Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (1982) Review

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“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (1982) Review

For many years, I tried to pretend that Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel, “Evil Under the Sun” was a personal favorite of mine. I really tried to accept this opinion, knowing that it was a popular favorite of many Christie fans. But for some reason, any deep interest in the novel’s plot failed to grab me.

Produced by John Bradbourne and Richard Goodwin, and directed by Guy Hamilton; this “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” is basically about Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a famous English stage star, while on holiday in the Adriatic Sea. The movie begins with an unidentified female hiker reporting her discovery of a murdered woman named Alice Ruber on the Yorkshire moors. The story jumps to London, where Poirot is asked to investigate the circumstances of a millionaire’s diamond that turned out to be fake. Poirot’s investigation leads him to millionaire Sir Horace Blatt, who had originally given the diamond to his former lover – stage actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. After receiving the diamond, she eventually dumped him and married another. Sir Horace reveals that Arlena and her new husband plan to visit Daphne’s Island, an Adriatic Sea island resort owned by former showgirl Daphne Castle. During his holiday there, Poirot eventually discovers that there are others who have a grudge against Arlena:

*Daphne Castle – a former professional rival of Arlena, who had fallen in love with the famous actress’ husband, before he met the latter

*Kenneth Marshall – Arlena’s wealthy new husband, who is unhappy over Arlena’s extramarital affair with another guest and her bitchy treatment of his daughter; and who is also in love with Daphne

*Linda Marshall – Arlena’s stepdaughter, who detests her

*Patrick Redfern – a school teacher, who also happens to be Arlena’s current lover

*Christine Redfern – Patrick’s mousy wife, who resents Arlena’s affair with her husband

*Odell and Myra Gardener – husband and wife stage producers, desperate to cast Arlena in their new play

*Rex Brewster – a witty writer and theater critic who had written an unauthorized biography of Arlena

After two days on the island, Arlena sets out on her own for a private boat ride around the island. She is found strangled to death on one of the island’s secluded beaches, nearly two hours after Poirot saw her depart on a small paddle-boat. Daphne recruits Poirot to unveil the murderer before the local police can begin their own investigation.

I recently watched the 2001 television adaptation of Christie’s novel. Aside from some changes, the movie more or less followed the literary version. This 1982 version, which starred Peter Ustinov as Poirot, featured more changes to Christie’s tale. Screenwriters Barry Sandler and Anthony Schaffer (who had also co-written 1974’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”and written 1978’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”) changed the story’s location from the coast of Devon to an exclusive island resort in the Adriatic Sea (filmed in Majorca, Spain). Linda Marshall’s age was reduced from sixteen years old to at least twelve to thirteen years old. Although this reduction in age made it impossible for Linda to be considered a genuine suspect, she still played a major role in Poirot’s investigation. Sandler and Schaffer also glamorized the movie’s setting by allowing some of the suspects to reflect Arlena’s show business background. The Gardeners were transformed from mere American tourists to theater producers. The screenwriters transformed spinster Emily Brewster into writer/theater critic Rex Brewster, with the theatricality and wit of Noel Coward. Horace Blatt went from a slightly wealthy braggart to the garrulous self-made millionaire industrialist Sir Horace Blatt. Dressmaker Rosamund Darnley transformed into former showgirl-turned-royal mistress-turned resort owner Daphne Castle. And characters such as Stephen Lane and Major Barry were completely written out of the story . . . thank goodness. If I must be brutally honest, Schaffer and Sandler’s revamp of Christie’s novel made the story a lot more interesting and entertaining for me.

“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” was not perfect. It had a few flaws that either confused me or I found unappealing. One, I never understood why the insurance papers regarding the Alice Ruber case were in Poirot’s possession during his stay at Daphne’s Island. I understood that he was investigating Sir Horace’s fake diamond on behalf of the same insurance company. But why bring along the files for another case . . . even if that case proved to have a connection to Arlena’s killer? Although I enjoyed most of Anthony Powell’s colorful costume designs, there were a few selections I found either mind boggling or extremely tasteless. In one scene, both Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg wore outfits with material from the same source – white something with gaudy, colorful baubbles. Take a look:

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And in another scene, Sylvia Miles wore the following costume:

Costume Anthony Powell 1982

A black evening gown with reddish-pink and white polka dots, a plunging neckline and puffy sleeves? What on earth was Powell thinking when he created this costume for the actress? However, I still enjoyed the rest of Powell’s creations, which perfectly captured the movie’s comedic and slightly campy tone. I especially enjoyed the salmon-colored gown Rigg wore during Poirot’s second evening on the island and the black-and-white number that Miles wore during the detective’s first evening. And the costumes for the men – especially the evening wear – struck me as well tailored. Powell’s costumes were not the only artistic contributions to the film that I enjoyed. Christopher Challis’ photography of Majorca, Spain; which stood for the French Riviera and Daphne’s Island; struck me as colorful, sharp and very beautiful – a perfect reflection of sunshine elegance. And music arranger John Dalby make great use of various Cole Porter tunes in the movie

Most of my observations regarding “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” are definitely positive. It is one of my top favorite Agatha Christie adaptations of all time. Thanks to Schaffer and Sandler’s revisions in Christie’s tale and Guy Hamilton’s elegant, yet lively direction, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be the wittiest Christie movie I have ever seen hands down. Nearly every character – including Emily Hone, who must have been in her early teens at the time – had some juicy lines. And I consider it to be twice as entertaining and superior to the 1941 novel. Between the show biz background of some of the characters – including Arlena Marshall, the witty dialogue and the movie’s exclusive setting; “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” managed to beautifully recapture the ambivalence of the cafe society between the 1930s and 1950s that included celebrated wits, actors and actresses, musicians, writers, and well-known high society figures. This was especially apparent in scenes that featured the evening gatherings of the guests in the hotel’s main drawing room. The apex of these scenes featured an entertaining and rather funny rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” by Diana Rigg (along with an interruption or two from Maggie Smith).

As for the murder mystery itself, it does not have the same emotional resonance as “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” or“DEATH ON THE NILE”. There is no real emotional connections between the victim and the killer. This does not mean that I regard the 1982 movie inferior to the other two. “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” is simply a different kettle of fish. The murderer is too cold-blooded and the victim is too self-absorbed for any emotional connection. And the movie has a comedic, yet elegant style that makes it a lighter fare than its two predecessors – like a delicious, yet fulfilling souffle.

As for the cast . . . ah, the cast! How I adore every last one of them. Every time I watch “EVIL UNDER THE SUN”, I am constantly surprised by the chemistry between James Mason and Sylvia Miles, who portrayed the producing husband-and-wife team, Odell and Myra Gardener. It still amazes me that two performers with such different backgrounds and acting styles should click so well on screen. Jane Birkin, who had appeared in “DEATH ON THE NILE” with both Peter Ustinov and Smith, did an excellent job as the cuckolded wife, Christine Redfern. She managed to effectively combine Christine’s mousiness and penchant for nagging with great ease. I have a confession to make. I was never that impressed by Nicholas Clay’s performance as Sir Lancelot in 1981’s “EXCALIBUR”. But I really enjoyed his performance as the charming and slightly roguish Patrick Redfern, who loved his wife, but enjoyed having a good time with Arlena. This was the second time I have seen him portray an adulterer. And honestly? He was a lot sexier in this film. Denis Quilley, who was stuck in a one-dimensional role in “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, had a better opportunity to shine as Arlena’s dignified, yet cuckolded husband, Kenneth Marshall. And he also had a nice chemistry with Smith. Like Quilley, Colin Blakely had a better role in “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” than he did in “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. He was deliciously sardonic and earthy as the slightly embittered Sir Horace Blatt, the millionaire whom Arlena had made a chump.

The bitchfest between Maggie Smith’s Daphne Castle and Diana Rigg’s Arlena Marshall turned out to be a moviegoer’s dream. Both were absolutely delightful as the warm and pragmatic Daphne and the arrogant and self-absorbed Arlena, the former rivals who resumed their conflict with delicious verbal warfare and one-upmanship. Roddy McDowell’s portrayal of writer/critic Rex Brewster turned out to be the biggest bitch on the island. The actor had some of the best lines in the film. His response to the Gardeners’ suggestion that he go play with himself had me in stitches for at least two to three minutes. Surprisingly, novice actress Emily Hone engaged in her own bitchfest with McDowall’s Brewster . . . and did a great job in the process. I was surprised by her ability to hold her own with the actor and other members of the cast despite her age and lack of experience. Pity that “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be her only work in films.

Peter Ustinov returned for a second time as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and seemed better than ever. Mind you, I was very impressed by his performance in “DEATH ON THE NILE”. But in this film he seemed more relaxed . . . enough to include more of his personal style in the role. Like the rest of the cast, he had his own memorable lines. But the one sequence in which he really impressed me proved to be the one in which Poirot revealed the murderer. The murderer revelation scenes have always been among my favorites in any Christie adaptation. But Ustinov really outdid himself in the one for “EVIL UNDER THE SUN”. I was so impressed by the actor’s pacing and use of both the dialogue and his voice that this movie ended up featuring my favorite murderer revelation scene of all time.

“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” is not my favorite Christie adaptation movie. And I found a few flaws in both the screenplay and Anthony Powell’s costumes that has left me scratching my head. But I cannot deny that the 1982 movie is among my top five favorite Christie movies. From my point of view, I would attribute this to Anthony Schaffer and Barry Sandler’s witty screenplay, Guy Hamilton’s well-paced direction and hilariously outstanding performances from a cast led by the very talented Peter Ustinov. I could watch this movie over and over again.

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (1978) Review

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (1978) Review

Four years after the success of ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, producer John Bradbourne focused his attention upon adapting another Agatha Christie novel for the screen. In the end, he decided to adapt Christie’s 1937 novel, ”DEATH ON THE NILE”

Instead of bringing back Sidney Lumet to direct, Bradbourne hired journeyman action director John Guillermin to helm the new film. And instead of re-casting Albert Finney, Bradbourne hired Peter Ustinov for the pivotal role of Belgian private detective, Hercule Poirot. It would turn out to be the first of six times he would portray the character. The ironic thing about ”DEATH ON THE NILE” is that although ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” had received more acclaim – the point of being regarded as the finest adaptation of any Christie novel – my heart belongs first and foremost to the 1978 movie.

One might ask – how can that be? ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” is highly regarded by critics and moviegoers alike. It even managed to collect a few Academy Awards. And its story – a revenge plot that centered around the past kidnapping of a five year-old child – has a great deal of pathos and depth. Yet . . . my favorite Christie movie is still ”DEATH ON THE NILE”. Its production never struck me as over-the-top as the 1974 movie. And I believe that it perfectly matched the movie’s plot about Poirot’s efforts to solve the murder of a wealthy Anglo-American heiress during a luxury cruise down the Nile River. Most importantly, because the actor portraying Poirot came from Central European stock, he WAS NOT inclined to portray the detective in an exaggerated manner that British and American actors like Finney and Tony Randall were prone to do. But if I must be honest, I simply enjoyed the movie’s adaptation and Guillermin’s direction.

As I had stated earlier, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” centered around the murder of an Anglo-American heiress named Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, during a cruise down the Nile River. A vacationing Hercule Poirot did not take very long to discover that most of the passengers either bore a grudge against the heiress or wanted something she possessed. The suspects included Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet’s former best friend who was once engaged to her new husband Simon Doyle; Linnet’s American attorney Andrew Pennington, who has been embezzling money from her inheritance before her marriage; a wealthy American dowager and kleptomaniac Mrs. Marie Van Schuyler, who has an eye for Linnet’s pearls; Miss Bowers, Mrs. Van Schuyler’s companion, whose father had been ruined by Linnet’s father; Salome Otterbourne, an alcoholic novelist who is being sued for libel by Linnet; Rosalie Otterbourne, Mrs. Otterbourne’s embittered, yet devoted daughter; James Ferguson, a young Communist who resents Linnet’s wealth; Dr. Ludvig Bessner, a Swiss clinical doctor whose methods that Linnet has spoken against; and Louise Bourget, Linnet’s French maid that is being prevented from marrying a man who lives in Egypt. Also on the cruise are Simon Doyle, Jacqueline’s former fiancé; Colonel Race, a friend of Poirot and a fellow detective, who is acting as a representative for Linnet’s British attorneys; and Poirot. Most of them had a reason to kill Linnet Doyle . . . and the opportunity to kill her, save one.

Unlike ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, not all of the characters featured in Christie’s 1937 novel appeared in the 1978 film. Which did not bother me, since the deleted literary characters had struck me as the least interesting. Ironically, many of these deleted characters had the strongest motives to murder Linnet Doyle in the novel. Only Jacqueline de Bellefort, Andrew Pennington and Mrs. Van Schuyler made the transition from novel to movie with their motives intact. Another change from the novel resulted in ALL of the suspects either harboring a reason to kill Linnet. Although, I must admit that I found Jim Ferguson’s motive rather slim. Political and economical repugnance toward an obvious capitalist like Linnet Doyle as a motive seemed to be stretching it a bit to me. And most of the suspects, as Poirot revealed, had an opportunity to commit the deed. Perhaps screenwriter Anthony Schaffer (who did not receive credit for his work on the ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” screenplay) may have went a bit too far with this scenario. But if I must be perfectly honest, I have nothing against these changes. In fact, they made the movie a little more entertaining for me.

”DEATH ON THE NILE” had a first-rate cast that had obviously enjoyed themselves. This especially seemed to be the case with Bette Davis, who portrayed Mrs. Van Schuyler. The literary version of the character seemed to be a humorless tyrant. Davis’ version of the character possessed a sly, yet malicious sense of humor that she constantly used to torment her long suffering companion, Miss Bowers. Yet, Davis also gave Mrs. Van Schuyler a sense of privilege to make her slightly autocratic. Another performance that I found highly entertaining, although flamboyant, belonged to Angela Landsbury (the future Jane Marple and the future Jessica Fletcher) as the alcoholic has-been novelist, Salome Otterbourne. Did Landsbury’s portrayal of Mrs. Otterbourne struck me as over-the-top? Yep. In spades. Did I care? Not really. Why? Because the literary version of Salome Otterbourne struck me as even more over-the-top . . . and less likeable. Whereas Angela Landsbury gaven a flamboyant performance, George Kennedy gave a far more restrained one as Andrew Pennington, Linnet Doyle’s embezzling American attorney. One of my favorite scenes involving Kennedy featured a moment when Pennington reacted to Simon Doyle’s admission of a lack of business skills. Anyone could see Pennington’s idea of dealing with the more gullible Doyle instead of Linnet, gleaming in Kennedy’s eyes.

In my review of the James Bond movie, ”MOONRAKER”, I had accused Lois Chiles of giving a slightly wooden performance. Granted, I would never view her as an exceptional actress, I must admit that she gave a much better performance in ”DEATH ON THE NILE”, as the wealthy and slightly autocratic Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. The amazing thing about Chiles’ performance was that she could have easily portrayed Linnet as a one-note bitch. Instead, the actress managed to successfully convey more complexities into her character, also revealing a charming woman, a good friend (somewhat), and a warm and passionate spouse. Simon MacCorkindale gave a solid performance as the straight-forward Simon Doyle – Jacqueline’s former fiancé and Linnet’s new husband. MacCorkindale not only conveyed Simon’s charm, but also the character’s simple nature, lack of imagination and an inability to realize how much he had truly hurt his former fiancée. If it were not for Peter Ustinov’s performance as Hercule Poirot, I would have declared Mia Farrow’s performance as the spurned Jacqueline de Bellefort as the best one in the movie. Instead, I will simply state that I believe she gave the second best performance. Emotionally, her Jacqueline seemed to be all over the map – angry, resentful, passionate, vindictive, remorseful and giddily in love. Yet somehow, Farrow managed to keep the many facets of Jackie’s personality in control and not allow them to overwhelm her. I especially enjoyed her interactions with Ustinov, as she portrayed a reluctant disciple to his mentor. The pair had an interesting and strong screen chemisty.

I could also say the same about Ustinov’s interactions with David Niven, who portrayed fellow detective Colonel Race. Niven’s portrayal was charming and at the same time, very humorous. The interesting thing is that Ustinov used to be Niven’s batman (personal servant to a commissioned military officer) during World War II before the pair became good friends. This friendship permeated their scenes together. But more importantly, Peter Ustinov took the role of Hercule Poirot and made it his own. Just as David Suchet would do nearly two decades later. Ustinov managed to inject his own brand of humor into the role without wallowing in some caricature of the Continental European. More importantly, I believe that Ustinov did an excellent job of conveying Poirot’s intelligence, sense of justice and formidable personality.

Like its 1974 predecessor, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” could boast a superb production, thanks to the crew that John Bradbourne had hired. Anthony Powell designed the movie’s costumes, evoking an era set during the early 1930s. I must admit that I found that interesting, considering that the novel had been published in 1937 and possibly written in 1936. Although a good deal of the movie was filmed on location in Egypt, I had been surprised to learn that many of the scenes aboard the S.S. Karnak had been filmed in England – both interiors and exteriors. It was a credit to both cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designers Peter Murton, along with Brian and Terry Ackland-Snow that the film managed to convey the movie’s setting of a small and exclusive Nile River steamboat with such clarity and elegance.

”DEATH ON THE NILE” was not without its flaws. Well, I can only think of one at the moment. Actor I.S. Johar portrayed the S.S. Karnak’s unnamed manager. Unfortunately, Johar’s portrayal of the steamboat’s manager invoked strong memories of the many actors and actresses of non-European descent that found themselves stuck in comic relief roles during the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. And ”DEATH ON THE NILE” had been filmed in 1977 and released in 1978. Johar found himself stuck in a clichéd and humiliating role and I suspect that Guillermin, Schaffer and Bradbourne are to blame for allowing such a role in the film.

But you know what? Despite that one major complaint, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” ended up becoming my favorite adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. It may not be considered the best among film critics and moviegoers. But then again, I have never been inclined to blindly follow popular opinion.