Rife with spoilers. Those who wish the mystery to remain a mystery should read no further.
Although I have fond memories of the publicity and glowing reviews surrounding its release; recall the weeks of long, serpentine lines queuing up outside San Francisco’s Regency Theater where it played; and I even remember going to a Market Street movie memorabilia shop to purchase the gorgeous Richard Amsel-designed poster (“The Who’s Who in the Whodunit”) which hung on my wall for many years...but for the life of me I can’t figure out why, given my interest, I never got around to seeing this in a theater during its initial release.
|Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot|
|Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Harriet Belinda Hubbard|
|Anthony Perkins as Hector McQueen|
|Jacqueline Bisset as Countess Helena Andrenyi|
Distracting my attention from Murder on the Orient Express was the pomp and circumstance attending the release of The Great Gatsby, The Godfather Part II, and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Simultaneously, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were defining funny for the 70s with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, while on the serious side, my cineáste pretensions (and height) got me into theaters showing the arthouse pseudo-porn of The Night Porter and Going Places. Adding to this already full schedule, That’s Entertainment, The Phantom of the Paradise, and even the lamentable, Mame were on hand to satisfy my appetite for musicals.
|Sean Connery as Colonel Arbuthnot|
|Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Debenham|
|Richard Widmark as Samuel Edward Rachett / Cassetti|
|Ingrid Bergman as Greta Ohlsson|
|Sir John Gielgud as Edward Henry Beddoes|
|Dame Wendy Hiller as Princess Natalia Dragomiroff|
|Michael York as Count Rudolf Andrenyi|
|Rachel Roberts as Hildegarde Schmidt|
In hindsight, I can only conjecture that my naif experience of the film must have been in some ways on par with what director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paul Dehn envisioned for audiences when fashioning the project: Murder on the Orient Express felt very much like watching an actual film from the 1930s filtered through the very contemporary sensibilities of the 70s.
|Jean-Pierre Cassel as Pierre-Paul Michel|
|Martin Balsam as Mr. Bianchi|
|Dennis Quilley as Antonio Foscarelli|
|Colin Blakely as Cyrus B. Hardman|
|George Coulouris as Dr. Constantine|
Whether it be amateur crime-solver, Miss Marple, or the fastidious Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, the drill in an Agatha Christie mystery remains roughly the same (although Poirot travels in much tonier circles than Christie’s small-town spinster): a confined, preferably exotic, locale; a murder; a collection of eccentric/suspicious characters; multiple motives; multiple red herrings; a surprise twist or two; the presence of a canny sleuth to connect all the dots; and finally, the assembling of the suspects for the flashback reenactment of the and the unveiling of the guilty party.
Since the title, Murder on the Orient Express, already specifies the what and where; the fun is to be had in discerning the who, why, when, and how.
The who in this case is an individual of nefarious background and cloaked identity, mastermind of a vicious 1930 kidnap/murder of a three-year-old heiress. An act for which this criminal, in having made off with the ransom money and leaving a colleague to take the blame, has never been brought to justice. Now, five years later, in a luxury train trapped in a snowdrift in
said individual is found dead of multiple stab wounds in a locked compartment.
The victim’s Mafia ties favor criminal vendetta as the most likely solution to the murder, but as is his wont; M. Poirot’s “little gray cells” alert him to the fact that there is something altogether too expedient in the unanimous airtight alibis of his traveling companions: fifteen-odd strangers of diverse background, class, and nationality; each possessing nothing in common; each unknown to either the victim or one another.
|The Usual Suspects|
On first viewing, I recall being very caught up in the mystery of it all and quite unable to figure out “whodunit” until the final, dramatically staged moments of the Big Reveal - a revelation of how and why which surprised me considerably more than I would have thought possible.
I really love everything about Murder on the Orient Express, but I’m especially fond of the significant role conscience, guilt, and the pain of loss play in the narrative. For even more persuasive than the film’s glossy production values and high-caliber performances (a rather amazing feat given their brevity), is its emotional poignancy. Most Agatha Christie movies end on a note of triumphant finality born of justice served and wrongs set right. But Murder on the Orient Express has an ending which always leaves me (softie that I am) with a mild case of sentimental waterworks, due to the fact that it touches – ever so lightly – on the sad reality that justice is sometimes hollow reward for the loss of loved ones no degree of rightful vengeance will ever bring back.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Murder on the Orient Express is the perfect, made-to-order film for the 70s cinema enthusiast who’s also a fan of Turner Classic Movies (uh,…that would be me). Directed by Sidney Lumet (The Wiz, The Group), in a style meant to evoke the look and feel of films made in the 1930s, and given a diffused, nostalgic sheen by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Oscar-nominated for this film, Unsworth won the previous year for Cabaret), Murder on the Orient Express, although a British production, is one of the best examples of Old Hollywood moviemaking to come out of the New Hollywood era.
|The Orient Express|
The titular star of the film gets a grand sendoff with a sweeping waltz theme that is one of the film's chief goosebump moments. Richard Rodney Bennett's glamorous, Oscar-nominated score is outstanding
On a relatively modest budget (just $1.4 million, if Wikipedia is to be believed), Murder on the Orient Express went on to win 6 Oscar nominations: Finney, Bergman (won), costumes, cinematography, score, screenplay - and became one of the top-grossing films of the year. With no nudity, foul language, or claims to social relevance; in the youth-obsessed 70s, Murder on the Orient Express was one of the few films capable of luring older audiences away from their TV sets. (The equally enthralled younger audiences approached it as something of a “thinking-man’s disaster movie.”)
For me, Murder on the Orient Express was a welcome respite from overlapping dialog, non-linear storytelling, gritty realism, and the sometimes-fatuous artistic pretensions of the cinema auteur. Taking a break from all that 70s navel-gazing, it was a real treat just to be entertained by a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story. Well-written (Paul Dehn’s screenplay is a witty, largely-faithful adaptation that plays fair with its clues), beautifully shot, extremely well-acted, and a great deal of fun to boot, Murder on the Orient Express was a return to escapism in an era preoccupied with confrontation.
The rest of the cast is flawless; Anthony Perkin’s twitchy,
mother-fixated Mr. McQueen (!) being a particular favorite of mine in that it almost
feels like Perkins is doing a parody of Norman Bates. The regal Lauren Bacall looks
to be having a grand old time as the gum-chewing, prototypical Ugly American; Jacqueline Bisset & Michael York are both so gorgeous as to qualify as special effects; and of course, Ingrid Bergman’s
scene-stealing Swedish missionary is a delightful bit of acting whether one thinks she deserved
that Oscar or not.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Not being such a devotee of Agatha Christie as to have formed an indelible impression of Hercule Poirot in my mind one way or another, I have to say I greatly prefer Albert Finney’s take on the detective over Peter Ustinov, who always came across as so enchanted by his own performance that I found myself distracted. In my review of the 1970 musical, Scrooge, I had this to say about Finney: “(he’s) a movie star with the heart of a character actor. Makeup and prosthetics which would swallow up lesser actors only seem to liberate him.”
Only 37 years old at the time, Finney is near-unrecognizable as the 50-something Poirot, yet under all that makeup and padding is a sharp, focused performance. Seeming to inhabit the character in every minute aspect from body language to vocal inflection, it’s Finney’s darting, curious eyes which best convey the man behind the makeup. With chin forever bowed so as to appear to always be peering at people, take note of how active his eyes are in scenes where he's required to just listen. Those clear, piercing eyes are the true eyes of a master sleuth.
|Finney commands the final third of the film with an amazing, eight-page monologue|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Murder on the Orient Express is a film that boasts many stars – that luxurious locomotive and the high marquee-value cast, to be sure – but as far as I’m concerned, the film’s biggest star and MVP is production designer/costume designer tony Walton.
All That Jazz) is the jack-of-all-trades genius whose talent lent a distinctive visual pizzazz to Mary Poppins, The Boy Friend, Petulia, The Wiz, and many others. His elegant sets and larger-than-life costume designs for Murder on the Orient Express create an irresistibly stylized atmosphere of theatrical glamour.
|Movie magic: In real life, the Orient Express would need to add an extra car just to store the hats|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Although many fans of the film consider it to be the one aspect of Murder on the Orient Express they can do without, the opening sequence – a chilling montage detailing the 1930 kidnapping/murder that sets into motion the latter events of the film – is, for me, one of the strongest, most disturbing moments in the film.
As presented, it’s a dramatic series of events recounted in a random mix of reenactments, newsreel footage, newspaper clippings, and press photographs, which proves to be a virtuoso bit of short filmmaking whose choppy, stylized imagery evoke a kind of cinematic equivalent of a ransom note. It's a rousing good start to the movie, and I especially like how it matches, in a kind of cyclical intensity, the film’s penultimate sequence showing how the murder on the Orient Express was carried out.
A heretofore unaddressed factor contributing to why Murder on the Orient Express ranked so low on my “must see” list of films in 1974 was my then-limited, not altogether favorable, experience of British crime movies, circa the 30s and 40s. At a time when even the earliest American crime films crackled with tension, the few British films I’d seen struck me as terribly aloof affairs. I was never comfortable with all that British reserve (“Murdered you say? Bit of rotten luck, wot?”), and (wrongly) assumed Murder on the Orient Express would follow suit.
While it's by no means as stuffy as all that, by the mid-70s, as American films became bigger, noisier, and in too many instances, dumber (those disaster films) the restraint of Murder on the Orient Express seemed positively invigorating. Clever plot, great dialog, and a three-act story structure all propped up by beautiful people in fancy clothes in exotic locations…whaddaya know?...suddenly everything old felt new again.