Death on the Nile is one of my favorite films. The slow pacing. The plot from an Agatha Christie mystery. The location from Egypt. And movie star after movie star after movie star.
I caught a fantastic clip from the film featuring Bette Davis, Lois Chiles, and Maggie Smith. Outside of setting up motives for killing Lois Chiles’ character, the scene now has historical significance to me. A baton has been passed.
In the film, Bette Davis is the imperious, high-society, old-money, cantankerous, ancient scenery-chewer, spitting out lines as only someone with at least half a century’s worth of film experience has the right to.
Now, Maggie Smith, playing Davis’s beleaguered, belittled servant in the Death on the Nile, has reached a point in her career where she has taken on the character type that Bette Davis had in the film – as The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey. She’s worth the title.
Looking at the film from 1978 – which I first viewed at a slumber party, at my insistence after unhappily missing the theatrical run and taking advantage of someone’s home with HBO – I am struck by the role reversal for Maggie Smith. It’s not just that she’s moved from maidservant to matriarch. She’s aged into Bette Davis.
The Death on the Nile clip opens with a tea scene on the boat deck – with a group of Egyptian children mooning Bette Davis. (That sentence in itself proves that this is a great film.)
Can we not imagine Smith’s Dowager Countess on the deck being mooned followed by a similar, offended but understated reaction? However, for Downton Abbey, the reaction shot would precede Smith unleashing a line destined to join a parade of Countess catch-phrases.
Maggie Smith to Bette Davis. The two have formed a circle in my mind and it’s spinning faster and faster each time I see Davis set down that teacup in barely veiled disgust.
Maggie Smith is now holding the teacup with the same classic countenance. The baton – or the teacup – has been passed.
Teacups: weaponry wielded in the deft hand of a septuagenerian superstar.