Campy characters, a Mediterranean hotel, and a sparkling murder mystery -- what more could this big-screen Agatha Christie thriller need? "Evil Under the Sun" is both goofy and highly enjoyable, although the martini-swilling, sunny atmosphere make the murder feel rather too... relaxing.
An insurance goof and a stolen gem send Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) to "Daphne's Place," a palace-turned-hotel in a small Mediterranean country. He arrives on the same boat as famed stage actress Arlena Marshall, formerly Stuart (Diana Rigg) and her new husband and stepdaughter. Arlena turns out to be having an affair with boytoy Patrick (Nicholas Clay) -- and then she suddenly turns up, strangled on a remote beach.
There are suspects galore: her betrayed husband, resentful stepdaughter, the old rival who is attracted to Mr. Marshall, a pair of ugly American producers whom she's bankrupting, a flaming gossip writer who has written a steamy tell-all, and her boytoy's mousy wife. But no one had the opportunity -- everyone has an alibi. So Hercule Poirot exercises the "little gray cells," unravelling the clues of a discarded bottle, a midday shower, a cannon, and perfume in a cave.
Don't expect "Evil Under the Sun" to be any more faithful to its book than Arlena is to Marshall -- it's totally different from the book. Characters are changed, deleted or added in, whole subplots are added, and the sense of darkness is exchanged for a rhinestoned camp quality. The clothes say it all -- both Rigg and Maggie Smith wear faux jewels on silver lame, and American Myra resembles a Christmas tree with fur.
That said, "Evil Under the Sun's" campy quality is part of what makes it so much fun. Lots of catty, witty dialogue ("She always could throw her legs up in the air higher than the rest of us... and wider..."), sniping characters with plenty of motives, and a delightfully loathsome victim. You'll want Arlena dead by the time she tells her daughter to go play with the jellyfish, and then you'll want to know who could possibly have done the impossible.
Peter Ustinov has the right combination of smarts and comedy to play Poirot, the Belgian sleuth who saves the day and drives the hotel staff crazy. Maggie Smith also turns in a wonderful performance as the razor-tongued maitresse-en-titre-turned-hotelier, and Rigg is wonderfully catty, nasty and glamorous. The supporting cast also does a wonderful job, particularly the two who play the murderers -- and are the last ones you'd expect.
The one flaw is that all the humor, glitz and wit detract a little from the dark atmosphere one expects from a murder mystery. Instead, "Evil Under the Sun" is a campy comedy that happens to have a murder in it.