We’re Almost There: Angela Lansbury in ‘Death on the Nile’ – Blog
Of gas lamp at Glass Onion, Angela Lansbury has had an extraordinary career, the grandeur of which is difficult to overestimate. For nearly 80 years, she’s entertained people around the world, whether on Broadway stages or on television as Jessica Fletcher, from roles of unspeakable villainy to nanny darlings in children’s media. So reading the news of her death was shocking, even though Lansbury was almost 97 – she died less than a week before her birthday. It just seemed like she would live forever, a primordial force ever present in our lives. Lansbury worked to the end, now living with her as a last vestige of old Hollywood. How can we come close to articulating what a loss this represents for show business? There was simply no one else quite like Angela Lansbury.
To honor the star, let’s recall one of his most colorful cinematic creations, a foray into the world of Agatha Christie murder mysteries that nearly earned Lansbury a fourth Oscar nomination – the 1978 Death on the Nile…
Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel of the same name, Death on the Nile details another misadventure of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Although some changes were made in the adaptation process, the film is relatively faithful to the original text, retaining its basic narrative and tone, most of the characters, and essential details. This means that most of the action takes place on the steamer Karnak, circumnavigating the Nile from Shellaf to Wadi Halfa, carrying a group of wealthy guests, including young socialite Linnet Doyle. She is the first murder victim pictured, sparking Poirot’s plot and investigation. As always in Christie’s writing, everyone is suspect and there are many red herrings in the way of the truth.
In this detective story, Angela Lansbury plays Salome Otterbourne, perhaps the strangest and most comedic figure of the lot. She is a novelist who dresses like a well-to-do fortune teller, spends her days drinking her fortune, and is currently being sued by Linnet for defamation. There is your motive, however, in the end Otterbourne is more victim than aggressor. As a traveling companion, this alcoholic writer brings along her daughter, Rosalie, whose main motivation seems to be to protect her mother from the ruin that Linnet’s accusations might bring them. Money is the key to everything, although it is rude to mention such things in high society.
So far so good – it’s a typical Christie joint, full of archetypal figures seen through a prism of English snobbery and a healthy mix of humor, mystery and unexpected pathos. Although far from perfect, John Guillermin Death on the Nile captures the book’s delicate balance, being both funnier and more melancholy than the film whose success launched a new wave of Christie’s film adaptations – 1974 Murder on the Orient Express. Some comes from the source material, but the tonal chemistry depends on the work of the actors. The entire cast is a carefully curated collection of extremes, in which Lansbury’s goofy Salome emerges as the craziest caricature, the pinnacle of murder mystery eccentricity.
We first find her watching the honeymooned Doyles dance the night away, a glass of liquor in her hand and a pile of glitter covering every inch of her. Lansbury is a vision of old-fashioned vamp fashion, her eyes rimmed in eyeshadow and mascara to make her look a bit like a silent film star aged past her prime. Not that Salome Otterbourne is a particularly silent presence. As soon as she spots Poirot, she storms off like a drunken chatterbox, mispronouncing the Belgian’s name to mush while trying and failing to impress him. Every gesture drips with self-conscious grandeur, every word spoken with an unctuous drama that’s so overworked you can’t help but laugh at the spectacle. The way she uses the wacky lines of her costume to emphasize everything is fun beyond words.
And yet, Lansbury is not without finesse. There’s a hammy technique to its overpronunciation, the horny physicality of a danced tango with “a sultry erotic dash”. It’s brilliant slapstick that still leaves room for character details like Salome’s exaggerated sense of self-importance and her not-so-subtle disdain for young Mrs. Doyle. Long before their relationship was explained, the older comedienne made us aware of the venom between the two with nothing but a pause between words, a glance up, a tiny lock in her springy expression. Those bubbles of hate that bubble to the surface in moments of great comedy characterize much of Lansbury’s early scenes – a cyclical play of tonal disruptions.
Consider the only interaction we witness between Salome and Linnet, a hollow-crawling charade on the part of the author trying to appeal to the non-existent mercy of the heiress. A resounding moment of discomfort depends on Lansbury’s pivoting movements, blurry looks betraying his inebriated state. She can’t even end with an ominous threat, screaming in outrage with a hunched posture and a voice that begins to lose its fire as soon as the words get out. It would be incorrect to proclaim Lansbury’s drunken acting as an example of authenticity or, heaven forbid, realism. Then again, those looking for such things in an Agatha Christie mystery are barking up the wrong tree.
Angela Lansbury always knows what kind of film she is, her width intentional rather than accidental. A trip to the Temple of Karnak allows the actress to explore the indulgent vicissitudes of Salome’s sex-obsessed psyche in tandem with her perpetual place in the liminal space between consciousness and unconsciousness. The footage also allows for some variation, showing how the actress differs in her approach depending on her scene partners. There’s an awkward display with Jack Warden, copying his gestures in a stupor before launching into a spiel about the excited rams. With Olivia Hussey as a daughter, there is a glimmer of fragility. Watching Lois Chiles’ Linnet, stone-faced fury shines through a dark gaze.
It should also be recognized how good Lansbury is at delineating Salome’s levels of amazement throughout the day. It’s an embarrassing ham but still works in the Temple. Cut to night, and the author can barely stay up, his behavior more erratic than ever, his gestures more sloppy, embarrassing young Otterbourne to mortification. If possible, the calamity of Linnet’s murder only plunges the novelist deeper into the abyss of intemperance. Faced with Poirot as a potential suspect, she’s a total mess – so much so that it’s hard to believe in her as a killer. Even in the dramatization of the detective’s theory, Lansbury emphasizes the woman’s limp gait, her drunkenness so authoritative that it begins to turn from farce to tragedy.
After that, Salome Otterbourne isn’t in much of the film, finding herself as another victim in the love triangle of Linnett Doyle, her husband and former best friend. Her final scene is an explosion of vitality, highlighting all that is brilliant about the performance. It’s all about excess balanced by measured deliveries, a comedic mastery that allows the actress to squeeze all the potential humor out of the dialogue and splash it onto the screen. Until the end, she makes us giggle through too long pauses, oscillating poses, a chaotic energy ripe on the verge of rot. It’s hard not to overstay his welcome playing a dull person, but Lansbury’s presence is missed after he’s gone, leaving a void behind, allowing the heartache to rise above the levity.
For her stage work, Angela Lansbury won the National Board of Review’s Best Supporting Actress award. She also scored a BAFTA nomination. While these two accolades may not seem like much precursory support, it should be remembered that in 1978, awards season was not as crowded with award-winning institutions. Indeed, one of the eventual Oscar nominees got no other recognition outside of that nod. The five chosen from AMPAS were Dyan Cannon in Heaven can waitPenelope Milford in Go homeMaggie Smith in Californian SuiteMaureen Stapleton in Interiorsand Meryl Streep in The deer hunter. Smith won the Oscar, while Milford was the surprise nominee. All things considered, it’s not too hard to imagine Angela Lansbury as a close sixth-place finisher. She was almost there.
Death on the Nile airs on The Roku Channel, Hoopla, Tubi, Pluto TV, Shout! Factory, Plex and Freevee. You can also rent it on most major services.