Guy Hamilton, “Evil under the Sun” (1981)
Even when he’s holidaying in an apparently perfect little Mediterranean paradise where the sky is always celestial blue and the sea is turquoise serene, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is followed by murder most brutal and intriguing. In this 1981 adaptation of the 1940 Agatha Christie novel, the setting moves from Devon in England to the exotic Adriatic locale of Tyrania where the former mistress of the King of Tyrania, Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith), runs a hotel that accepts English guests on a picturesque little island. Here, Poirot has been invited by millionaire Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) to stay for a while after the detective examined a diamond returned to Blakely by his former girlfriend, actress / singer Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg) and declared it a fake; Blakely knows that Arlena is coming to the island with her husband Kenneth (Denis Quilley) and his daughter Linda (Emily Hone) and he wants Poirot close by when he confronts Arlena with the fake. Also arriving on the island is a young couple, Patrick Redfern (Nicolas Clay) and his meek, downtrodden wife Christine (Jane Birkin): they have come at the personal invitation of Arlena. Other guests present who also know Arlena are the Gardeners (James Mason and Sylvia Miles) who were nearly financially ruined when Arlena walked out of a play they were producing; and Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) who is writing a tell-all biography of the actress. Once everyone has arrived, Arlena proceeds to annoy them all by flirting outrageously with Patrick, abusing her stepdaughter, arguing with Horace over the diamond and threatening Rex if he continues to write the biography. The rivalry between Arlena and Daphne, dormant since their days together as dancers and actresses in a chorus line, revs up with both women trading spiteful looks and venomous barbs even as they entertain guests in an impromptu performance of the Cole Porter song “You’re the Top”.
It’s no surprise to viewers then that a couple of days after the Marshalls’ arrival at the resort that Arlena turns up very dead on the beach yet all the guests and the hotel staff have water-tight alibis. Daphne appeals to Poirot to solve the murder quickly with the minimum of fuss and inconvenience before news gets out beyond the island. Poirot accepts the challenge and goes about interviewing everyone, noting down the details of what they say, piecing the clues together and coming up with an astonishing explanation that not only solves the mystery of who murdered Arlena but also resolves an earlier unsolved mystery of the murder of a woman killed in Yorkshire.
The film is noted for its light-hearted tone, its ensemble cast who represent some of the finest British actors of their time (and who also appear to have enjoyed working together and over-acting their parts) and the attention given to recreating the pre-Second World War holiday world of rich and privileged British tourists in their costumes, their pastimes and the popular music of the era. Its highlight is the scene in which Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg hoof it up with their rendition of “You’re the Top”, all the while shooting each other evil looks and Smith flinging her scarf “accidentally” all over Rigg in a smooth action that must have been done in one perfect take. Alas, that such encounters between the two actresses are few and far between, and once Rigg is out of the film at its halfway point, some of the early electricity fades away.
The intriguing part about “Evil …” is its obsession with maintaining order and an image of the English as an imperturbable, stiff upper-lipped folk: the reality is that emotion, greed, selfishness and desire for vengeance leading to tragedy are never far below the cool and calm surface sheen. Poirot plays his part in shoring up that false image though one has the impression he sees through that mask; it is only his own personal desire for orderliness and holding back the forces of chaos and irrationality that pushes him to uphold that image again and again and again. Thanks to him, wrongs are set right and for a brief time order reigns again – but Poirot well knows that reign will be temporary and he will have to battle evil again. The change in setting from England to a secluded and self-contained holiday resort on a fictional Mediterranean island (the film was made in Majorca, in Spain), cut off from the rest of the world, highlights the contrast between the glamorous surface appearance of rich people at play and the subterranean tensions within them.
For this reason as well as the others mentioned above – in particular, the recreation of a world now lost, and which the British are attempting to restore, in their culture and through their propaganda, and failing badly – “Evil under the Sun” is to be regarded as a minor crime caper classic.