David Niven as Colonel Johnny Race, dignified lawyer and war veteran
Egypt, September 1937
Film: Death on the Nile
Release Date: September 29, 1978
Director: John Guillermin
Costume Designer: Anthony Powell
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
As we in the Northern Hemisphere enjoy the first full day of summer, BAMF Style is focusing on a classic warm weather look from the quintessential gentleman, David Niven. Niven’s character, Colonel Johnny Race, was written as an MI5 agent in Christie’s novels but appears here to be more of a lawyer who is tasked with a murder investigation due to his long friendship with Poirot and his dignified upper class standing.
David Niven was one of many stars featured in the trio of lavish Agatha Christie murder mystery adaptations in the ’70s and ’80s that were often studded with a cavalcade of international acting talent. 1978’s Death on the Nile alone featured Niven, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, and Maggie Smith plus the decade’s Shakespearean newcomers Jon Finch and Olivia Hussey as well as Jack “that’s what I call fuckin'” Warden. Peter Ustinov took over the role of the eccentric, brilliant, and pompous Hercule Poirot – a role he would play five more times – in a perfect example of marketing a famously mustached character without overdoing it.
Although the “series” was sumptuously costumed with period attire for all, Anthony Powell’s costume design talent won him both the Academy Award and the BAFTA for Death on the Nile. (It’s worth mentioning that Tony Walton’s costume design for Murder on the Orient Express had been nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA, and Powell’s work on Evil Under the Sun has been thrice featured on BAMF Style already.)
What’d He Wear?
Colonel Race exudes British military elegance in his double-breasted navy blazer, white trousers and shoes, and regimental striped tie.
The navy wool serge double-breasted blazer is cut befitting an English military gentleman with its structured and tailored fit, darted front, roped sleeveheads, and double side vents. The double-breasted front is very evocative of a naval uniform and the six-on-two button layout consists of silver-toned metal shank buttons with a naval motif. The 2-button cuffs are scaled down reflections of the buttons on the front.
The sweeping, convex peak lapels are one of the few concessions to the era, somewhat on the wider side of classic with slanted gorges and a buttonhole stitched through the left lapel. The natural-looking shoulders also indicate civilian garb more than a heavy-padded, straight-shoulder jacket would.
Race’s blazer has straight jetted hip pockets and a welted breast pocket where he keeps a white linen handkerchief, a handy accessory to wipe off sweat under the hot Egyptian sun.
With his blazer, Colonel Race wears a pair of light cream gabardine trousers cut with a wide straight leg for a comfortably and fashionably large fit. The cream shade softens the costume-like properties that would burden the wearer of a navy blazer and white ducks. They have double forward pleats and the cuffed bottoms are finished with turn-ups. The trousers have straight side pockets and jetted back pockets.
Race’s trousers were meant to be worn with braces; there are four white buttons – two sets of two – in the front and two centered buttons in the back with no fishmouth break. The extended waistband closes with a squared tab that conceals the hook closure.
Race sports a pair of two-tone suspenders woven in a pattern with a brown broken-check stripe over a tan ground. They have gold-colored adjusters and connect to the waistband with brown loop straps.
With temperatures reaching 130 °F around noon during filming of Death on the Nile, it makes sense that Race would retire to his cabin at mid-day to change shirts. His first shirt is white poplin with a moderately spread collar, front placket, and French cuffs for gold cuff links.
For the bulk of his and Poirot’s investigation, Race wears the sky blue poplin shirt that he changes into. Like the earlier shirt, it has a moderately spread collar, front placket, and double cuffs for gold links.
Other than the black bow tie he wears with his tuxedo, the only necktie worn by Colonel Race throughout Death on the Nile is a Royal Green Jackets regimental striped tie. The Royal Green Jackets were formed in 1966 – nearly three decades after Death on the Nile is set – as the descendent regiment of the Rifle Brigade, the light infantry regiment with which David Niven had served during World War II.
The tie consists of thin red and black stripes on a forest green ground; the earlier Rifle Brigade’s regimental stripe had been a much simpler pattern of alternating green and black stripes. Colonel Race’s tie is worn in a four-in-hand knot. An example of the tie can be found at the RGJ museum site.
The same pattern can be found on the ribbon of the straw boater that Colonel Race wears when boarding the Karnak, wearing the same off-white trousers but with his double-breasted light taupe suit jacket. He never wears that hat with this blazer; instead, the only headgear present is a white peaked cap with a black peak and gold crest that he is seen carrying during the final scene and wearing in some promotional photos.
Colonel Race’s white leather bluchers complement his off-white trousers and maintain a level of formality that would be lost with slip-ons. They are laced through five eyelets and have perforated cap toes and black leather soles. He wears them with light tan ribbed cotton dress socks.
Colonel Race’s few accessories are both gold and both worn on his left hand. He wears an all-gold watch with a gold bracelet. The watchmaker is unidentified at this point, but it’s worth pointing out that in The Sea Wolves, filmed two years later and set during World War II, Niven’s character Colonel Bill Brice wore a stainless Omega Seamaster on a dark leather strap.
Colonel Race wears a gold signet ring on his left pinky.
Go Big or Go Home
“It’s a bad knock,” is how the dignified Colonel Race reassures Simon Doyle as the latter grieves after his wife’s death. The dignified Race lacks just enough of Poirot’s pompous continental sophistication to keep the two men’s friendship both interesting and mutually respectable.
Poor Race is baffled by Poirot’s desire to consume “les morilles” for dinner and orders the detective some moray eel rather than mushrooms. Race thinks he is doing his pal a favor by sending back a bottle of “moldy” Château Pétrus before being lambasted by the eccentric Belgian for his ignorance, as Colonel Race prefers to stick to his whiskey with dinner rather than wine.
And, while on the subject of Salome Otterbourne, the steadfast Colonel Race is hopelessly adrift when forced to dance a tango with the woman while Poirot artfully tangoes across the dance floor with her comely and sober daughter.
Though squarer than some of his traveling companions, Race is a stalwart and solid investigator with both a talent for understanding human behavior and ability as a man of action who doesn’t hesitate when he needs to draw his sword in the name of protecting a friend from a deadly cobra.
How to Get the Look
- Navy blue wool serge double-breasted blazer with sweeping peak lapels, 6-on-2 silver-toned metal button front, welted breast pocket, jetted straight hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and double side vents
- Sky blue cotton poplin dress shirt with moderately spread collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- Royal Green Jackets regimental striped necktie
- Light cream gabardine double forward-pleated trousers with suspender-button waistband, straight side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Brown two-tone woven suspenders with gold adjusters and brown button-loop straps
- White leather 5-eyelet perforated cap-toe bluchers with black leather soles
- Light tan ribbed cotton socks
- White ribbed cotton sleeveless undershirt
- Gold wristwatch on gold bracelet, left wrist
- Gold signet ring, left pinky
- Golf cuff links
With his earlier suit, Colonel Race wore a straw boater with a ribbon of the RGJ stripe but the only headgear featured with this outfit is a white naval peaked cap that he carries while disembarking in the finale.
During the investigation, Colonel Race joins Poirot in a search of the Karnak to try and find the misplaced murder weapon. Inside the cabin of Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy), the victim’s manipulative and shrewd attorney, they discover a heavy Colt Official Police revolver which they immediately dismiss as the possible murder weapon due to the size of Linnet’s fatal wound.
Of course, the rule of Chekhov’s Gun comes into effect in an unfortunate twist that would disappoint many fans of Murder, She Wrote.
Race is shown to be quite an expert in firearms, recognizing Linnet’s wound instantly as the work of a .22; in fact, it was a four-barreled Sharps pistol in .22 Short that is shown to be the murder weapon. The Colt Official Police is chambered in .38 Special with its large bore most evident later in the film.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.