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)
  • 23 October 1978 (1978-10-23) (UK)
Running time
140 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $7.92 million[1]
Box office $14,560,084 (US)[2]

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, even though the locations are not in sequence. The boat trip starts in Aswan, follows to Karnak and then to Abu Simbel which is upstreams from Assuan. Furthermore, it was never possible to go by boat from Assuan to Abu Simbel, even before the Aswan Dam was built because of the cataracts near Aswan.

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). Jacquie 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 Jacquie. In an attempt to get away, the Doyles pretend to go to the Cairo Railway Station before backtracking to board their booked cruise on 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 Jacquie, 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, Jacquie 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. A "J" is written in blood on the wall from Linnet's finger, appearing to implicate Jacquie. Also, Jacquie's pistol is missing.

Jacquie 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. Poirot confronts each guest aboard the Karnak in turn and explains how each had a reason to want to kill the heiress.

Soon a bundle is found in the Nile. The missing pistol is wrapped in Mrs. van Schuyler's stole, which had a small bullet hole in it. A handkerchief was also included, stained with blood.

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 Jacquie 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. Jacquie covered up. She stole the knife then killed the maid. She stole the revolver and killed Salome Otterbourne. Simon and Jacquie 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, Jacquie 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]

  • Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective
  • Lois Chiles as Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, a beautiful heiress with many enemies
  • Simon MacCorkindale as Simon Doyle, Linnet's handsome husband
  • Mia Farrow as Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet's old school friend, formerly engaged to Simon
  • Jane Birkin as Louise Bourget, Linnet's maid
  • George Kennedy as Andrew Pennington, Linnet's embezzling American lawyer
  • Bette Davis as Marie Van Schuyler, a rich kleptomaniac
  • Maggie Smith as Miss Bowers, her companion whose family was ruined by the Ridgeways
  • Angela Lansbury as Salome Otterbourne, an exotic novelist Linnet is suing for libel
  • Olivia Hussey as Rosalie Otterbourne, her delicate, devoted daughter
  • David Niven as Colonel Johnny Race, Poirot's friend and an agent for Linnet's British lawyers
  • Jon Finch as Mr James Ferguson, a communist who resents Linnet's wealth
  • Jack Warden as Dr Bessner, a Swiss doctor whose methods Linnet deplores
  • I. S. Johar as Mr Chaudhry, manager of the 'Karnak'
  • Harry Andrews as Barnstaple, Linnet's butler in England
  • Sam Wanamaker as Rockford, Pennington's business partner
  • Celia Imrie as a maid (uncredited)
  • Saeed Jaffrey as a servant on the 'Karnak; (uncredited)


The movie was made during a period of expansion for EMI Films under Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings, who were increasingly aiming at the international market.[3]

This was Jane Birkin's first British movie in a decade.[4]

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."[5][6]

John Guillermin commented that the Egyptian government were supportive of the film because there were so many Agatha Christie fans in the country, and the story "was unpolitical".[7]

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.[5]

Guillermin found the shoot logistically tricky because of the heat and the boat, which sometimes ran aground. But he enjoyed the cast:

The more experienced people created a very generous atmosphere. They were not impatient at all. I have never worked with Bette Davis before and was told she was professional but not communicative. Well, she was an absolute bastion of support and enthusiasm. During the breaks, the cast would often sit to one side engaged in terrific conversation. There was Ustinov's great wit and Niven's dry humour. Jack Warden is a very funny man and Mia Farrow is a very funny woman. This was a bunch of people who could relax.[7]

"Poirot can be a cold fish, but here we made him more humanistic and warm, interested in young people for instance," said the director. "Peter Ustinov was able to bring that out."[7] 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.[5]


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.[5]

In London, there was a Royal Charity Premiere at the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue on 23 October 1978, attended by the Queen, Prince Philip and Earl Mountbatten.[8]


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.[9]

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,[2] lower than the $25 million high for Orient Express.[citation needed]

Death on the Nile has received generally positive reviews by contemporary film critics more than 30 years later, with an 80% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[10]

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]

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. ^ "TIMESPAN Even the palms have to be made.". The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995) (ACT: National Library of Australia). 8 December 1977. p. 23. Retrieved 10 December 2015. 
  2. ^ a b "Death on the Nile". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 29 September 2010. 
  3. ^ British money is suddenly big in Hollywood,'right up with Fox and Warne r.' Mills, Bart. The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 02 Sep 1977: 8.
  4. ^ When a small front need not hold you back Mills, Nancy. The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 11 Oct 1977: 9.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Movies: Staying Afloat in Egypt for Agatha's 'Death on the Nile' Mann, Roderick. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, California] 11 Dec 1977: x61.
  7. ^ a b c FILM CLIPS: Life on the Nile With Guillermin Lee, Grant. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 20 Sep 1978: f14.
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ The Times, 27 October 1978, page 12: Dame Agatha's own serpent of old Nile - Found in the Times Digital Archive 2014-01-02
  10. ^ "Death on the Nile". Rotten Tomatoes. 

External links[edit]