a joke or play up to the appearance. She gives Charlotte a steel, born of self-defence – she snaps swiftly at Dr Jaquith when she thinks she is being condescended to – and a deep well of pain and ill-defined longing for a change she can hardly grasp.

Matters are beautifully inverted when she heads off on her cruise (you can criticise the film’s portrayal of therapy, which seems to be easy if you are stinking rich and can afford a cruise). Rapper repeats his intro trick again – this time revealing a physically confident and striking Charlotte, made-up and dressed to the nines. But, just as the self-loathing Charlotte had a defensive steel, so this ‘confident’ Charlotte has the same vulnerability and fear of ridicule and rejection just beneath the surface. Davis brilliantly gives the outwardly changed Charlotte, a different but equally moving vulnerability, a woman still working out who and what she is.

It’s a brilliant performance that gives the entire confection of the film a real emotional heft, as we experience every inch of this seminal voyage with her. And a lot of that life-change is filtered through the bond between her and fellow-passenger Jerry. Skilfully played by Henreid with a euro-charm that barely masks his own sadness, loneliness and guilt, Jerry may look the part but like Charlotte he’s close to succumbing to imposter syndrome. Unloved by his wife (this unseen harridan arguably deserves a film of her own – perfect role for Joan Crawford?) – but trapped into the marriage by his sense of duty and his love for his timid daughter Tina (Janis Wilson).

Jerry and Charlotte’s relationship blossoms from shyness into a genuine love affair. Reading between the lines of its 1940s code, it’s clear our two heroes get-it-on. Stranded in Brazil after a car crash (caused by an uncomfortably dated caricature portrayal of a Hispanic driver), the two of them ‘snuggle up’ for warmth while camping the night in an abandoned building. Any doubts about how far this went is removed when Henreid lights two cigarettes in his mouth in the next scene, passing one to Charlotte who sucks sensually on it. (This was the era when the language of cigarettes was crucial as a stand-in for bumping and grinding).

Of course, an affair could never be explicitly allowed, just as any idea of Henreid divorcing his awful wife was anathema. But its knowing that it-can-never-be which gives the film its romantic force. Charlotte will eventually find herself drawn to helping Jerry’s daughter Tina, their shared love for the child being the thing that will allow them to be married in spirit if not in actuality.

You could argue Charlotte’s decision to semi-adopt Tina as companion is not dissimilar from her own mother’s would-be exploiting of Charlotte as an unpaid nurse. But Charlotte has learned a lot from the cruel fierceness of her mother. Played with a witheringly cold grandeur by Gladys Cooper – at one point she taps her finger on a bed post in a way which captures oceans of barely repressed fury – this woman is selfish, self-obsessed and cruel. Standing up to her expectation that nothing has changed is the major challenge for Charlotte, with Bette Davis skilfully showing it takes all her strength to overcome.

Now, Voyager is an effective romantic film. It’s helped a great deal by Max Steiner’s beautifully romantic score, that perfectly complements and enhances every on-screen image. Superbly acted by its four leads – Claude Rains is also wonderful as the kindly and deeply professional Jaquith – it’s a detailed character study that manages to rise triumphantly above its soapy roots.

All About Eve (1950)

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis become deadly rivals in All About Eve

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merill (Bill Sampson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Thelma Ritter (Birdie), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Marilyn Monroe (Claudia Casswell)

At a theatre awards ceremony, a table of people watch Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) collect the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. She thanks them all effusively. They stare at her with mute loathing. I guess that’s show business. Mankiewicz’s biting and witty film boasts possibly one of the greatest scripts for the movies ever written, a biting expose of rivalries and backstage politics, that also manages to find a lot of warmth for its characters. Arch, but in its own strange way tender hearted and hopeful, its Mankiewciz’s greatest achievement.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a gifted actress and one of the leading lights of Broadway, as well as the on-stage muse of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), close friends with his wife Karen (Celeste Holm) and in love with her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merill). But Margo is just beginning to worry, now she has reached her forties, that her parts are drying up. Into her world arrives Eve (Anne Baxter), a besotted fan who swiftly becomes first her assistant then her understudy and eventual replacement. Despite her sweet exterior, Eve is fiercely ambitious determined to find fame and success – and only cynical theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) seems to notice.

All About Eve cemented Mankiewicz as Hollywood’s go-to for high-brow literary entertainment. Which is odd when you think about it, because what makes All About Eve work – and enduringly popular – is that it’s a fantastically quotable soap, played with relish. It’s not a million miles away from a ten-part, cliff-hangers aplenty Netflix drama. But it stands out because of Mankiewicz’s craft – when you pen lines as cutting, acerbic, tender and true as those in All About Eve, is it any wonder that Hollywood sees you as the next Fitzgerald?

And the dialogue is sparkling, from start to finish. From a cuttingly dry opening voiceover from George Sander’s Addison DeWitt – beautifully delivered, crammed with cynicism, cattiness, pride and purring contempt (“Minor awards are for such as the writer and director since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it.”) that it sets the tone for a film where dialogue is king. Mankiewicz is not much of a visual stylist – only the final shot, a besotted fan starring into an endless series of mirrors – sticks in the mind, and his approach as a director is intensely theatrical, but it doesn’t matter when his dialogue sings.

All About Eve works as both a supremely entertaining peek behind the curtain and also a neat parable about ageing, change and relevance. Perhaps there are few better examples of the changing of the guard, than the impact of growing old on a woman in theatre: from girlfriend to mother, with hardly a role in between. It’s the change Margo is dreading. And as she grows too old for her leading lady roles, what has she actually to show for it? Not much in the way of family or happiness.

If Eve looked closer, perhaps she’d wonder if it was worth it. As Margo makes clear in her dressing room and at a party thrown for Bill, she’s not got much to look forward to. (It’s not often commented on that the film’s most famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night”, is followed by an evening of Margo’s maudlin self-pity). For all her glamour and fame, it’s clear Margo is unhappy: “So many people know me. I wish I did” she says at one point, and for all the whirlwind of her life, she’s not exactly over-burdened by close friends.

It’s easy to forget, because All About Eve is so well known for being a bitchfest – and Mankiewicz’s cutting one-liners are genius – that you forget its lead is a sad and lonely figure, and the film presents a conservative view of motherhood being a crucial role for a woman. We don’t automatically remember this speech’ but it’s crucial for Margo: “There’s one career all females have in common – whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed – and there he is.”

Margo is the signature part for Bette Davis, but memory has distorted it. You can expect it to be a parade of sharply barbed attacks, but it is much more than this. Yes, she does these with aplomb (“I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be”), but under the regal grande dame, there is a rather vulnerable woman, scared about where her life is going and terrified of being unloved. For all the Davis fireworks, it’s an affecting – and perhaps this is why it became such a gay icon, during those years of people forced into the closet –vulnerable and lonely performance.

That vulnerability contributes to the sense of vampire story. Eve arrives in the dead of night, inveigles her way into Margo’s life and then slowly takes that life over. Eve is almost draining Margo’s life force, leaving her even more aware of the lonely impact of her choices. There’s the suggestion of sexual obsession in Eve – standing on stage, holding Margo’s costume in front of her and imagining the applause, Eve seems as much besotted with Margo as she does with becoming her. And of course Eve is a unknowable fake. Anne Baxter’s gentle, butter-wouldn’t-melt sweetness is just the right side of phoney. Only Thelma Ritter’s (very funny) bitchy dresser detects dictates her invented backstory about a deceased husband is baloney (“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”).

Later Birdie will comment Eve is studying to become Margo – and that’s spot on. As Eve moves further up the ladder, Baxter drops her gentleness and becomes increasingly steely. “A contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition – and talent. We deserve each other” Addison will tell her – and he’s spot on. Eve’s driving motivation is ambition, and anyone is fair game if it will help her move up the greasy ladder of theatrical success.

Eve uses everyone. She manipulates Karen into making Margo missing a performance – then invites the press in advance to her performance, which is met with raves. Afterwards Eve gives an interview in which she lacerates Margo as a bitter has-been holding her back. It’s enough for Karen – and Celeste Holm is very good as this gently supportive woman, with the firmest principles of anyone on show here – but the men can’t let go. It takes an attempted seduction to drive away Bill, but the weaker Lloyd seems to be sucked into her web (the film is coy about the implied affair). It should be clear that Eve is a force draining energy out of everything she can, determined to get to the top.

And we know she gets there: after all we’ve seen her win the Sarah Siddons prize! But Eve has none of Margo’s soul. The film ends with her meeting the even more vainly empty Phoebe, who Addison immediately recognises is intent on the same scheme as Eve was. And so, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. Eve has learnt everything from Margo, except how to be a human: she has all her technique and none of her heart. The film even manages to feel a bit sorry for her – a woman who has achieved everything she wants, and finds it makes her neither happy nor popular.

It’s the heart of Mankiewicz’s film, perhaps even its warning message. What is the point of all this greatness, if all you have to show for it are false-friendships with poisonous pals like Addison? It’s the moral message behind a film filled with one-liners and wonderful speeches, a masterclass in theatrical writing for cinema. Bette Davis is superb, funny and heartfelt. Baxter is quietly terrifying. Ritter and Holm are superb and Sanders is so well case in this role, you wonder if Mankiewicz somehow invented him specially for it. All About Eve may be grand, soapy entertainment – but soap has never been smarter than this.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford rant and rage in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Director: Robert Aldrich

Cast: Bette Davis (Jane Hudson), Joan Crawford (Blanche Hudson), Victor Buono (Edwin Flagg), Marjorie Bennett (Dehlia Flagg), Maidie Norman (Elvira Stitt), Anna Lee (Mrs Bates), BD Merrill (Liza Bates)

Age isn’t kind on the careers of Hollywood actresses. Move into your 40s and the part offered quickly becomes “the grandmother”. It’s a fate that saw the careers of some of the greatest actresses of the Golden Years of Hollywood crash screeching to a halt. However, these actresses remained popular with many cinema goers. So it occurred to Robert Aldrich, why not throw a couple of them into the sort of roles that can riff on their careers and public images? Match that up with jumping on the bandwagon of films like Psycho and you could have a hit on your hands.

That’s what he got as well with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is a former “infant phenomenon” on the stage, whose career fell apart as soon as she hit puberty. Her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), on the other hand, grew up to have a promising career in Hollywood – which then collapsed when a late-night driving accident (which Baby Jane is widely believed to be responsible for) left her paralysed from the waist down. Now in middle age, Jane and Blanche live in domestic disharmony, Blanche trapped upstairs at the mercy of Baby Jane, whose longing to rebuild her career sees her head down an ever steeper spiral of insanity.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane started a new genre in Hollywood – the freak hag-horror or psycho-biddy genre (those names alone show that at its heart this genre was basically demeaning) which saw Hollywood Grande Dames (frequently Davis and Crawford, though others got a look-in as well) parley their reputations into ever more formulaic riffs. Films like this quickly became cult viewing. Their extremes of make-up and performance, matched with the arch camp of the leading ladies hamming it up, made the genre extremely popular – and left films like Whatever Happened… far more fondly remembered than they deserve.

It’s popular to see Sunset Boulevard as a sort of precursor to this genre, a first try-out in taking an older era of Hollywood and turning it into a ghastly waxwork show. But Sunset still has affection  for what it shows (and above all captures the tragedy of the death of Silent Hollywood, treating its characters as people rather than freaks), while Whatever Happened has none, basically seeing the past as a parade of monsters, and these relics as waxworks to be mocked. There is no affection here for the past successes and glories of either star, instead we are invited to sit back and wonder at how far they might be willing to go to see bums on seats again. All of this to make money for the producers. Far from the art of Sunset Boulevard, this feels more like the exploitation of screen greats.

Although of course both stars were more than happy to get involved, even if they were less than happy working with each other. The background to the film, to be honest, often carries more interest than the very long, often slow, horror/black comedy during the film’s over-extended run time. Famously Davis and Crawford were long-standing rivals and their relationship over the course of making and promoting the film disintegrated into cheap one-upmanship and bitter recrimination. While the feud does probably give some edge to the screen antics, the very fact that it’s nearly the first thing people remember about the film probably tells you how memorable the actual experience is.

Davis throws herself into all this with creditable abandon. (She was Oscar nominated and Crawford wasn’t – although Crawford got the last laugh, having arranged on the night to collect the Oscar on behalf of eventual winner Anne Bancroft, performing on Broadway that night.) Davis designed the freakish but iconic look of Baby Jane, all painted face and little girl mannerisms, and her demented attempts to recreate her childhood act in her 50s (culminating in a bizarre and skin-crawling “Writing a Letter to Daddy” dance which was weird enough watching a 12 year old perform) can’t be faulted for commitment. Davis also manages to invest the bullying and cruel Jane with a deep sense of loss, regret and guilt (for her sister’s accident) that frequently bubbles over into resentment. It’s certainly a larger-than-life performance and Davis frequently dominates the film, even if the role is basically a cartoon invested with Davis’ own grace and glamour.

It doesn’t leave much for Crawford, whose Blanche is frequently left with the more po-faced, dull and reactive lines. Crawford doesn’t often make Blanche as sympathetic as you feel she should be – although the part plays into one of her strong suits of playing the martyr – and the film saddles her with a late act twist that doesn’t have enough time and development to really make much sense. However again you can’t fault her commitment, either to screams or to a scene where she attempts to climb down the bannisters of the stairs from her trap on the upper floor, where the effort, strain and pain on Crawford’s face are astonishingly real.

Those stairs dominate many of the shots of Aldrich’s serviceable and efficient direction – although he lacks any sense of the mix of cruel poetry and dynamite sensationalism that Hitchcock bought to similar material in Psycho. But it works nicely to give a sense of Blanche’s confinement and as a visual metaphor for the trap the house feels like. Aldrich also throws in a couple of other decent flourishes, not least as Davis’ lounge turns into a proscenium stage as she imagines returning to the big time.

But the film itself is, despite it all, lacking in any sense of kindness or warmth really for either its stars or old Hollywood. We are instead invited to gasp at them in horror, while the film drags on at great lengths, stretching a very thin plot (barely a novella) into over two hours of screen time. There are effective moments, but it’s a film that seems barely serviceable today.

The Letter (1940)

Bette Davis plots doom and death in The Letter. Can she be caught?

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Bette Davis (Leslie Crosbie), Herbert Marshall (Robert Crosbie), James Stephenson (Howard Joyce), Frieda Inescort (Dorothy Joyce), Gale Sondergaard (Mrs Hammond), Bruce Lester (John Withers), Elizabeth Earl (Adele Ainsworth), Cecil Kellaway (Prescott), Sen Yung (Ong Chi Seng)

The “woman’s picture” was a popular genre of the 1940s, a catch-all for stories that centred around women dealing with domestic issues in the home or in relationships, with the lady herself the driving force of the narrative. There were several stars who excelled in this wide-ranging genre, but the best was perhaps Bette Davis. This melodrama is a superb example of exactly this sort of female-led narrative, focusing in on its heroine making catastrophic decisions that lead to terrible consequences.

On a plantation in Malaya, in the late 1930s, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) the wife of gentle plantation owner Robert (Herbert Marshall) guns down a man, Geoff Hammond, who comes to visit her in her home alone. She insists to her husband, and their lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), that she was defending her honour. The trial for murder feels like a formality – until Joyce’s clerk Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung) informs him that Hammond had a Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard) who has a letter from Leslie to the dead man which casts a very different light on the affair. Because “affair” is the right word: the letter implies Leslie invited the man to visit her while her husband was out. Mrs Hammond will hand the letters over to the authority – unless Leslie and Joyce cough up a huge sum of money to stop her.

The Letter is a film with two marvellous book-end scenes. The first is a beautifully shot and assembled murder sequence, where Wyler’s camera moodily pans through the sleeping native workers on the plantation – dappled by moonlight – until it finds itself drawn towards the steps of the plantation house by the sounds of gunfire. It’s a superbly marshalled sequence that mixes stillness and quiet from the start with a sudden explosion of noise, reflected in the shift in editing from slow camera movements to fast cuts. Nothing else in the film quite matches it until we reach the final sequence that mirrors it with Bette Davis heading back outside into the moonlight, where a terrible and violent surprise awaits her.

And you can enjoy that because no-one did these brutal, arrogant, high-society queens as well as Bette Davis. Davis is superb here, bringing just the right touch of melodrama to balance the intensity of Leslie’s selfish desperation to get away with what we immediately know is an act of murder. Leslie Crosbie is entitled, arch and a natural liar who carefully builds a series of alternative stories (each of them less believable than the one before) which she spins carefully with a mix of vulnerability and a dash of feminine weakness, to try and get away with murder. It’s a domineeringly strong performance that powers the entire film and Wyler draws a wonderful arch cruelty from her, just below the surface of her acceptable female hobbies of knitting and dinner planning. 

Wyler balances this with the two men around her, both of whom are under her spell to different degrees. Herbert Marshall is very good as her husband, a generous, loving, naïve soul who believes his wife without question until he later realises he shouldn’t. Marshall does an excellent job with making this hen-pecked weakling intriguing, not least in his later passive-aggressive response when discovering most of his fortune has been blown to save his wife from a certain death sentence.

The other man is her lawyer Howard Joyce, played with a patrician reserve by James Stephenson. Oscar-nominated for the role, Stephenson’s Joyce doubts everything he is told from the very start, but somehow allows himself to be dragged along with the cover-up that slowly develops. Whether this is out of pride, or whether this is because he is himself somehow under some sort of erotic spell that she emits is left open to question. Either way, Stephenson puts a wonderful growing aghast horror behind the role as his professional and moral scruples are challenged more and more.

The chicanery of Davis’ character in the film is of course helped by her being white and rich, and prejudices against Hammond (not to mention the reception his Eurasian wife expects to gets if she comes forward) are most of the mainstay of the case in her defence. Joyce basically speaks platitudes about professional integrity, while all but knowingly defending a murderer (he in fact goes out of his way to give himself plausible denial and avoids questions). The film manages to present the native workers on the plantation – and Joyce’s clerk – as something a bit more than this, as perhaps the only people in the film with actual integrity.

But of course Davis gets away with it, because she can pay to do so, but the film finds other ways to punish her (as these women’s pictures usually do for adultery). The film’s final sequences see Davis’ character slowly collapse from arrogant certainty into moral and mental torture, before almost willingly marching towards certain danger. Wyler’s film is a great vehicle for her, but it’s also superbly made and shot and captures the sweaty lack of justice in the British Empire with perfection.

Death on the Nile (1978)

The all-star cast line-up for murder and mayhem in Death on the Nile

Director: John Guillermin

Cast: Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Jane Birkin (Louise Bourget), Lois Chiles (Linnet Ridgeway Doyle), Bette Davis (Marie van Schuyler), Mia Farrow (Jacqueline de Bellefort), Jon Finch (James Ferguson), Olivia Hussey (Rosalie Otterbourne), George Kennedy (Andrew Pennington), Angela Lansbury (Salome Otterbourne), Simon MacCorkindale (Simon Doyle), David Niven (Colonel Race), Maggie Smith (Miss Bowers), Jack Warden (Dr Bessner), IS Johar (Mr Choudhury), Harry Andrews (Barnstaple)

Is there anything more perfect for a Bank Holiday afternoon than an all-star Agatha Christie adaptation? Take a look at the TV schedules on those days and sure enough one of them will pop up. So on New Year’s Day, I took my place on the sofa for a welcome revisit to dastardly goings-on aboard a luxury cruise ship sailing down the Nile. 

Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale) has jilted his lover Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow) in order to marry the fabulously wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles). It’s a tricky love triangle – so you can imagine the newly-married Doyles are far from pleased to find Jacqueline popping up on their Nile cruise holiday. Things eventually explode into a confrontation between Simon and Jacqueline that leaves him shot in the leg and her sedated. While they are both out of the picture, Linnet is murdered in her bed. With the two obvious suspects out of the picture, who among the (all-star) passenger line-up did the deed? Just as well Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is on the ship to solve the puzzle.

Following on the heels of the smash hit success of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, the producers of that film didn’t really shake up the formula too much. Hire a load of star actors, pick one of Agatha Christie’s most picturesque-set novels and then watch the money come pouring in. Albert Finney wasn’t available to come back (rumour had it he wasn’t keen in any case on the huge amount of make-up involved) so instead Peter Ustinov came on board and away we went.

Death on the Nile feels very much like a film following a formula. Perhaps it struggles to live up to the first film because it is a slightly less compelling mystery than the first film (although still a damn good puzzle with a real twist of a solution). Perhaps it was more difficult to recapture the magic? Or perhaps it’s because it lacks the quality of direction that Sidney Lumet brought to the first film. Lumet managed to create something that always felt more than a vehicle for star turns – the more plodding John Guillermin instead feels like the sort of guy brought in to manage the day-to-day realisation of a producer’s vision (essentially the same role he fulfilled on The Towering Inferno). Death on the Nile feels very comfortable on the television perhaps because it is filmed in a very straightforward, unobtrusive style with less visual panache than many of the David Suchet series Poirots (even the earlier ones).

But the film does a good job in hiring Peter Ustinov. Ustinov has the comedic chops – matched with the acting prowess – to walk a fine line between the drama and the slight air of comedy that underpins the film. The sort of performance that tells everyone that this is essentially a Christmas treat and shouldn’t be treated too seriously – but still conveys enough of the character’s humanistic shock and anger at violence and murder. Poirot can very easily become a slightly ridiculous character, and Ustinov is canny enough to realise that (relative) underplaying of the character actually works rather well to make him engaging and entertaining, but not too heavy.

Not that heavy is the film’s problem, as this is a pretty light soufflé. The all-star actors happily go through their paces, although you can pretty much tell most of them are in this for the free holiday and the pay cheque. Most of them have fun with their parts – none more so than Angela Lansbury who goes way way way over the top as a bohemian novelist – but they pretty much go through the motions. Shaffer’s decent screenplay doesn’t do much in any case to sketch these characters out – and you suspect much of the bitchy duelling between Bette Davis’ selfish rich widow and Maggie Smith’s put-upon companion was spun out post casting. 

Saying that, I was rather taken with Olivia Hussey’s performance as a fundamentally decent person in the middle of the madness, while Lois Chiles is good enough that you regret her career didn’t really go anywhere after this film. Simon MacCorkindale and Mia Farrow also do well with tricky parts. But it’s all pretty much paint-by-numbers stuff.

Visually the film looks lovely on the Nile. The costumes and designs are great – even if some of them look pretty much straight out of the 1970s rather than the 1930s – and you can tell that the money has been lavished on it to make a pure, old-fashioned entertainment. Shaffer’s script does a decent job of adapting one of Christie’s most twisty tales – even if it does give us what feels now a pretty racist portrait of the meek and crawling ship manager played by IS Johar.

But this is safe and comfortable entertainment – and it definitely is entertaining – rather than something that feels truly filmic. You could argue that this film more than any other set the tone for what we expect from an Agatha Christie adaptation – and its mixture of light comedy and grisly murder set in a lush 1930s location is pretty much de rigeur for everything else that follows. And you know what, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.