This is a goofy – at times almost campy – adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel which benefits from location shooting but perhaps suffers just a little bit from the characterizations of its excellent cast, a few of whom feel like they are just reveling in their roles.
So first off, I must point out that the digital transfer we were watching was just awful. I’m not sure what happened but, for half the film, faces that weren’t in close up were almost blurry and other details were similarly obscured. Clearly what we were watching had not been professionally “remastered”. (I use the music term here because, honestly, I have no idea what the film term is.) And that definitely hurt our experience of the film because certainly one of the draws of this particularly version is that it is filmed on location in Egypt and it probably looked pretty good in 1978.
This is not one of Christie’s best plots. I am no connoisseur but Jenn, a fan, tells me it’s been reused. That wasn’t my problem with it, though, as I found the reveal to strain credulity in a way that I find her plots usually don’t quite. The solutions are always a little silly, sure, but this one is kind of ridiculous.
I might have more patience with the solution were it not for how vaguely goofy everything is. IMDB lists this film as a “drama” but Ustinov, Walker and, particularly Lansbury are acting in a comedy. That’s not a bad choice given the material – I suspect her books are funny – but it’s a weird choice given that most of the rest of the cast is totally straight. Maybe this is the fault of the source material but I have to think that an actual Belgian (or Frenchman) playing Poirot and a German playing Bessner might not be so comical. Moreover, Lansbury is full on camp at times, which is the character but feels at odds with everyone else. What I’m saying is: I think everyone should have committed to this or no one (or just one character, Lansbury’s).
But it’s an entertaining film. It’s funny and the mystery is compelling until the reveal makes you think “Wait, how is that possible?” I suspect this is probably better than whatever is coming out in 2021. (I base that on the stuff I’ve heard about Branagh changing the plot of Murder on the Orient Express.)