Screen Time: Perfume in Agatha Christie’s “Evil Under the Sun” (1981)

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Maybe I’m just in a nostalgic mood these days—then again, when am I NOT in a nostalgic mood? A few weeks ago I wrote a short post about Brideshead Revisited and its wine-tasting scene. Now I’m thinking about the film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun.

Christie’s murdery-mystery novel Evil Under the Sun was published in 1941 and this film was released in 1981. It was directed by Guy Hamilton, with a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, who also wrote two other Christie screen adaptations,  Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978). Peter Ustinov played Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who (as always) cracks the case.

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Evil Under the Sun was in steady rotation on HBO when I was in high school, and I watched it over and over. I’d been a Christie fan (and a mystery fan in general) since sixth grade, and this adaptation fascinated me. Looking back, I can see exactly why, and I can’t help but notice many details that must have influenced me on some subconscious level.

First and foremost: here’s Ustinov as Poirot. A bottle of perfume plays a small but key role in this movie, something I’d completely forgotten until my recent re-watching.

This fictional perfume is named Souffle de Mer.

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And here’s a shot of the bottle standing on a dressing table, amongst other toiletries (in elegant cut-glass containers), a cigarette case or trinket box of some kind, and numerous pieces of costume jewelry.

Seriously, fans of Bakelite should watch “Evil Under the Sun” just for the accessories.

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The perfume and other beauty products belong to Arlena Marshall, a famous actress vacationing with her husband.

Arlena is played by Diana Rigg. In 1981 Rigg also starred as “Lady Holiday” in The Great Muppet Caper, another favorite of my formative years. Of course, some of you may know her for her more recent portrayal of Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thones.

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Here’s Arlena sunbathing, in an ensemble complete with lipstick, manicure, and more of that jewelry. I never leave the house without lipstick or bracelets, either—although the similarities end there.

The costumes were designed by Anthony Powell.

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This movie was also my introduction to Maggie Smith, who plays Daphne Castle, the owner of the intimate and exclusive hotel where the film’s plot unfolds. (Daphne received the property as a gift from “the reigning king of Tyrania,” as thanks for “services rendered.” I’m sure I missed quite a few of the script’s finer points when I originally saw it.)

Daphne is also thoroughly accessorized—this polka dot pantsuit’s jacket buttons perfectly match her bracelets and earrings.


Cocktails are served in the lounge of Daphne’s hotel every evening.

I think I spy a drink that includes some crème de violette! Does this explain my love for cocktails like the Aviation and the Water Lily?!

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Most of the soundtrack for Evil Under the Sun consists of instrumentals based on Cole Porter songs. I usually date my love for Cole Porter to the release of the tribute album Red Hot + Blue in 1990, but I was apparently absorbing his music earlier than I realized.

In one scene, Arlena sings “You’re the Top”—one of my favorite songs of all time—as her husband accompanies her on the piano…

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…and she’s joined by Daphne, a longtime rival. Apparently they’ve known each other since their early days as chorus girls.

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Speaking of Cole Porter: there’s a fleeting moment in which Poirot checks the hotel’s guest register. As his fingers glide down the page, we can spy Porter’s “signature”—preceded by “Fred & Adele Astaire” and followed by Charlie Chaplin, Maurice Chevalier, and other glittering real-life personalities of the era.

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I’m sure I’d never heard of Jane Birkin before I saw this movie. Does anyone even remember that’s she’s an actress and singer, and not just the name of an Hermès handbag?

In Evil Under the Sun she plays Christine Redfern, the wife of a schoolteacher named Patrick.

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Christine is supposed to be dowdy, but her neutral-toned ensembles of stripes, chevrons, and chunky bead necklaces look surprisingly contemporary to my present-day eye.

Her fresh-faced makeup is also very on-trend for 2018.

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If you’re able to find Evil Under the Sun online, mix yourself a cocktail and give it a watch. I’m still not tired of it. Next time I view it, I may dab on some seashore-inspired fragrance. In place of Souffle de Mer, I could choose Kerosene Walk the Sea or i Profumi di Firenze Brezza di Mare or Imaginary Authors Falling into the Sea...


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