Tag Archives: Peter Ustinov

Death on the Nile (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Murder on the river.

Based on the 1937 Agatha Christie novel of the same name the story centers around everyone’s favorite Belgium sleuth Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) as he tries solve a murder that occurs while he is traveling on a steamer going down the famous Nile River.

The on-location shooting in Egypt is the film’s chief asset. The scene where actors Simon MacCorkindale and Lois Chiles climb to the outer top of a pyramid is impressive as in the extended scene inside the Karnak Temple Complex. However, outside of this the visuals are blah and this entry fails to show the same cinematic flair done 4 years earlier of another Christie novel that was brought to the big screen Murder on the Orient Express.

I was also not too impressed with the steamer that was used to cart the characters down the river as it appeared to be too small and not at all luxurious. The fact that the production crew took a real steamer that they had found and then painstakingly recreated it to a minute detail inside the Pinewood studios in London is certainly commendable, but I felt the insides of the cabins were too big and too fancy and not in proportion to the actual boat that we see from the exterior, which looked like nothing more than a cheap, mid-sized thing that could be rented by a small family at a modest price for an afternoon on the lake.

The story itself takes too long to get going and in fact the murder and actual mystery doesn’t occur until 1 hour and 10 minutes in. Mia Farrow gives a provocative performance and it’s interesting seeing how things were before there were anti-stalking laws and people could simply follow around those that they hated, which is what the Farrow character does here, and harass the hell out of them without any fear of breaking any penalty, but the set-up gets too played out. The supporting cardboard characters are dull and put in simply to heighten the mystery with their own motives for wanting to kill the victim, which comes off as formulaic.

The ultimate denouncement isn’t too great either. I never read the book, so I don’t know how closely this follows it, but the explanation for how the killing is done hinged too much on careful split-second timing that I don’t think anyone would’ve been able to actually accomplish nor even want to risk trying. Also, the evidence that Poirot uses to solve the crime is threadbare and circumstantial to the extreme and if the killer’s hadn’t ultimately cracked under pressure I’m not so sure they would’ve been convicted.

The cast of big name stars is wasted and only Angela Lansbury is entertaining as the alcoholic erotic novelist, but even here her drunken condition gets overplayed as we never ever see her sober making it seem almost like she suffers from a degenerative disease like cerebral palsy. Ustinov is no fun as Poirot and Albert Finney was far better as he played the same character in a more lovable and amusingly eccentric way. He was asked to reprise the role, which he played in Murder on the Orient Express, but due to the unpleasant grind of having to wear a lot of makeup for the part he ended up declining.

If you’re a fan of Agatha Christie or enjoy mysteries then you may take to this a bit more. It’s still watchable and even marginally engrossing; however despite the excellent cast and splashy production values the ultimate effect is flat.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: September 29, 1978

Runtime: 2Hours 20Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Guillermin

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD

Viva Max! (1969)

viva max 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Taking back the Alamo.

A small ragtag Mexican army led by the affable, but incompetent General De Santo (Peter Ustinov) decides to cross the border and recapture the Alamo. The process goes much easier than expected despite the fact that the army used no bullets in their guns. The National Guard is then sent in to weed them out, but they too decide not to load their guns with bullets leading to some unusual results.

The film is based on the novel written by PBS newsman Jim Lehrer and the movie’s behind-the-scenes politics ends up being much more interesting than the plot itself. Filmed in April of 1969 the production initially had permission from the state to film right on the actual site of the Alamo and a major portion was done there before various citizen groups became aware of it and began protesting the crew’s presence in what they considered to be sacred ground. Some of their protests was captured on film and incorporated into the story, but their loud presence eventually disrupted the production forcing some scenes to be done on an indoor studio soundstage while still others were completed in Italy.

The commotion and ‘controversy’ was not worth the effort as the film is an overall bore. The first 15-minutes are amusing and even mildly engaging, but once it gets inside to the actual Alamo the action and pace come to a screeching halt and kill any possible potential that the film may have had.

The script also has some illogical loopholes one of them being the army deciding to invade a place, but without using any ammunition, which is never explained and highly improbably. What is even more ridiculous is that the National Guard would decide not to use bullets in their guns either since this is the U.S. of A. where guns and force are considered a national birthright and thus makes this ill-conceived plot twist to be unbelievable to the extreme. The fact that De Santos and his men and able to freely leave at the end and go back to their country without dealing with any type of consequence for their actions is equally absurd.

Ustinov is funny and speaks in an authentic Mexican accent, but he’s unfortunately limited by the broad caricature of his role. John Astin comes off best as the Sergeant that’s second in command and does most of the actual disciplining and leading and Jonathan Winters is good as a clueless American general. Alice Ghostley lends some energy as an innocent bystander that becomes one of the army’s prisoners and Pamela Tiffin looks great wearing glasses and having her hair tinged in blonde.  Gino Conforti, Paul Sand, Jack Colvin, Anne Morgan Guilbert and Kenneth Mars can also be spotted in small roles, but even with their competent performances it fails to mask the film’s otherwise glaring inadequacies.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated G

Director: Jerry Paris

Studio: Commonwealth United Entertainment

Available: VHS

Topkapi (1964)

topkapi 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Granddaddy of heist movies.

Elizabeth (Melina Mercouri) and Walter (Maximilian Schell) have formed a group of amateur thieves to help them steal an emerald dagger out of the famed Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. Problems ensue when one of the original members of the group becomes injured and they are forced to hire on the services of Arthur Simon Simpson (Peter Ustinov) a bungling, portly small-time crook whose on-going ineptitude almost throws their well thought out plans into jeopardy.

This film has become the granddaddy of heist films and rightly so. Based on the novel ‘The Light of Day’ by Eric Ambler the story is well-crafted and nicely detailed. The plan is elaborate, but fortunately believable and plausible. Director Jules Dassin seems to have all the logical loopholes covered. The production design is plush and captivating with just the right amount of offbeat touches to keep it original and cinematic. I found myself enjoying the dry humor and characterizations interspersed in-between the planning and action. The momentum builds evenly without every feeling rushed, or draggy. The on-location shooting is a plus that not only captures the sunny climate, but also the distinct ambience and look of the region.

The climatic sequence involving the actual heist is exciting. The actors do all of their own stunts including Gilles Segal as Guilio being lowered upside down into the palace by a rope being held rigorously by Walter and Arthur and doing most of his maneuvers trapeze style. The whole scene had me holding my breath most of the way and Dassin manages to capture if all from different and interesting angles while allowing the silence to help create the tension.

Ustinov is in fine form and deservedly won the Oscar for best supporting actor. Supposedly the part was originally intended for Peter Sellers, but Ustinov gives the character a lovable quality that I don’t think Sellers could. Ustinov’s rotund physique is an added benefit and his nervous looking facial expressions are consistently amusing with the interrogation scene by Turkish authorities being his best moment. It’s nice to see the character evolve and find a confidence he didn’t think he had while gaining a begrudging respect from the others.

Mercouri sizzles. Normally I am not crazy about women with deep, throaty voices like hers, but she makes it tantalizing. The character is a self-described nymphomaniac and the expression on her face as she watches a group of men spread lotion over their half-naked bodies is worth the price of the film.

The rest of the supporting cast is okay, but I found it odd how very polished they were when Walter insisted that he wanted amateurs for the heist that had no criminal background, or record. Having them behave in a befuddled besides just Arthur would have been more realistic and expected. I also didn’t like that the Guilio never says a single line of dialogue. Apparently the character was a mute, but there is no reason given for it and in the process makes him transparent and boring.

Spoiler Alert!

The only real problem I had with the movie is the ending. As Guilio is exiting the palace a little bird flies through the window while he is closing it, which in turn sets off an alarm, which leads to the gang getting arrested. However, I couldn’t understand how the trapped bird would’ve allowed the police to figure out what happened as an exact replica of the dagger that they swipe is put onto the chest of the sultan figure. To me it just seemed like one twist too many and the scenes showing them inside the prison is campy and forced. These guys had been portrayed as being slick and sophisticated most of the way, so why turn them into clowns at the end. Possibly this was done to show that ‘crime doesn’t pay and no crime portrayed in a film should go unpunished’, which was a code most movies were forced to work under in the past. Either way it doesn’t work and kind of hurts what is otherwise a snappy piece of entertainment.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: September 17, 1964

Runtime: 2Hours

Not Rated

Director: Jules Dassin

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD (Region 1 and 2), Amazon Instant Video