High Noon on the Island of Good and Evil Under the Sun

5 Jul

Well, Michael and I finally saw Quartet, the late 2012 release that marked the directorial debut of two-time Oscar winning actor Dustin Hoffman. The movie didn’t make it to Dallas until February or March, a tad anti-climactic since despite generally kind reviews, the popularity of star Maggie Smith,  and the savvy marketing folks at Weinstein, the film was an Oscar casualty. Not a single nomination even though Smith did eke out a Globe nod. Funny thing, that. Again, Smith, with a lengthy career that includes two Oscars and scads of other awards and/or nominations, is probably as popular–that word again–as she has ever been thanks to the import series Downton Abbey (okay, and Harry Potter), yet for all the hoopla, I found her to be no better and certainly no worse than usual in Quartet.

quartet-film-cast

^ The marvelous cast of Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet (l -r): Pauline Collins, the great Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, and Maggie Smith.

Instead, I was most captivated by Tom Courtenay, a sterling British actor–and two time Oscar nominee (last in the race for 1983’s The Dresser) as a lovesick chap who was once all but destroyed by Smith’s Jean Horton.The two opera singers were briefly married, but the marriage was short-lived, and Horton went on to an ever more illustrious career. Now, she’s old, apparently destitute, and on her way to Beecham House, a retirement home for singers and musicians; meanwhile, Courtenay’s Reginald continues to nurse a broken heart, and it’s touching, almost heartbreaking, to see a such a distinguished man try NOT to wear his heart on his sleeve. I think he’d be relieved if he didn’t have a heart.

Quartet was filmed at the popular Hedsor House and Park in Buckinghamshire, England. The estate has been featured in a number of films and TV shows, including The Golden Compass, MTV’s The Girls of Hedsor Hall, and the upcoming Red 2. Oh, wouldn’t I love to stroll those sumptuous grounds and just relax.

What I’m really leading up to is that, once again, Michael and I are unlikely to take a vacation this year. Our plans fell through last year as well, but to make up for the disappointment, I immersed myself in Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982). Allen’s film, an early 20th century romp set on an idyllic country estate, was the next best thing to an actual weekend getaway; certainly, it was much, much, much less expensive than an actual getaway.

So far, this summer doesn’t look too promising either: too many commitments, not enough time, and not enough scratchola. With that in mind, it looks like I’ll be watching–and writing about–another scenic gem, one also starring Dame Maggie:  1982’s exquisite adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun.

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Led by Peter Ustinov as Christie’s methodical sleuth Hercule Poirot, the cast of Evil Under the Sun is chock-full of Oscar winners and/or nominees. Ustinov has two statuettes for Best Supporting Actor: Spartacus (1960) and Topkapi (1964, a fave of ours); additionally, he earned nominations for appearing in 1951’s Quo Vadis and for co-writing 1968’s Hot Millions. He earned a British Academy nod for his first outing as Poirot in 1978’s Death on the Nile. Albert Finney, you might recall, won an Oscar nod for portraying Poirot in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express. Ustinov went on to play Poirot in a few TV adaptations as well as yet another feature film, Appointment with Death–not from Bradbourne and Goodwin but, instead, the cheapie Cannon/Golan-Globus organization. Ustinov passed away at the age of 82 in 2004.

I was living in San Francisco when this gem was released, and even though I’m a Christie fan–I try to read at least one of her books, sometimes more, every year–and even though I thought Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978) were both a lot of fun, I never thought too much about seeing Evil Under the Sun. I think maybe I was “making do” on limited resources–heck, S.F. is an expensive place, especially for people in the so-called “service industry.”  Maybe the title and the participation of Smith just seemed too similar to Death on the Nile (in which Smith sparred with Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, and Peter Ustinov, among others); maybe I didn’t know what to believe after the last big Christie offering, The Mirror Crack’d. Yes, about that unfortunate business.  Though all four of the Christie releases in this paragraph were produced by the team of  John Bradbourne and Richard B. Goodwin, and even though the two earlier releases had each snagged a handful or awards and/or nominations, The Mirror Crack’d was a fiasco, a painful last grasp at major movie stardom for most of the participants: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Kim Novak. A beast that one. Mercilessly slaughtered by the critics in a way more deadly than even Christie could have devised (thank god, she’d already passed away), the movie likewise tanked with audiences when it was released in time for the 1980 holiday season–when everyone was else was flocking to the likes of 9 to 5 and Stir Crazy.

True confession: I didn’t see The Mirror Crack’d back in the day. I wanted to at first, but I was, uh, between jobs for a bit, and when I read the reviews, I was frankly relieved, knowing what little money I had would not be wasted. I caught up with it on VHS in 1989.  Again, simply dreadful. I watched it again, sometime in the past year or two, at the urging of a friend, but it doesn’t even work as camp. I guess, the only good thing that came out of The Mirror Crack’d was that someone had the good sense to parlay Angela Lansbury’s performance as Christie’s Miss Marple into TV’s longrunning Murder, She Wrote (after Doris Day and Jean Stapleton reportedly turned down the chance to play mystery writer turned amateur sleuth, Jessica Fletcher). But I digress.

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At the time of Evil Under the Sun’s 1982 release, Smith had already won Oscars as Best Actress (The Prime of Jean Brodie, 1969) and Best Supporting Actress (California Suite, 1978) in addition to nominations for 1965’s Othello (Best Supporting Actress-as Desdemona) and 1972’s Travels with My Aunt (Best Actress). Her filmography now includes additional Best Supporting nods for A Room with a View (1986) and Gosford Park (2001). Of course, younger movie fans simply love her as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies.

So, Evil Under the Sun. There I was last summer when a co-worker noticed that I was reading Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence. (Didn’t I just mention that I try to read at least one Christie per year?)  He asked if I was a big Christie fan and, knowing that I’m all about movies, asked if I’d ever seen Evil Under the Sun. Then, he told me the thing that stuck.  He said that Evil Under the Sun was the perfect movie–that’s the word he used, perfect. He went on to elaborate that he wouldn’t argue that it was the best movie ever made, or even that it was his all-time favorite movie. He just thought it was perfect in and of itself.  Okay, so I was intrigued, and the next time Michael and I had a night off together, we watched…the perfect movie.

Well, I don’t know that Evil Under the Sun is a perfect movie, but it sure is a lot of fun.  Sure, a few liberties have been taken with Christie’s original text (as I have since learned),  but the plot construction is pretty tight as Christie presents a murder in which every possible suspect seemingly has an iron-clad alibi.  Simply, a rather loose-knit bunch of showbiz types, and a few anxious followers, converge upon a sprawling retreat nestled near the Adriatic Sea; however all the fun-in-the sun is marred when petty jealousies and shocking alliances emerge, resulting in death by strangulation.

Of course, even with all those alibis, someone must be lying because as Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov)  maintains, a murder has most definitely been committed. Someone is definitely dead, and someone definitely did the deed. Btw: the title of this blog piece is not just a clever play on words as the time of day is important to the particulars to the crime.  The twist, for lack of a better word, is that everyone’s alibi can be corroborated by another party, even a disinterested party though this is no grand conspiracy of the sort described in Murder on the Orient Express, but it manages an interesting turn or two.  Hint: just remember the magician’s old maxim:  “People believe what they see.”

Now, what’s not an illusion is how Evil Under the Sun works as a smashing travelogue. Though Christie’s original is set at a resort in Devon, the movie, again, takes place near the Adriatic though filming was actually done on location in Mallorca, Spain. Per the DVD, I believe the story goes that director Guy Hamilton was actually living in Mallorca at the time, and that location was picked specifically because it had not been overrun with high rise hotels as many potential sites had been. The setting needed to be pristine, tranquil, and secluded; that it is.

James Mason Verdict

This photo shows actor James Mason in his last Oscar nominated role as Paul Newman’s nemesis in The Verdict, which was released the same year as Evil Under the Sun (1982). Mason had previously been nominated for his performances in A Star is Born (1954) and Georgy Girl (1966); leading for the former, and supporting for the latter. Mason passed away shortly afterward (in 1984) at the age of 75.

Make no mistake, even with a cast that includes Smith, Ustinov, delightful Diana Rigg, Roddy McDowell, hunky Nicholas Clay [1], Jane Birkin, Colin Blakely and a few others  (profiled throughout this piece), Mallorca is really the star of the piece. Per the IMDb, screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, who also adapted Death on the Nile, once said: “The location is important. The island should be a star. Just as the Nile steamer [in Death on the Nile] and the Orient Express [in Murder on the Orient Express] were stars.” There’s a scarcely a bad shot in the whole movie. Instead, the actors are constantly framed against bright blue skies that fill up the screen, sparklingly clear turquoise waters, spectacularly photographic jagged terrain, and a gorgeous estate replete with verdant gardens and landscaped terraces–not to mention grand exterior steps. Also, according to the IMDb, it appears as though many of the hotel exteriors were filmed at the historic Raixa estate; the interiors were created on English soundstages, and they’re not bad: huge rooms, lavishly appointed in a style that mixes Moorish and Art Deco elements.

Of course, a breathtaking natural location is only as good as the cinematographer entrusted to capture it for moviegoers’ delight, and in this case, that means  Christopher Challis, a British Academy Award winner for Arabesque (starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren, 1966) with additional BAFTA nods for The Deep (1977), and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines… (1965).  Challis’s work in Evil Under the Sun is so good he can even be forgiven for his part in the execrable The Mirror Crack’d. Heck, I’ll likewise excuse director Hamilton for his part in the earlier debacle.

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Sylvia Miles appears as Mason’s wife. They play a pair of pushy–desperate–theatrical producers. Miles is a two-time Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress: Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Farewell, My Lovely (1975).

Oh, and there are more goodies besides. In a departure from their previous Christie offerings, which featured mostly original scores, Bradbourne and Goodwin, and presumably Hamilton, made the choice to score Evil Under the Sun with a batch of vintage tunes by no less than Cole Porter, including “Night and Day,” “You’re the Top,” “Begin the Beguine,” and “Anything Goes.” What’s not to love? Once again, perfect music for a holiday! Plus, there’s some wonderfully witty–if not outright bitchy–dialogue, such as: “If you were a man, I’d divorce you!”  Speaking of wit, pay close attention to Anthony Powell’s witty costume designs. How’s that you say?  In one scene, Smith and Rigg wear evening ensembles that seem to be competing with each other. Oh, and there’s a lot of polka-dots and other happy, colorful patterns.

Powell, of course, won an Oscar for Death on the Nile, and good for him, though he was not even nominated for Evil Under the Sun, which was largely passed over for awards consideration on both sides of the pond, netting only an Edgar Allen Poe nod for Shaffer’s screenplay; the Poe awards, btw, date back as far as 1946 and are presented by a group known as the Mystery Writers of America. I guess after all the accolades lavished on Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the Christie productions had become just a tad familiar to Oscar voters, Globe voters, etc. Too bad because there is so much top-of-the-line talent involved, and the results are smashing. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, a co-worker calls it a perfect movie; moreover, a post on the IMDb message boards heralds it as “The most underrated movie ever?” Clearly, it has ardent, and quote vocal, admirers. Oh, and just to clarify, the performances are a hoot. Ustinov is endearing as Poirot, a feat that, while McDowall, Riggs, and Smith are good for a few yucks.  I’m glad I finally caught up with this gem, but now I wish I’d seen it on the big screen back in the day.  The visuals are simply breathtaking and yet another testament to the power of movies.

But, you might ask, what about the mystery? What about man’s inhumanity against man? What about spoilers? Oh, relax. Just enjoy the scenery and let Christie work her particular genius–and just be glad, especially if you’re squeamish, that most of the violence and/or bloodletting takes place offscreen. Of course, no one wants to be killed while on vacation, but that’s part of the fun, the illusion,  of movies. We can luxuriate in suspense and fabulous locales without a lot of hassle and without going broke. It’s a momentary escape, and then order is restored. By the way, have you priced excursions to Mallorca lately??  If you’re like me, and a real vacation seems just out of reach, for whatever reason, you can treat yourself to the next best thing to an actual  exotic holiday via Netflix or your local video store–and why stop with just one Christie outing? With all the money you’ll save by not going to Mallorca for real, you can spend a few more dollars and  extend your travels to the Nile River and the Orient Express, headed to London from Istanbul. Let your imagination soar.

Thanks, Agatha.

[1] Clay, who racked up 48 TV and film credits in a career that began when he was just a teen (including portraying Lancelot in John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur),  passed away at a mere 52 in 2000: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0165551/?ref_=sr_1

Raixa Estate, Mallorca, Spain: http://www.raixa.org/index.php

Mystery Writers of America: http://mysterywriters.org/

Evil Under the Sun @ the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083908/?ref_=sr_1

Murder She Wrote trivia @ the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086765/trivia?ref_=tt_ql_2

Hedsor House (per Quartet):  http://www.hedsor.com/

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