Guy Hamilton’s second and final Agatha Christie adaptation was, in effect, a sequel to John Guillermin’s Death on the Nile, the 1978 film that had introduced Peter Ustinov as the definitive big-screen Hercule Poirot. Expanding on the success of that sun-drenched, holiday-set thriller, Evil Under the Sun relocates from Christie’s beloved Devon to the Adriatic, allowing for some gorgeous photography (looking glorious in this lovely new restoration) in and around Majorca. Similarly, Hamilton’s film takes Christie’s now over-familiar plot and fills it with an array of Hollywood stars and renowned character actors, shifting the emphasis into the realms of the larger than life.
Sir Horace Blatt employs Poirot to seek out the expensive jewel he’d presented to the actress Arlena Stuart during their short-lived relationship, and which she had surreptitiously kept upon breaking off the affair. Poirot arrives at the exclusive island retreat of Daphne Castle, to find an assembled party almost all of whom have reasons for feeling rather less than hospitable towards the adultering diva. After a first half in which the characters are introduced and their motives for murder provided, Arlena turns up dead and it’s down to our eccentric Belgian sleuth to work out precisely how and why.
Evil Under the Sun is no less self-aware than Hamilton’s previous Christie adaptation, but the script – co-written by The Wicker Man’s Anthony Shaffer – does this time keep its focus rather more closely on the characters and their motivations. If the resolution relies just a touch too much on the rest of the cast behaving exactly as the murderer needs them to at any given moment, it’s easy to willingly suspend disbelief given the journey we undertake in order to reach it. Ustinov gives a very different, but equally arresting, take on Poirot that makes him every bit as iconic as David Suchet’s subsequent TV version, and the rest of the cast are palpably and infectiously having an absolute ball with their parts.
It would be impossible to single out anyone other than Ustinov as the star of the production, but Diana Rigg is very effective against type as the self-interested victim of the plot, while the likes of Colin Blakely, James Mason and Roddy McDowell manage to make a huge impression in what might have felt like lesser roles. Maggie Smith is perhaps the heart of the drama as Castle, instilling the story with enough pathos to make it something less than the arch star vehicle it could otherwise have seemed.
Perhaps less celebrated and well-remembered than the earlier Brabourne and Goodwin Christie adaptations beginning with Murder on the Orient Express in 1974, Evil Under the Sun is easily their equal and possibly even the best of them.
Special Features: new interviews with costume designer Anthony Powell, writer Barry Sandler and producer Richard Goodwin / behind the scenes and costume designs / stills galleries
EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: GUY HAMILTON / SCREENPLAY: ANTHONY SHAFFER, BARRY SANDLER (uncredited) / STARRING: PETER USTINOV, JANE BIRKIN, COLIN BLAKELY, NICHOLAS CLAY, JAMES MASON, RODDY McDOWELL, SYLVIA MILES, DENIS QUILLEY, DIANA RIGG, MAGGIE SMITH / RELEASE DATE: 23RD OCTOBER