MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Appointment With Death' a Disappointment

"Appointment With Death" (selected theaters), the latest movie adaptation from the playfully murderous work of the late Agatha Christie, takes place in 1937 in Palestine--in Jerusalem, Qumran and the port of Haifa--at some of the many sites regularly haunted by Dame Agatha and her archeologist husband, Max Mallowan.

There, an unspeakable American millionairess named Mrs. Boynton (Piper Laurie) and her persecuted brood of heirs and employees become involved in another of the outlandishly convoluted and dependably unpredictable Christie murder-puzzles that can be unravelled only by the nimble, ungullible Belgian sleuth, M. Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov).

Superficially, "Appointment With Death" seems to offer all you might want from a movie like this. It has a cast that mixes witty or acidulous old hands (Ustinov, Laurie, Lauren Bacall and John Gielgud) with attractive younger ones (Carrie Fisher, Hayley Mills, Jenny Seagrove and others). And it has exotic settings, awash in period decor and imbued with the brittle spirit of the British Empire.

Yet, this Christie mystery is unsatisfying, even a little soporific.

There may be a tendency to blame co-writer-producer-director Michael Winner, whose 1978 adaptation of "The Big Sleep" ruined the story by translating its action from Los Angeles in the 1930s to London in the 1970s.

Here, however, Winner is on better behavior. He and his art directors and designers have done a fairly good job of disguising Jaffa as Haifa. Yet, this director doesn't have the easy, deceptively graceful style that a project like this needs.

As for the actors, David Soul and Laurie are not in their element, Gielgud is a bit too withdrawn, and Bacall a bit too aggressive. The younger ones--except Seagrove--tend to flounder, pout or look uncomfortable in their clothes.

And Ustinov, though now well identified with the role, is not the egg-shaped Belgian of the books. Ustinov's specialties--wiliness, unbuttoned desperation and oily wordplay--aren't really suitable to Poirot, and he doesn't always get the right fussy, punctilious, supersensitive air.

"Appointment With Death" (MPAA-rated PG) is a murder mystery where the "little gray cells" have gotten far too little and become lost.

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