The formula for transforming Agatha Christie's novels into movies is simple: assemble an all-star cast; select a photogenic location; create a malevolent victim; give all the suspects a motive and have Hercule Poirot invite all the potential murderers into the drawing room where he will clarify the confusion established in the first 90 minutes of the film.
Until the murder is committed in "Evil Under the Sun," the film is a grand satiric slap at the bourgeoise attitudes of opportunistic, narcissistic characters who scramble up the social ladder over each other's backs. The repartee between Maggie Smith, as the owner of an elegant little palace turned into a hotel for the idle rich, and Diana Rigg, as a self-centered actress and devout flirt, is pure bitchery. Like the jibes between Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor in "The Mirror Crack'd," these battles drip with sarcastic innuendo. For example, when Rigg checks into the hotel, Smith claims that her guest's career skyrocketed because "she could always lift her legs higher, and wider, than anyone else" in the chorus line.
These acid remarks continue until Hercule Poirot starts sticking his bulbous nose into everyone else's business, and the film starts its declasse decline.
He's always trying to ruin everyone's fun by asking questions like - "Where were you at 11:57 p.m. on the 17th and why were your sequined undergarments found on Lord Bottom-Bottom's walking stick?" and "Why did you say you were in the garden feeding the flamingos when everyone knows that flamingos only eat water biscuits after the vernal equinox and before the ringing of Her Majesty's bells when the stars are leaning toward Scorpio?" Of course, Hercule, how silly of me.
Director Guy Hamilton is a master of formula films. He made four James Bond pictures - "Goldfinger," "Diamonds Are Forever," "Live and Let Die" and "The Man With the Golden Gun" as well as the 1980 Christie release, "The Mirror Crack'd." And, although his style is straightforward to the point of tedium, he does understand that you can't take all this nonsense seriously.
Although Anthony Powell's costumes are exquisitely decked out in late- 1930s costume jewelry and Anthony ("Sleuth") Shaffer's dialogue is appropriately acerbic, once Poirot invites everyone into the sitting room, the film becomes a recitation of clues and a deductive litany of information. It's become just as predictable, and humorless, as "Perry Mason."
Frankly, Ustinov's Poirot is even more pretentious than Christie's. He struts around like an overweight peacock explaining to everyone how brilliant he is and then proves it.
"Evil Under the Sun" could have been a much more interesting film if Hercule was detained until the last few minutes. I'd much rather listen to Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, Sylvia Miles, Roddy McDowell, James Mason and Denis Quilley trade insults than be stuck in a stuffy parlor with an obnoxious old detective.