'Appointment with Death': Good Sunday Afternoon Matinee Material

A decade before Michael Winner's film career had its very own 'Appointment with Death', the controversial director made this passable adaptation of Agatha Christie's celebrated crime novel.

Appointment with Death

Director: Michael Winner
Cast: Peter Ustinov, Lauren Bacall, David Soul, Piper Laurie
Distributor: Acorn
Studio: MGM
UK Release date: 2012-04-16

These days, former film director Michael Winner – a man whose surname must surely rank as one of life’s cruel ironies considering his creative fall from grace -- would probably be a little rusty if he found himself once again framing shots through the viewfinder of a Panavision camera: the last feature film he made was the woeful Parting Shots in 1999, and it was universally reviled by critics. To be fair, some of Winner’s earlier efforts have a certain gritty power (the exploitation classic Death Wish) and a keen sense of action, adventure and scale (the anti-establishment war film Hannibal Brooks), but every film of his that managed to achieve some level of artistic and commercial success has been overshadowed by the consistent and appalling string of howlers he has directed, the apotheosis of these being the truly execrable Bullseye!

In the last decade or so Winner has made a financial killing directing and starring in a series of irritating car insurance commercials (YouTube is your friend), and he regularly attracts disdain for his sniping and vindictive restaurant reviews in The Sunday Times newspaper, although admittedly it’s a guilty pleasure to read him go off on one and critique not just the food in front of him, but everything about the restaurant serving it, too.

The reason for all this exposition is partly to introduce an aspect of Winner’s career that I’ve never been able to fathom: considering his famous temper, his general disdain for fellow humans (and chefs) and his propensity for producing cinematic dreck, it always amazed me to see the quality and calibre of film star he frequently attracted, even during the dreadful twilight of his career: Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Sir Ben Kingsley, James Stewart, Oliver Reed, Robert Mitchum, Robert Duvall, Christopher Walken, Bob Hoskins, Sir Michael Caine and Ava Gardner are just a few of the greats to have taken Winner’s direction, and there are many more, too.

In this respect, Appointment with Death is no exception. In front of Winner’s lens for this Agatha Christie adaptation are Sir Peter Ustinov (as the eponymous detective Hercule Poirot), Lauren Bacall, Sir John Gielgud, Piper Laurie and Hayley Mills. There’s plenty of talent behind the camera too, with revered screenwriter and playwright Anthony Shaffer (Hitchcock’s Frenzy) providing a script based on the ol’ Dame’s iconic whodunit.

Surrounding himself with a team possessing such credentials just about pays off for the director this time, because Appointment with Death isn’t too bad, despite early warning signs of a Winner disaster when a conspicuously inappropriate jazz-funk track lollops over the campy opening credits, bearing in mind the film is set in the Middle East during the '30s. In fact, the necessity of observing the period has helped Winner no end in this case, as he has been forced to abandon the urban sleaze that has characterised many of his contemporary set efforts and garnered him so much negative press. Whilst Appointment with Death is still quite clumsily staged, the ugly and gratuitous violence that Winner became famous for is entirely absent here, and as a result he’s created a much classier and more palatable film.

The performances are generally serviceable, although it’s a close-run thing on occasion. Piper Laurie, playing the black-clad and conniving matriarch of the group, spits out her lines and just – just -- manages to remain on the good side of ham, whereas the hilarious Ustinov is in terrific moustache-twirling form, despite that strange enunciation of his that makes him sound as if he’s speaking through a mouthful of never-ending sponge cake.

The other supporting actors go through the motions and offer turns of no particular note (not surprising considering Winner’s reputation for pedestrianism), although Jenny Seagrove is very appealing as the beautiful young doctor Sarah King, as is David Soul as the dapper lawyer (and he’s still looking young enough here to recall the great Det. Ken ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson). Gielgud and Bacall are naturally both excellent, but are sadly underused.

Thanks to a lovely DVD transfer, David Gurfinkel’s photography is sharp and nicely detailed, although his bland visuals noticeably lack contrast, and as a result the film often resembles a flatly-lit, episodic ‘80s television drama (for a comparison, check out Douglas Slocombe’s beautiful cinematography for Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film that is set in a very similar landscape, period and climate as Appointment with Death; unlike Winner’s film, Raiders of the Lost Ark manages to combine bright, dusty sunshine with inky black shadows to create some bold and exquisite images).

Also noticeable is the large proportion of the actors’ dialogue that has been replaced using ADR, which I can only surmise was due to lots of ambient background noise during shooting. Whatever the reason, the obvious ADR gives the large scale location scenes a slightly otherworldly quality, and at times I had to remind myself I wasn’t listening to some of Lucio Fulci’s dubbed weirdness.

Of all the technical credits, the biggest praise should go to John Bloomfield‘s sublime costume design, which is all crisp linen, colonial uniforms and immaculately tailored clothing; perhaps more than anything else, it’s the sartorial aspects of this film that perfectly capture the milieu and atmosphere of the moneyed upper classes during the ‘30s, and give Appointment with Death a sleek elegance that it probably doesn’t deserve.

Winner’s direction is predictably hands-off and unobtrusive, leaving a pervasive waft of the average everywhere, although relieved of his usual responsibility to provide provocative kicks for the 42nd Street crowd, he actually finds time for the odd moment of thoughtful visual artistry. For example, on-board an ocean liner and during a lavish dinner, the devious main characters begin to squabble and fistfight amongst themselves. As they swap blows and taunts and the evening descends into chaos, Winner cuts away to a symbolic shot of a group of cockroaches drinking poisoned champagne, split from a glass flute that lies on its side on the carpet.

Overall then, this makes for a workmanlike effort, and nothing special at all, but for a Winner film it’s fairly engaging as Sunday afternoon matinee material, and there are a few pleasing flourishes here and there to appeal to the cinéaste. At the very least, compared to the visual torture Winner subjected the paying public to during his final outings as director, Appointment with Death isn’t too painful, and that, I suppose, whilst being faint praise, is still praise nonetheless.

The DVD extras are sparse and include just a picture gallery and cast filmographies.


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