Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"Death on the Nile" (1978) Poster Design: Celebrating the Cast and the Past

Today is Angela Lansbury's 88th Birthday! I'm so excited to celebrate her wonderful career by writing a post about one of her great lesser-known film roles: Salome Otterbourne in the classic Death on the Nile (1978). If there's anything I love more than Angela, it's Agatha Christie, so this film adaptation of Death on the Nile, based on Dame Agatha's bestselling novel of the same name, initially  made me except a great film and I certainly was not disappointed.
Death on the Nile
Poster by Richard Amsel 
Death on the Nile is a visually lovely film in many respects: gorgeous scenery (it was filmed on location in Egypt), great stars (from both the '70s and before), beautiful costumes, and I love the Nile cruise ship. Personally, I would take the risk and take a cruise on that boat if I had a choice. If only... Besides being a wonderful adaptation of Dame Agatha's amazing little murder mystery, the film is also an homage to the films of the "Golden Age" of the '30s and '40s. This is apparent through the stars, the setting, but also the attention to detail throughout the film (though Bette Davis said during production if this was really produced during the '30s, they would have build the Nile for her!) But specifically, because you know I love graphic design, I want to focus on the film's poster. It's an aspect outside the film itself, but important nonetheless.
Niven, Ustinov, and Lansbury
DOTN (1978)
Davis and Smith
DOTN (1978)
I think you'll agree with me that the poster is excellent: graphic perfection itself. It doesn't mess around- it gets to exactly what makes this film great and focuses mainly on that- it's cast. As a little background, in 1974, Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express, another Agatha Christie adaptation, was hugely successful. The filmmakers of Death actually advertise off the coattails of Murder. They followed a fairly identical formula- exotic locale, luxurious setting, vintage setting, elaborate costumes, and an amazing cast. In my post for Murder, I gushed over the cast, but I think (even though Murder is a better film), Death has a better cast- if that's possible. Think about it: Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, David Niven, Mia Farrow, Peter Ustinov, Olivia Hussey, and Lois Chiles among others. These are stars, not just actors. Their talent elevates an (at times mediocre) film like this into a classic. I'll confess, I can't help but love every minute of it.
by Richard Amsel 
The filmmakers know all the main draws of the film, and they all appear on this poster, which was designed by the great Richard Amsel. The heads of the cast, surround a golden Egyptian pharaoh who is clutching a knife and on closer observation, a revolver. The gold sits on top of a pure black background, making it stand out. That's what this film is: cast, location, and murder. If you're here for much more, you'll be disappointed. For me, and most viewers though, it's more than enough.

Early designs for the poster, features a softer, more square-like design, with the titles inside the center. I didn't quite care for that design and I'm glad Amsel didn't stay with it. His accepted design- the one that did appear on the poster- is so fantastic. First of all, it's beautifully rendered. The likenesses are spot on, and the pharaoh and hieroglyphics are rendered with perfect detail. The triangular aspect of the piece is also impressive. The bottom is framed by two of the biggest stars of the film: Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury. The top, which our eyes are involuntarily drawn to, is crowned by Poirot (Ustinov). Poirot, of course, is the main character and detective of the film- it is only proper he enjoys the focal point of the poster. Interestingly enough, not all the stars are included: the lovely, wealthy Linnet (Chiles) must not have had enough draw for her inclusion of the poster. It's worth noting.
The Death filmmakers really did follow a formula- Amsel also created the poster for Murder on the Orient Express, that's why the poster styling looks so familiar. Amsel employed a similar design in the earlier film, except he crowded the bottom with more stars and the center was the train/dagger. It's certainly beautiful and effective but the Death poster is bolder, less cluttered, and simpler. In short, I like it better.
Peter Ustinov on location
Death on the Nile (1978)
Ramses III

I especially can't get over that beautifully rendered pharaoh in the center. I mean, he looks so genuine, he really belongs. Obviously, its a slightly imaginative picture- no ancient Egyptian pharaoh would be caught dead holding a revolver. I've included a picture of Ramses III for your own comparison. What do you think? It certainly fits the settings of the Egyptian temples featured in the film.

Death on the Nile (1978)
A successful movie poster should draw you into both the design and the subject of the film its advertising. Amsel accomplishes this easily, and beautifully at that. If it were possible, I would frame his small portraits of my favorite stars- including, of course, the inspiration of the piece- Angela Lansbury!

Sources
Amsel
http://adammcdaniel.com/RichardAmsel2a.htm



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