A newsreel helpfully places us in Egypt, where archaeologist Sir John Willard is leading an expedition into the tomb of an ancient pharaoh. And apparently things are tense there, because there’s a representative from the British Museum (Dr. Foswell) and a rep from the Met in New York (Dr. Schneider, shown swirling some whiskey in a glass, which is unlikely in a newsreel of the time, but whatever, character establishment). There’s also a rich financier, Bleibner, and his nephew, Rupert, there for the ride, along with a secretary named Nigel, who’s photographing everything. All the principal players are gathered to watch as the tomb is opened. Got all that?
Newsreel ends and we join them in real time. There’s a seal over the door that Foswell wants to remove carefully, but Willard tells him to just break it. Isn’t this guy an archaeologist? It seems unlikely he’d just bust through a seal that’s thousands of years old. Even Bleibner wants to wait for the seal to be carefully pried off. Willard ignores him and busts through the seal, opens the door, and steps into the burial chamber. There, they find all sorts of statues and treasures. Almost as soon as they step inside and get a look, creepy music cues up, and Willard drops dead. Someone calls for the doctor, but it’s too late. Workers carry the body out as Nigel snaps away. Heh. Newsreel guy VOs news of the death from heart attack and swears that this has nothing to do with rumors of a curse on the tomb. No siree, everything’s fine here!
In London, Miss Lemon’s setting out tarot cards. She sighs sadly when she uncovers the death card, and then sweeps everything away when Poirot comes in and asks for his messages. There’s just one, from Lady Willard wanting to get in touch with him. Poirot guesses this has something to do with Sir John’s recent death, and Miss Lemon thinks that’s all down to the curse.
Poirot goes to the cool, Art-deco style Willard home, where he meets Lady Willard and her son, a really unfriendly looking sort who’s on his way out to Egypt to continue his father’s work. Lady Willard’s nervous about him going and then sort of nonsensically starts complaining about all these Americans from Yale coming out and trying to take over the dig. I’ll bet Harvard archaeologists would have never done such a thing. Her son reminds her that Bleibner put up the money for the whole enterprise, and without him, there’d be no dig at all. Poirot steers the conversation back to an actual point and asks what they want him to do, because he heard Sir John’s death was from natural causes. Lady Willard has no idea why she called him out to see her, and her son apologizes for having wasted Poirot’s time.
Egypt. The characters with names are all gathered around the dinner table post meal, having some brandy. Dr. Ames swears Sir John’s heart was just fine before they came out on the expedition. Dr. Schneider comments that it’s spooky, happening just after opening the tomb and all. Rupert doesn’t care about any curse, because he’s on his way back to New York to get married. There’s some talk about Ames having saved Rupert’s life once, and how the boys were all at Yale together. They wonder who’s going to take over the dig now, Met or BM? Nobody knows yet. Bleibner comes in, scolds the kids for being up so late, and asks Ames to take a look at a cut on his thumb before going to bed.
Poirot arrives home and calls Miss Lemon in to take a telegram asking the New York Police Commissioner for information on Rupert Bleibner. Miss Lemon takes the telegram, then tells Poirot they could just send Captain Hastings to get the information they want, because he’s traveling back from a trip to California and stopping over in NYC.
Send Hastings they do. He heads obediently to the Plaza Hotel, makes his way to Rupert’s room, and after a few rings, Rupert answers, looking the worse for wear and not nearly as perky as the last time we saw him. He’s wearing a robe and white cotton gloves and seems either drunk or hung over. Hastings lies that he’s a friend of Bleibner the elder’s. He chattily asks how Egypt was, and Rupert just says it was hot as he pours himself a drink. He then tells Hastings he’s not really in the mood for visitors, and Hastings politely excuses himself.
He goes downstairs for some breakfast, where he opens the paper and sees a giant headline stating that Bleibner’s dead.
In Egypt, Willard the Younger has arrived and is shocked to learn of Bleibner’s death from Foswell, who tells him it was a pretty awful death. Bleibner went blind and everything. Willard wants to speak to Dr. Ames, who’s observing workers taking items out of the tomb. Foswell introduces Willard, finally providing him with a first name—Guy. He also introduces Nigel and Schneider. Guy asks what happened to Bleibner and Nigel tells him it was septicemia, introduced through a cut in his hand. They even tried amputating his arm, to no avail. There’s a little discussion as to who will be in charge of the dig now, and Guy says they should probably continue as is until the wishes of Bleibner’s estate are known.
Hastings races back up the stairs to Rupert’s room, where he rings the bell and tries the door, which is unlocked. He lets himself in and finds Rupert lying on the sofa, dead of a gunshot wound to the head, and it’s the neatest gunshot head wound you’ve ever seen in your life. Hastings hurries to the telephone and calls the police.
He travels home on the Queen Mary—our man travels in style—and reports to Poirot, saying that Rupert was in great health and nobody can imagine why he’d go and kill himself. Poirot asks what Rupert did for a living—he’d been in Hawaii learning the hotel business until recently—and whether he had girl troubles. Apparently not. Also no money problems: he was his very rich uncle’s sole heir. Hastings does says that when he went to see him, he was acting strange and wearing gloves. He was nice enough to leave a suicide note, which the police let Hastings copy. Man, policing was lax in those days, wasn’t it? Sure, you seem nice enough, go ahead and copy down the suicide note, nobody’ll have a problem with that! The note reads: There’s is no point in going on. I am a leper, an outcast. It’s better that I should end my life now than bring misery to the people that I love.
Schneider’s gone to see the doctor, complaining of feeling unwell. Ames does a few tests, asks if Schneider’s been having trouble swallowing, and then runs off to Cairo to fetch some anti-toxic serum.
Poirot goes back to see Lady Willard, who’s totally freaked out about this trail of deaths leading from the tomb. Now, it seems Schneider’s going to be next—he’s got tetanus. Poirot tells her that her fears are well founded and that it’s not silly for her to believe in this curse, because superstition is a very powerful force indeed.
Hastings and Miss Lemon are playing some sort of Ouiji game, except instead of a board with letters on it, they’re using a board with a pen attached. They remove the board to see what’s been written, but they can’t make it out. Hastings thinks the writing looks like Arabic and wonders if the disturbed Pharaoh is trying to get through to them. In Arabic? Try again, Hastings.
Poirot interrupts their fun and asks what they’re doing. Hastings shows him the paper and Poirot shortly tells him to pull himself together, because they’re flying to Cairo the following day. Wow, you could fly to Cairo at a moment’s notice in the mid-1930’s? Travel was a lot more advanced back then than I thought. Could you imagine trying to fly to Cairo from London on less than 24 hours’ notice now? Not only would it cost a fortune, it’d probably get you a one-way ticket to a full cavity search at the airport.
Dig site. Ames gives Schneider an injection, but it’s no good. He goes outside and reports to Guy that Schneider’s jaw is broken from the violent muscle contractions. He’s not responding to treatment. Obviously.
Hastings is happily driving himself and Poirot to the site. Poirot, sitting in the back of the car, looks less happy to be tooling around in all this dust. They arrive and Poirot dusts himself off before greeting Foswell, who shows him and Hastings to the tent they’ll be sharing. Ha! Hastings and Poirot as roomies! Hastings, of course, is all—just fine, lots of fun! Jolly good! But Poirot doesn’t seem so pleased. They hear Schneider screaming from a nearby tent and head outside, where Guy’s not exactly delighted to see them. Ames emerges from Schneider’s tent and tells them Schneider’s dead. One more down.
As the body’s carried away, Poirot reviews the most recent deaths: tetanus, and blood poisoning. Plus the heart attack that started it all. Guy tells Poirot he’ll help him in any way he can, because they need to get to the bottom of this strange series of events. He’s sure it’s not a curse, though. He’s determined to carry on with the excavation, for his father’s sake.
Poirot goes to see Nigel, who’s happily organizing the dig finds. Nigel’s a Brit, but he too was at Yale with Rupert and Ames and was friends with them. Hastings and Poirot observe that four people on the expedition have known each other for a long time, and now half of them are dead. Poirot asks Nigel about Rupert and Nigel sadly says he can’t imagine why Rupert did what he did. He was in good health, aside from some eczema on his hands he was freaking out about.
That evening, Hastings emerges from his tent before dinner and is immediately intercepted by one of the native workers, who warns him that they’re dealing with evil spirits in the air. He asks Hastings to try and get Guy to leave, because the worker likes him, I guess, but it’s not up to Hastings.
At dinner, everyone’s all dressed up in jackets and black tie, which I find pretty funny. I mean, they’re in tents in the middle of the desert, but still observing these little social niceties. Poirot runs down all the deaths, including the suicide, and wonders what might link them all together. They were all treated by the doctor? Except Rupert, as far as we know. He hints that the curse might be at work, but Nigel and a couple of the others dismiss that as nonsense, because they’re men of science and don’t believe in curses. He hardly gets that out before Ames gets up, claiming to feel unwell, and then collapses.
The remaining dig participants, plus Poirot and Hastings, line up for a photo in front of the door of the tomb. After the picture is taken, Poirot asks Guy how Ames is doing, and Guy says he’s still unwell, and he’s getting a bit worried about him. He’s a lot nicer in Egypt than he was back in England. One of the workers tells Guy they’re ready, and he tells them to lift away. They start working pulleys and such and lift the lid off the outer sarcophagus, revealing the sarcophagus with the mummy inside. Poirot glances in and comments that he’s been lying there since before the siege of Troy or the rise of Rome or anything that’s happened since, and now, they’re finally seeing him again. When you put it like that, it is pretty awe-inspiring, isn’t it?
Foswell runs off to do a write up of the moment for the keeper of antiquities for the British Museum. Poirot brings up Schneider, and Foswell dumps on him for a bit and says the BM wouldn’t have sent anyone but their most senior archaeologist. Who I guess is Foswell.
In bed, Poirot’s reading a book about ancient Egyptian beliefs. Hastings comes in and Poirot asks him what the deal is with Miss Lemon lately. Hastings thinks she’s upset about her cat, Catherine the Grate (it liked sleeping in the fireplace—heh), dying recently. He thinks she’s trying to get in touch with it. As they talk, Poirot notices a large Anubis head reflected on the outside of their tent. Hastings runs outside to investigate but finds nothing.
The following day, Hastings goes to take his nap, but Poirot rouses him and drags him out, forcing him to stand guard while Poirot searches Ames’s tent. Guess Ames is all better, then? Hastings is reluctant but has no choice. And then, of course, Ames comes back, so Hastings tries to stall him, when all Ames wants to do is go inside. In the tent, Poirot finds a bottle of something in with Ames’s medications and examines it. Ames finally manages to slip past Hastings and goes inside, and a moment later Poirot appears around the side of the tent, complaining about the sand getting everywhere. You’re in a desert, Poirot, what did you expect?
Poirot goes back to Cairo, I guess, so he can ring Miss Lemon, who’s got the details of Rupert’s will. He writes them down, thanks her, and hangs up.
That evening, as they’re dressing for dinner, Hastings says he’s getting to like archaeology and has half a mind to stay and be yet another dilettante on this dig, now that a couple of them have died off and left vacancies. One of the servants comes in with Poirot’s tisane, places it beside his bed, and leaves. Hastings goes back to messing with his bowtie, but turns when he hears Poirot gag. Poirot’s laid out on his bed, apparently unconscious. Hastings runs for Ames, who comes running, along with Guy. Guy picks up the now-empty tisane cup, which smells like almonds, indicating cyanide. Poirot calmly informs them he didn’t drink it, luckily, as he gets up and Hastings recovers from the heart attack his friend just kindly gave him. Kind of a dick move, don’t you think, Poirot? Poirot took the opportunity, while Hastings was away, of pouring the contents of the tisane glass into a bottle, which he’ll send off for analysis. It’s still not clear to me why he needed to fake being dead to do that, when he could have just sniffed the tisane, told Hastings it was poisoned, and poured the contents into the bottle in front of him. There was no need to hide that particular action, he just turned around and told Hastings what he did about five seconds later.
Poirot does his j’accuse speech after dinner that night (how much you want to bet nobody ate a bite?). He tells Guy that Sir John’s natural death was what gave their murderer his idea, because the more deaths occurred, the more people would think there was some sort of curse at work and the less they would ask the right questions.
Poirot claims he spent his time in Egypt lulling the murderer into a false sense of security. The murderer tried to scare him off with the Anubis head the night before, but that didn’t work, so then he tried to poison the detective instead.
Poirot goes back to the first murder, Bleibner’s. His first thought was that Rupert would be the suspect, since he stood to gain from the death, but then Rupert proved that theory wrong by killing himself. And why should he do that? Because he thought he had leprosy, caught in Hawaii. That’s why he was wearing the gloves—he thought the eczema on his hands were the first signs of the disease, because Ames told him he was infected and was treating him with chimugra oil, which Poirot found in his tent. But Rupert didn’t have leprosy at all, it really was just eczema. Ok, I can see that he might not have known about more modern treatments for the disease, but isn’t that something you’d seek a second opinion on before you went and shot yourself? Rupert died in Manhattan; I’m sure there were plenty of doctors there in the 30’s he could have visited. Didn’t he have a family doctor? I find this a little difficult to buy.
Anyway, Ames blusters that this is nonsense, Rupert was his friend, blah blah blah. But that will Miss Lemon told Poirot about? It was actually a slip of paper Rupert wrote out in college, probably while drunk, leaving all his worldly goods to Ames, as thanks for saving his life. Would that actually be legally binding? Don’t wills require witness signatures and a lawyer’s involvement at some point? Well, whatever, with Rupert dead, Ames gets all the Bleibner money. Ames responds to this by pulling a gun, which really is as good as a confession, and trying to make a run for it, but the native who warned Hastings earlier catches him outside and there’s a tussle that results in Ames being overcome by workers and the other men. So, let me get this straight: Sir John died of natural causes, and then Ames murdered Bleibner by infecting him with septicemia, and drove Rupert to suicide so he could get all the money. And then he murdered Schneider horribly with tetanus, basically tortured him to death, just to make it look like some sort of curse was at work? The original three deaths on the site weren’t enough? Jesus, what a total psycho!
Poirot reports back to Lady Willard, telling her that John died naturally. She’s still happy, though, because her son’s safe and there is no curse. Once she and Guy leave, Poirot calls Miss Lemon into his office and presents her with a gift: A cat statue that he claims is from the pharaoh’s tomb. In reality, he probably grabbed it at the duty free shop at the airport, but she’s entranced and oh so happy, so maybe now she’ll leave the tarot cards alone.