A hiker rushes into the local police station at the moors in Yorkshire. She has found the body of a woman who appears to have been strangled. The victim's name is Alice Ruber but the police find no leads.
Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is called in by an insurance company and asked to check out a blue-hued diamond belonging to Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely), a millionaire industrialist. Poirot notices it is a fake, confirming the opinion of appraisers working on behalf of the firm. Poirot meets Blatt who is not only surprised at the news of the fake, but expresses resentment that "that woman" could do this to him. Blatt explains that he had an affair with a woman he met in New York and gave her the diamond which he had purchased for US$50,000 ($600,000 in 2008 dollars). He got her to return it after she dumped him for another man. He knows that the woman is due to go on holiday at an island which hosts an exclusive hotel. Poirot agrees to go to the same island in order that they can confront the woman and enjoy a holiday of his own. Rather than accompany Blatt on his yacht, Poirot travels by land since he cannot stand prolonged sea journeys.
The hotel in question is the former summer palace of the reigning King of Tyrania. It is now owned by Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith), who received it from the King "for services rendered." Her guests include:
- Glamorous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall (Diana Rigg);
- Kenneth Marshall (Denis Quilley), Arlena's husband;
- Linda Marshall (Emily Hone), Kenneth's teenage daughter from an earlier marriage;
- Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall), a writer and theatre critic (with the airs and pomposity of Noël Coward);
- Odell (James Mason) and Myra Gardener (Sylvia Miles), New York theatrical producers;
- and Patrick (Nicholas Clay) and Christine Redfern (Jane Birkin), a dashing, handsome young man and his mousy wife.
Tension soon settles in on the island, much of it surrounding Arlena Marshall. She is very abusive towards her stepdaughter Linda and Kenneth himself turns increasingly towards Daphne, an old friend of his. Daphne herself has a long-standing and bitter rivalry with Arlena, going back to their days as chorus girls. Linda herself holds no love in turn for Arlena. Furthermore, Arlena caused the Gardeners financial problems by walking out of a major play and is refusing to perform in another in which they have invested most of their money. There is also Brewster who has written a tell-all biography of Arlena but she refuses to sign the release for it since it reveals details about her real age, background and how sleeping around got her her big break on the stage. If the book isn't published, Brewster will have to refund the publishing house the advanced royalties they paid to him and which he has already spent. To cap it all, Arlena openly flirts with Patrick Redfern, much to the embarrassment of both their spouses and Marshall learns from Daphne that she actually arranged for the Redferns to join them on the island. Everyone feels sorry especially for Christine who is pale, mousy, and quite the cuckolded wife. That night Poirot, and presumably everyone else, hears a loud argument between the Redferns.
The next morning, Arlena goes off on her own in a paddle-boat to sunbathe at an empty spot on the island known as Ladder Bay, but both Poirot and Marshall assume that her real purpose is to be with Patrick. However this is refuted when Patrick shows up in the hotel lobby.
As the morning progresses, Myra tags along on a boat trip with Patrick, who is transparently attempting to rendezvous with Arlena. As they arrive there they see a yacht leaving which Myra recognizes as Sir Horace Blatt's. When they reach the secluded beach, they see the body of a woman on the sand. Patrick goes ashore, approaches the body and suddenly announces to Myra that it's the strangled corpse of Arlena. Myra goes to fetch help while he waits with the body.
Alibis and DetailsEdit
Daphne Castle insists that Poirot investigates the matter, dismissing the efficacy of the local police, and he agrees. Sir Horace Blatt turns up on his yacht and, as Poirot had guessed, reveals that Arlena was the woman he had the affair with and who took his diamond.
Most of the guests had good motives for loathing Arlena. Poirot even suggests that Patrick, who appeared to like her, may have killed her in order to hold on to his increasingly jealous wife. Yet, when he questions them, Poirot finds that they all have alibis for the time when the crime was committed.
Kenneth Marshall was in his hotel room typing a reply to a letter which he'd received that morning. This is confirmed by Daphne even though Poirot demonstrates that she couldn't have seen Marshall from where she was standing. She could only have heard him. However, Marshall shows him the letter he was responding to which arrived in the morning's post and which he received about 11am. Poirot concedes this after reading the two letters.
Christine was sketching landscapes with Linda during the morning at Gull Cove. On realizing that the time was 11:55, Christine remembered she had a tennis match at 12:30 back at the hotel and quickly left. Every day at noon a local cannon is fired on the mainland to mark the time and can be heard as far as the island (This figures into the plot-line of the story). Christine claims to have heard it while waving to Linda from the top of the cliff as Linda was swimming in the sea. Linda confirms this.
Sir Horace had a loud argument with Arlena on the beach in Ladder Bay where she was later found, but his own crew saw the whole exchange and they could see that she was still alive when he left at about half past eleven. He also left her the fake diamond, which she denied knowing anything about. However he said that she had promised she would straighten it out that evening. Poirot later found the false diamond in a grotto near to where the body lay.
Daphne was walking along the top of the cliffs and saw Arlena on the beach at Ladder Bay. She also saw the argument between Arlena and Sir Horace. She then returned to the hotel to chair a staff meeting.
Patrick's alibi was that when he left the hotel at about half past eleven for his rendezvous with Arlena, Myra accompanied him in the speedboat. En route they saw Sir Horace's yacht sailing towards the hotel. They arrived at Ladder Bay as the noonday gun sounded. Patrick found Arlena dead on the beach, witnessed by Myra. Rex Brewster was guiding his pedalo when he entered Gull Cove at 12:00. Seeing Linda there, he asked if she'd help him pedal it back but she refused. On his way back to the hotel, Brewster was almost hit by a bottle thrown from the top of a cliff. When Poirot tells him that Linda has denied seeing or talking to him, an agitated Brewster gets her to confess in front of both the detective and her father that she lied.
Odell Gardener claims he was reading and he was sure no one saw him so he has no alibi. He was almost proud of that fact as he was one "of the millions of innocents in the world." It transpires, however, that he was seen by Daphne and her staff. Odell mentions that he tried to wash up at about 12:15 for the tennis game, but the water pressure was low because someone was bathing at the same time—a very odd time for a bath.
When Poirot asks who threw the bottle or took the bath, none of the guests will admit to either act. During the night, Poirot reads a report he submitted to the same insurance firm that hired him to investigate the Blatt diamond issue and checks something in the hotel register.
Assembling the suspects together, Poirot announces that the solution to the murder hinges on several items: Linda's bathing cap, a bath no one would admit to taking, a mysterious bottle flung into the sea, the particular geography of the island, the cannon being fired to mark noontime, and the fact that people sunbathing from a distance look similar.
All the alibis appear to indicate that no-one could have committed the murder at the time established, so someone is lying and Poirot announces that this someone is Christine Redfern.
On this basis, he states that Arlena's corpse on the beach was actually Christine posing as her. After knocking Arlena unconscious with a stone and hiding her in a nearby rock grotto, she used a temporary self-tanner to match Arlena's skin color and donned Arlena's bathing costume and face-obscuring Chinese red hat. She then waited to be "discovered" by Patrick in the plain but distant view of Myra Gardener. Poirot knew Arlena was in the grotto because he had smelled her particular brand of perfume in there and had also found the imitation paste diamond which had been given to her by Sir Horace during their earlier argument.
To establish her alibi Christine wore heavy clothes, not to protect herself from sunburn, but to cover the self-tanner and her own wristwatch. She had carefully nurtured the notion that she sunburned easily and was the wounded wife while her husband was carrying on a dalliance with Arlena. She had pre-set Linda's watch twenty minutes ahead before they went sketching to give her the impression it was later than it really was. She even suggested to Linda to wear the bathing cap (common swimwear among beach-goers in the 1920s) because it would cover her ears and thus she wouldn't be able to tell if she heard the cannon or not. Before she left the area she took care to re-set Linda's watch to the correct time. Poirot disproves Christine's alibi by asking why, when Brewster became upset when Linda denied seeing him, did he not go to his second possible witness, Christine? He didn't mention seeing Christine at the top of the cliff even as she was supposedly waving to Linda when he arrived in his boat. Moreover when Brewster accosted Linda, she did not hear him approach from about three feet away because the bathing cap covered her ears (To emphasize this point the audio in the movie is muted at that stage). If Linda couldn't hear Rex approaching from such a short distance then how could she have heard the cannon marking midday?
When Patrick points out his wife has vertigo and thus couldn't have climbed down the ladder at the cliff leading to the grotto, Poirot mentions that in order for Linda to have seen Christine waving she would have to have stood at the edge of the cliff. He reveals that he tried and became dizzy, so no one with vertigo would have even dared to try.
The guests also point out that Arlena was strangled and Christine's hands couldn't have matched the strangle marks. Poirot explains this away by claiming that Arlena was strangled long after Myra left: by Patrick.
After Myra left the bay, Christine changed out of Arlena's bathing costume. Patrick then strangled Arlena in the grotto, changed her back into the bathing costume and set her up for when Poirot and the others arrived to examine the body. Christine meanwhile pitched the bottle of self-tanner into the sea—narrowly missing Rex Brewster—and then dashed back to the hotel to wash off the self tan—the bath no one admitted to taking—and turn up for her tennis date.
Motive and TruthEdit
There is one problem: motive. Christine certainly had motive but what was Patrick's? As he puts it, "adultery may be reprehensible but not criminal". It turns out that Patrick was actually interested in Blatt's diamond. He had switched the real one for a paste copy, probably during one of his trysts with Arlena in England. Upon learning that she had returned it to Blatt, he realized that an investigation into the forgery would lead back to him so he killed her.
The main problem is proof of guilt. Poirot admits that he has none, just circumstantial evidence. As the smug Redferns are about to depart, Christine - no longer the mousy pitiful wife - confidently remarks: "Give us some time and we may discover how you [Poirot] did it. After all, where were you at the time of the murder?" Later she reappears, dressed in expensive clothes, now no longer the vulnerable sympathetic wife but dressed to kill, so to speak. Then Patrick unwittingly makes the second of three mistakes: he pays the hotel bill with a check.
Poirot notes the signature on the cheque and then suddenly addresses Redfern as "Felix Ruber", husband of the woman whose body was found on the moors in England some months ago. He points out that the "R" of Redfern on the check matches the distinct "R" to the signature of Felix Ruber on the insurance form he was reading earlier. The time of Mrs. Ruber's death was established as occurring at the time her husband could prove he had been on a train to London. Witnesses complained he smoked in a non-smoking compartment, "a little too obvious".
The company which held Mrs. Ruber's life insurance, and was also to insure the Blatt diamond, sent Poirot to investigate. He never met the husband or the hiker who found the body. As an agent of the insurance company he may have been limited to simply checking the police reports and ensuring that they were thorough in their investigation. Felix could thus cash in on his wife's life insurance. However, the death of Alice Ruber seemed to parallel that of Arlena: the coincidence was too great for an investigator like Poirot to ignore.
Redfern's first mistake was from the day before, when he and Poirot overheard some of the hotel staff singing an air from an opera written by Giuseppe Verdi. As a joke, Patrick pointed out that in Italian the name of the composer translates as "Joe Green". This led Poirot to realise that "Felix Ruber" is the Latin for "Red Fern".
When Redfern protests that all Poirot has is a signature and a "bloody silly word game", Poirot announces that he has requested pictures of the hiker (Christine) and the grieving husband (Patrick) from the British police and that that should be enough for a conviction for both killings.
At that point Patrick makes his third mistake: he puts his pipe in his mouth. Poirot points out that the pipe has never once been lit during the Redferns' stay. He takes it, empties it and hidden in the tobacco is the diamond. Patrick concedes defeat by punching Poirot to the floor.
Later the Redferns are taken into custody by the police in a small launch, while the other guests mock them from Blatt's yacht. Recovering from the assault, Poirot is told that he is to be decorated by the King of Tyrania.
The screenplay was written by Anthony Shaffer (who had worked on previous Christie films) and an uncredited Barry Sandler. The adaptation stayed fairly close within the plotlines of Christie's work, but truncated scenes for time constraints, removed minor characters and added certain humorous elements that were not present in the novel. Additionally, the novel is set in Devon, but the film is set on an Adriatic island in the fictional kingdom of "Tyrania" (based on Albania). The character lineup is also slightly different. Whereas the characters of Rosamund Darnley and Mrs. Castle are merged, the characters of Major Barry and Reverend Stephen Lane are omitted, and the female character of Emily Brewster is now a man named Rex Brewster, played by Roddy McDowall.
Ustinov was making his second film appearance as Hercule Poirot, having previously played the Belgian detective in Death on the Nile (1978) with Maggie Smith and Jane Birkin. Denis Quilley and Colin Blakely had appeared in the earlier Brabourne-produced Murder on the Orient Express, with Albert Finney in the starring role. Guy Hamilton had previously directed another Agatha Christie story, The Mirror Crack'd, in 1980.
The film was shot at Lee International Studios in Wembley, London and on location in Majorca, Spain The actual island used was Sa Dragonera, but only for visual shots. The Actual locations used were the Formentor Beach for the South of France (Sir Horace's boat), Cala d'en Monjo for Daphne's Cove and Hotel (Hotel was a private estate owned by a German, but has now been bought by the Majorca Council and demolished to its foundations which can still be seen today. Gull Cove was a cove on the Formentor Peninsula (Cala en Feliu). The other hotel exterior shots were filmed at the Raixa Estate north of Palma (Just Reopened to the public). Finally Poirot boards his boat to the Island from Deiá. The locations were well stitched together to give the appearance of a few locations near each other on a small island when in reality they are spread across Majorca. It made full use of its location to adequately convey the intricacies of Christie's plot, in which the hotel guests all appear to be at different parts of the island at the time of the murder.
The scenes of the finding of the murdered hiker on moors at the beginning of the film were shot in the Yorkshire Dales, England, with the exterior of the Police Station being the former Literary Institute in Muker, Swaledale.