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Nov 09 2017

Blueprints: "Evil Under the Sun"

In anticipation of the release ofMurder on the Orient Expressthis weekend,Jorge Molina takes a look at a lesser known Agatha Christie adaptation to see how a mystery can introduce its suspects before it even begins.

There are few things that give me more comfort in life than murder mysteries.Clues woven cleverly through a narrative,the slow reveal of hidden motivations,the buildup to a clean and logical resolution.Watching one person inevitably emerge a criminal from a large group of eccentric and enigmatic characters.

Agatha Christie is still the undeniable queen of the genre.In her novels she perfected the character archetypes for these stories: the charismatic millionaire,the begrudging femme fatale,the quiet foreign girl,the ambitious older lad...to name but a few.

And when her work started to inevitably get cinematic adaptations,with them came a pool of dramatic flair for actors to dive into...

Like most Agatha Christie adaptations,1982'sEvil Under the Sunhas a large ensemble cast,where every character plays a major role in the case.For the audience,as for famed Detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov),everyone's a suspect.And,in pure whodunit fashion,the script and the film both find a way to feed us biases against each of them before the first scene even starts.

Evil Under the Sun
Written by: Anthony Shaffer
Based on the novel of the same name by Agatha Christie
[You can read the full scripthere.I will be talking aboutthese pagesandthis scene.]

Just like a climactic murder revelation,we need to understand the background of this: there are two important things to note about the way Christie introduces her characters and how the cinematic counterparts adapted that.

Christie was not only a novelist,but also a very successful playwright (her playThe Mousetraphas been continuously running in London since 1952).In pure theater tradition,many editions of her novels include a character breakdown before the text,with a brief,sentence-long description.

In a very unusual move,the script forEvil Under the Sundoes this as well.This may be a practice that just died with time,although it's unlikely.I'm more inclined to think it's an homage to Christie's theater background and book style.In any case,with the introduction of the characters before the movie starts,we at least have a phrase-long expectation of them.We're starting to get to know them,just like a detective would.

The second element that's characteristic not solely of Christie but that she certainly mastered,is the way that seemingly throwaway elements like small talk,everyday objects,or coincidental events suddenly become clues once the case has been revealed and one looks back at them.No one ties loose ends better.

And while the movie does plant every relevant clue throughout in an initially inconspicuous way,it also takes the same artifice as the script and places hints somewhere even less viewers are inclined to look.The art and graphics department took the basic idea of this "script prologue"and applied it to its cinematic counterpart in an opening credits sequence.

This opening montage is made up of watercolor drawings of locations inside the island.But once the cast starts to appear,the name of each actor is accompanied with an image that is also a visual clue for their characters: who they are,their intentions,the role they will play.

We don't know it yet,but [SPOILER ALERT] being in a lounge chair will be the alibi for James Mason's Odell Gardener,a tennis appointment with Denis Quilley's Kenneth Marshall is vital to the timeline of the crime,and the big,bright,red hat of Diana Rigg's Arlena Stuart becomes iconic.These apparently throwaway images,if we looked back at them again after it's over,would become clues.

Before a character has even said a word in the script,and before we even fade into the first scene in the movie,we already come with small,unconscious preconceived notions and information about the characters we're about to meet.Anthony Shaffer in the page (and the art department in the screen) managed to step outside the boundaries of the story to play with our expectations of the group of people we'll be stuck in an island with for the next two hours.

Honestly,Agatha Christie would have probably loved that.

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Reader Comments (15)

Totally one of my guilty pleasure Maggie performances here - she's so fun!

November 9,2017 | Unregistered CommenterMorganb

My favorite Maggie Smith quote: "Arlena and I were in the chorus of a show together,not that I could ever compete.Even in those days,she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us...and wider.":-)

November 9,2017 | Unregistered Commenterceebee

This movie is so fun.Agatha Christie is one of my favorite authors.I am not wanting AT ALL this remake of Murder On the Orient Express.The original was formative for me in my youth.It virtually turned me into a move buff.

November 9,2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

The new Murder of the Orient Express was awful!Right from the start it put me off.The modern font for the title was weird and it appears as if each cast member filmed their scenes separately and was composited in.The entire film consisted of either long shots of the train through snow or close up shots of the actor.Rent the original instead.

November 9,2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Lewis

The only version better than the BBC series with David Suchet.

From which I recommend highly Murder (with Jessica Chastain as Madame Devereaux).Poirot as melancholy protagonist (as opposed to Finney's insufferable overacted) and Chastain as unsung heroine (look for a clever reading of woman's treatment in Middle East Culture;totally absent in the Lumet's version.

November 9,2017 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

These Christie adaptations always lots of juicy supporting actressing

74 - MOTOE - Hiller especially,Roberts,Bacall
74 - 10LI - Audran,Sommer
78- DOTN - Lansbury,Smith,Davis
80 - EUTS- Rigg,Myles,Smith
82 - TMC - Taylor,Novak,Chaplin

November 9,2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

chofer--I realize some think Finney is overracting.But for me,he's doing Poirot as written on the page.The character in the book is larger than life and obscenely ostentatious.Not mentioning the fact that he's a complete narcissist and show-off.Finney really nails this crazy dude and this is one of my favorite performances ever.

November 9,2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

This one is a lot fun

November 9,2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Evil Under the Sun is delicious fun,as is Nicholas Clay in that swimsuit!

November 9,2017 | Unregistered Commenterrick gould

You sound like Kevin Spacey,rick gould.

November 9,2017 | Unregistered Commentergoodbar

Rick Gould is not wrong,though.Nicolas Clay looked very nice in that swimsuit,and in "Excalibur",too.Super fun movie with some delicious bitchy line readings.

November 9,2017 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

I love this film,A true delight.Almost seems like a classic comedy of the 30s,not quite Lubitsch,but within spitting distance.

November 10,2017 | Unregistered CommenterDan H

LOVE this film which along with the original Murder on the Orient Express are my favorite adaptations of her work.This one is more lighthearted with Ustinov a delicious Poirot and Anthony Powell outdoing himself with the costuming.Sylvia Miles never looked so good!

Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg make a great team of sparring partners both relishing their bitchy dialogue.

I hadn't realized that about the credits though I thought they were cool.Next time I watch I'll take special note.Thanks!

November 10,2017 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

RE Clay Is it now wrong for a gay man to admire another man??

November 10,2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Sylvia Miles!:)

November 10,2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

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