Grade: A / 80%
Summary: Murder on the Orient Express is a sinfully delicious retribution saga only Agatha Christie could’ve cooked up so deliciously. And Sidney Lumet brings old fashioned fun alive in the film adaptation with a glorious ensemble to support him
Albert Finney … Hercule Poirot
Lauren Bacall … Mrs. Harriet Belinda Hubbard
Sean Connery … Colonel Arbuthnott
Ingrid Bergman … Greta Ohlsson
Michael York … Count Rudolf Andrenyi
Vanessa Redgrave … Mary Debenham
Jacqueline Bisset … Countess Elena Andrenyi
Richard Widmark … Mr. Ratchett
John Gielgud … Edward Henry Masterman
Anthony Perkins … Hector McQueen
Martin Balsam … Bianchi
Rachel Roberts … Hildegarde Schmidt
Wendy Hiller … Princess Dragomiroff
Denis Quilley … Antonio (Tony) Foscarelli
Colin Blakely (as Colin Blankey) … Cyrus B. “Dick” Hardman
Jean-Pierre Cassel … Pierre Michel
George Coulouris … Dr. Constantine
Murder on the Orient Express is a sinfully delicious retribution saga only Agatha Christie could’ve cooked up so deliciously. The author penned the famous novel in the year 1934 and its film adaptation comes exactly forty years later. Christie is too careful and smart to let anything go amiss, and she deliberately doesn’t allow us to rack up our minds while reading her books; what I mean by this is that the cases she narrates become too much for us to make our own deductions and so we have no choice but to let Hercule Poirot, the famous detective protagonist in her novels, to solve them for us.
There’s a funny line in the film that tells a lot about how we watch this film. It’s said in the scene where Poirot’s friend Bianchi and a doctor, who accompany him as he interviews each suspect, begin debating passionately on whether one suspect has a significant motive or not. Poirot keeps quiet until he hears the word ‘fairy godmother’ from the doctor; the detective then springs up excitedly and says ‘Ah, now you’ve accidently said something valuable!’. We as the audience would probably figure out just as much as Bianchi and the doctor, which is like very little. We don’t have Poirot’s grey cells, and so we let him speak and listen to him all ears like he’s some kind of oracle. We may accidently catch something before Poirot does if we’re lucky, but it’s a level 10 Sudoku for most of us, and we’re barely able to solve Level 6 itself.
Agatha lays down her foundation quite neatly. Her novels usually consist of a lengthy exposition, where almost every major character is introduced (although true identities of some may not be revealed until later). In the Poirot series, our Belgian sleuth finds himself in the company of these characters, usually informally until there’s a murder. Then his crime-solving begins. Paul Dehn, the screenwriter of this adaptation directly begins with Poirot’s journey on a connecting ferry to Orient Express, doing away with his visit to a hotel in Istanbul which is included in Christie’s book.
Albert Finney plays our Poirot, and he’s got a very distinctive appearance; in the first scene, as he’s sitting in the ferry, he looks shapeless with his little head sticking out of an overcoat that’s too big for him. His hair is so neatly oiled and flattened it looks like he’s wearing a swim-cap, and his queer moustache curls up like bull’s horns. ‘What a funny little man’ is the first remark we hear about him.
The man who remarks this, Colonel Arbuthnot will soon eat his words back because he’s later one of the suspects in Poirot’s case. The British officer in British Indian army is travelling with a young English teacher named Mary Debenham aboard Orient Express. Others on this train include Pierre the French conductor, Natalia Dragomiroff the elderly Russian Royal and her personal maid Hindegarde Schmidt, Mrs. Harriet Hubbard the loquacious American socialite, Greta Ohlsson the Swedish missionary, Rudolf Andrenyi the aristocratic Hungarian diplomat and his wife Elena, Mr. Ratchett the incorrigible millionaire, his valet Edward Beddoes and secretary Hector McQueen. Poirot gets a seat with the help of Bianchi, who’s a train company director; inside, he shares the compartment with Hector, who seems befuddled by this new guest.
Orient Express takes off once its passengers are in, first with the sound of the engine starting, then steam billowing out. The whole momentum indicates us to brace ourselves for this totally mind-blowing adventure that’s about to come. As passengers meet and greet each other, our Poirot is beckoned by Mr. Ratchett the millionaire at lunch. Mr. Ratchett ask Poirot to protect him from threats that he’s been receiving from an unknown person, and Poirot seems interested until the crazy millionaire pulls out a gun and tries to get his consent by force. Poirot dignifiedly leaves without accepting the offer, and the next day finds Mr. Ratchett to be dead, stabbed about twelve times in his sleep.
Under Bianchi’s insistence, Poirot accepts to solve the case before the train reaches its destination; a snow storm the previous night gives Poirot more time for the same. The rest of the film is taken up by interviews with all the suspects one by one, ending with the show-stopping climax where Poirot has not one but two possible scenarios of the murder – the simple one and the ‘complex / Poirot’ one. Most of us would’ve chosen simple, even though it sounds disappointing, only because it would’ve been possible for us to think further – so it’s better we ditch our theories altogether and listen to what Poirot’s got to say.
Director Sidney Lumet brings old fashioned fun alive with a glorious ensemble to support him. Christie’s characters are diverse and peculiar in their personalities, dressing sense and accents, and the ensemble here successfully brings these characters to screen, whether it’s Anthony Perkins as nervous, jumpy and fidgety Hector who keeps biting his nails in tension or Lauren Bacall as the overly talkative and rambling Mrs. Harriet. And once the big climax is revealed, we do end up sympathizing with everybody.
Mr. Roger Ebert has reviewed this movie, and I’m giving a link of his review because it’s probably the perfect review by a mainstream film critic for this film. Certainly helped me in realizing how I should watch this film: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/murder-on-the-orient-express-1974.
- Top Ten Tuesday #5 (turnthepagereviews.com)
- Suchet: Poirot’s manner so precise (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)
- Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (roxannesreadingcorner.wordpress.com)