Death on the Nile (1978 film)

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Death on the Nile
Death on the Nile UK original poster.jpg
UK original film poster
Directed by John Guillermin
Produced by John Brabourne
Richard B. Goodwin
Screenplay by Anthony Shaffer
Based on Death on the Nile 
by Agatha Christie
Starring Peter Ustinov
Simon MacCorkindale
Lois Chiles
Mia Farrow
Bette Davis
George Kennedy
Maggie Smith
Angela Lansbury
Olivia Hussey
David Niven
Jon Finch
Jack Warden
Jane Birkin
I. S. Johar
Music by Nino Rota
Cinematography Jack Cardiff
Edited by Malcolm Cooke
Mersham Productions
Distributed by EMI Films (UK)
Paramount Pictures (US)
Release dates
  • 29 September 1978 (1978-09-29) (US)
  • 24 October 1978 (1978-10-24) (UK)
Running time 140 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Box office $14,560,084 (US)[1]

Death on the Nile is a 1978 British film based on the Agatha Christie mystery novel of the same name, directed by John Guillermin and adapted by Anthony Shaffer. The film features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, played by Peter Ustinov, plus an all-star cast.

It takes place in Egypt, mostly on a period paddle steamer on the Nile River. Many of the cultural highlights of Egypt are also featured in the film, such as the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, and temples at Abu Simbel and Karnak.

Death on the Nile won an Academy Award for its costume design.


The film begins with a meeting between wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) and her close friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow). Jackie wants her fiancé, Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale), to work for Linnet, but he and Linnet have a whirlwind affair and end up marrying. While honeymooning in Egypt, they are continually hounded by the jilted Jackie. In an attempt to get away, the Doyles board a Nile paddle steamer, the S.S. Karnak.

When the passengers venture on-shore to examine a nearby temple, a large stone is pushed off a pillar and narrowly misses Simon and Linnet. They again encounter Jackie, who boards the ship and ignores the warnings of detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) to stay away, revealing that she carries a small pistol. After a late-night game of cards in the ship's lounge, Jackie confronts Simon. In a drunken rage she fires and shoots him in the leg. The next morning, Linnet Ridgeway is discovered murdered in her cabin, shot in the head by a similar weapon, with almost everyone aboard the Karnak having had a reason to want to do away with the heiress. The pistol has meanwhile gone missing.

Suspect list[edit]

  • The elderly Mrs. van Schuyler (Bette Davis) coveted Linnet's jewels.
  • Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith), was forced into a life of servitude when Linnet's father destroyed her family.
  • The maid, Louise Bourget (Jane Birkin), was upset because Linnet refused her a promised dowry.
  • James Ferguson (Jon Finch), a Communist, resented Linnet's life of luxury.
  • Eccentric novelist Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) faced a libel suit brought by Linnet (the dead cannot be libelled).
  • The author's daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey) wanted to protect her mother.
  • American lawyer Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy) had embezzled from the Ridgeway family.
  • Dr. Ludwig Bessner (Jack Warden) was upset because Linnet made defamatory remarks about his clinic.
  • Jacqueline de Bellefort was upset with Linnet for obvious reasons. Poirot admits he found out all this by being a "nasty eavesdropper."
  • Mr Chaudhry (I. S. Johar), manager of the Karnak, had confused everyone's identity.

Now it's up to the Belgian sleuth, along with his vacationing friend Colonel Race (David Niven), who was representing Linnet's British lawyers and investigating Pennington and followed him, on the ship from New York, to Cairo, on the Brayman, to solve the mystery.


Jackie is a natural suspect but has a perfect alibi, having been given morphine and observed by Miss Bowers all night (Alcohol and Morphine would, in Nurse Bowers's words, sink the Titanic). Simon Doyle was also unable to commit the crime due to his leg wound. Poirot is convinced someone on deck overheard the argument, removed the gun and used it to kill Linnet.

A bundle had been found in the Nile. The missing pistol is wrapped in Mrs. van Schuyler's stole, which was apparently used to muffle the sound of a gunshot and prevent scorching, as seen around Linnet's injury. A handkerchief was also included, stained with red ink, some of which was found in Linnet's pearl nail-varnish bottle.

While Poirot and Race conduct their investigation, the maid Louise is murdered. Her throat has been cut with one of Dr. Bessner's scalpels and a fragment of a banknote is found in her hand. Poirot realises she probably saw the murderer coming out of Linnet's cabin and attempted to extort money in return for her silence. Salome Otterbourne claims to have seen Louise's murderer and is about to tell Poirot when she is shot in the head through an open cabin door with Pennington's revolver, too large to have been used on Linnet.


With several suspects eliminated, Poirot gathers everyone in the saloon, where he reveals the solution – Simon Doyle murdered his wife, with Jacqueline as his accomplice. Poirot reveals that Simon and Jackie were still lovers, and his marriage to Linnet had been cleverly plotted to gain her money. They faked Simon's shooting, leaving him free to murder Linnet while the doctor was being fetched by Ferguson and as Jacqueline was attended to by Miss Bowers. Simon was left alone long enough to run to Linnet's room, shoot her in the head, return to the lounge and shoot himself in the leg through the stole – a third shot of which no one was aware. Jackie covered up. She stole the knife and revolver, then killed the maid and Salome Otterbourne. Simon and Jackie point out that Poirot has no proof, so Poirot convinces Simon that his hands could be tested for grains of gunpowder removed with wax. When they realise that they have been found out, they confess, and in a final love embrace, Jackie covertly takes back her pistol and shoots Simon, then herself.

Later Poirot says goodbye to the remaining guests, reveals that the test was made-up, and Rosalie and Ferguson announce that they are engaged.

Main cast[edit]


The film shot seven weeks on location in Egypt, four on the steamer Karnak (the historic ship SS Memnon) and the rest at places such as Aswan, Abu Simbel, Luxor, and Cairo. Desert filming required makeup call at 4 a.m. and shooting at 6 a.m. to accommodate a two-hour delay around noon when temperatures hovered near 130 °F (54 °C). Bette Davis wryly commented, "In the older days, they'd have built the Nile for you. Nowadays, films have become travelogues and actors, stuntmen."[2]

During the shoot, troubles arose as no hotel reservations had been made for the crew. They were subsequently shifted from hotel to hotel, sometimes on a daily basis. Director Guillermin was never allowed to see the rushes. By order of the producers, footage was sent directly to them in London. A lighter moment occurred during a love scene between Chiles and MacCorkindale, when a hostile desert fly landed on Chiles's teeth. The actors carried on as best they could, but the crew burst out laughing when Guillermin thankfully called "cut" and ordered another take.[2]

Costume designer Anthony Powell won an Oscar for Best Costume design, his second. Among his touches were shoes for Chiles that featured diamond studded heels that came from a millionaire's collection and shoes worn by Davis made from the scales of twenty-six pythons.[2]


For the US market, artist Richard Amsel was commissioned to do a film poster which reflected the US public interest in "King Tut" at the time.

Although it was a British film, Death on the Nile first premiered in New York, on 29 September 1978, to coincide with the sale of tickets for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's opening on 15 December 1978 of the travelling exhibition The Treasures of Tutankhamun, which had piqued interest in Egyptian artefacts. For the US market, artist Richard Amsel was commissioned to change the original British poster art by including the profile of King Tutankhamun with ceremonial knife (and modern revolver), surrounded by the cast.[2]

In London there was a gala premiere at the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue on 24 October 1978, attended by the Queen, Prince Philip and Earl Mountbatten.[3]


The Times' film critic David Robinson had mixed feelings about the film. Although entertaining, and following the formula of the Murder on the Orient Express film four years earlier, he found it a bit too long and not quite as good. He concluded that screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and director John Guillermin were not quite as suitable to handle Agatha Christie's rich material as Paul Dehn and Sidney Lumet had been when they worked on Murder on the Orient Express.[4]

The film was expected to be popular with audiences following on the heels of Murder on the Orient Express, the most successful British film up to that point. However, the box office return was $14.5 million in the United States, lower than the $25 million high for Orient Express, despite its generally positive reviews and similar formula of exotic locales, sumptuous period detail, and all-star cast.[5]

Death on the Nile has received generally positive reviews by contemporary film critics more than 30 years later, with an 80% fresh rating on "Fine entertainment that is lovely to look at and easy to enjoy" and "made more watchable because of its all-star cast". Some reviews mention that it "suffers by comparison" with Murder on the Orient Express.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Academy Awards (US)

Won (1978)
Category: Best Costume Design
Recipient: Anthony Powell

BAFTA Awards

Won (1978)
Category: Best Costume Design
Recipient: Anthony Powell
Peter Ustinov (Best Actor)
Angela Lansbury (Best Supporting Actress)
Maggie Smith (Best Supporting Actress)

Edgar Allan Poe Awards (U.S)

Nominated (1979)
Category: Best Motion Picture

Evening Standard British Film Awards

Won (1979)
Category: Best Actor
Recipient: Peter Ustinov
Won (1979)
Category: Best Film
Recipient: John Guillermin

Golden Globes (US)

Nominated (1979)
Category: Best Foreign Film

National Board of Review (US)

Won (1978)
Category: Best Supporting Actress
Recipient: Angela Lansbury

Ustinov as Poirot[edit]

Peter Ustinov as Poirot in Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile was Peter Ustinov's first portrayal of Christie's Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the role having been played by Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express four years earlier. He was to continue as Poirot in a further five films:


  1. ^ "Death on the Nile at Box Office Mojo". Retrieved 29 September 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d The New Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie, Riley, Dick and Pam McAllister, ed. Ungar, New York, 1986. Life on the Nile by Michael Tennenbaum, p 126-128. ISBN 0-8044-5803-0
  3. ^ The Times, 24 October 1978, page 20, Court Circular: "The Queen, with The Duke of Edinburgh and Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, this evening honoured with her presence the premiere of the film Death on the Nile in aid of the Royal British Legion and the Variety Club of Great Britain at the ABC Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue." - Found in the Times Digital Archive 2014-01-02
  4. ^ The Times, 27 October 1978, page 12: Dame Agatha's own serpent of old Nile - Found in the Times Digital Archive 2014-01-02
  5. ^ The Agatha Christie Collection

External links[edit]