Thursday, November 6, 2014

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS 1974

Rife with spoilers. Those who wish the mystery to remain a mystery should read no further.

Of the many films made from Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mystery novels, I find 1982s Evil Under the Sun to be the most fun, but 1974s Murder on the Orient Express still heads my list as the most stylish, effective, and downright classiest adaptation of the lot.
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 
My best guess is that it had to do with there just not being enough hours in the day to see all of the great films that came out that year. It was 1974, I was still in high-school, working weekends as a movie theater usher, and, as was my practice then and remains so today; when it comes to my own personal moviegoing habits, if I like a film, I invariably want to see it several times. This is great given my particular penchant for rediscovering new things with each viewing, but does tend to limit the amount of time I have left for partaking of the films that make up my ever-growing list of unseen movies. At least not without considerable effort applied on my part.

Distracting my attention from Murder on the Orient Express was the pomp and circumstance attending the release of The Great GatsbyThe 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
More significantly, Hollywood was in the midst of a HUGE "disaster movie" craze (a genre I was as unaccountably besotted with then as kids today are about those Marvel comics things), so, what with the star-studded The Towering Inferno, Airport 1975, and Earthquake all being released in the same year - not to mention that star-leaden swashbuckling sequel to another favorite, 1973s The Three Musketeers - I suspect the glow of the stellar cast assembled for Murder on the Orient Express was perhaps not as dazzling to me then as it most assuredly seems now. More's the pity and my loss entirely, for I would love to have seen this delightful movie with an audience, at the height of its popularity.
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
Happily, I did eventually come to see Murder on the Orient Express many years later (on TV), and, this being the days before the internet, the vast majority of the details surrounding the film were still unknown to me. In fact, my relative ignorance of the film's particulars and wholesale unfamiliarity with Agatha Christie's 1934 mystery novel in general, resulted in a viewing experience that could be summed up as a textbook case of "ignorance is bliss." I was totally swept up in the mystery, baffled by the clues, puzzled by the circumstances, and thrown by the surplus of suspects. It was bliss.
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
Visually sumptuous, superbly-acted, extremely well-written, and highly entertaining; to this day I am amazed at the dexterity with which this particular adaptation is able to tightrope-walk between being a "fun" murder mystery and emotionally-engaging drama. Seeing it again after all these years, it's easy to see how Murder on the Orient Express sparked a renaissance of sorts in movies based on the works of Agatha Christie. But while many of the films that followed were very good, none were able to capture this film's unwavering panache.

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 Yugoslavia, 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
As Poirot’s investigation leads to the unearthing of the details surrounding the kidnapping (a tragedy contributing to the deaths of at least four others) and the mysterious connection each passenger has to the event, Murder on the Orient Express establishes itself as the most engaging, suspenseful, and downright effective of the big screen adaptations of Agatha Christie I've seen.

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.
This melancholy ending to a truly elegant film lends Murder on the Orient Express an air of distinction that places it a mark above the other filmed Poirot mysteries.


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.
Discovery of the Body

PERFORMANCES
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 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
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.
The Oscar-winning designer (for 1980s 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. 
One of the reasons the opening sequence is so effective for me is because the use of newspaper images (all the more terrifying because the eyes never print clearly) brought back scary childhood memories of seeing newspapers reporting the Kennedy assassination, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, the Manson killings, and the hunt for the Zodiac Killer.
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.
As Christie’s Miss Marple mystery, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, drew upon the real-life personal tragedy of actress Gene Tierney, the instigating crime in Murder on the Orient Express bears as obvious similarities to the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping case.

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.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

24 comments:

  1. Hi Ken - have not thought of this film in a long time...what a stellar cast, and sumptuous production design by the brilliant Tony Walton...he was Julie Andrews's first husband, and after their divorce, they remained lifelong close friends. I believe Blake Edwards even collaborated with him on several films. I always thought that was the height of Hollywood sophistication. Walton reminds me of Vincente Minnelli, with his personal flamboyance and visual perfectionism.

    You've reminded me what a great year 1974 was for movies...and it blows my mind that Hollywood was on such a 1920s-1930s nostalgia kick at that moment....all those different genres of films set in the same era...the film version of Mame also comes to mind.

    I am excited to see this one again. My all-time favorite Agatha Christie adaptation is the sexy and scintillating Evil Under the Sun...my least favorite is the unfortunately artless Mirror Crack'd. I do love Peter Ustinov best as Poirot, but Albert Finney is a master of his craft.

    Beautiful essay and gorgeously curated selection of photos! Thanks, Ken, for starting my weekend in a 1930s fever dream!!
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      When I re-watched this movie prior to writing this post, I hadn't seen it in at least a year. So many delights I had forgotten. I've been a fan of Walton's ever since "The Boy Friend" and think his work here is just among his best. in researching this piece i saw a wonderful YouTube clip of Andrews presenting an award to her "ex"...she spoke so sweetly of him. The comparison of Walton to Minnelli is apt to a fault..

      In bringing up the 70s nostalgia craze, I'm sure you're familiar with that 70s fascination with diffused light, fog filters and chemical "flashing" to give nostalgia movies a soft glow. It certainly did wonders for Lucille Ball's close ups in "Mame," but with these HD TVs, it took me a while to realize the edges in this film are Unsworth's work and not my eyes going bad.
      I'm no fan of "The Mirror Crack'd" either (what a letdown with that cast!), but I adore "Evil Under the Sun." A great double-bill.
      Thank you for reading this and for your enthusiastic comments. It's always easy to tell how much you love films in the way you write about them!

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  2. As I'm sure we've discussed before with or mutual love for Evil Under The Sun, as a kid in the 80s getting to see these films on TV whilst plundering my local library and my grandmother's collection of paperbacks made me something of a Christie nut. I don't know what it's like in the US, but it's amazing how many children who enjoyed reading eventually turned on to reading Agatha Christie over here; it was like the next step up from Enid Blyton!

    This has to be my favourite adaptation. It's just a peerless production; lavishly directed, beautifully shot and styled, wonderfully acted and superbly scored by RRB. Albert Finney will always be Hercule Poirot for me and I believe Christie was especially pleased with his performance...albeit she expressed dismay that his moustache was not grander!

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    1. I really have no idea, but it's my guess that over here Harry Potter has unseated Agatha Christie as the movies/books inspiration of youth.
      What you describe sounds like a wonderful introduction to reading and a great author. Being much older, the James Bond craze of the 60s inspired me as a child to read all those rather redundant 9and inappropriate) Ian Fleming James Bond novels.
      I am sorely behind in my Agatha Christie, and as Christmas is coming, I plan on dropping heavy-handed hints (this being one of them) to my partner to "surprise" me with a murder or two this holiday season.
      I've never seen any of the television Poirots, but since Finney was my first and this film charmed me so, like you, I will always see Finney as Christie's great detective (I had no idea what she felt about this film, it amuses me that she thought Finney's moustache was lacking!).
      Thanks, Mark!

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  3. Ken, What a delight to come here this morning and see this movie profiled. My mother used to take me to see any and all movies as a kid (my father having departed when I was four) and this was one of them. I was SEVEN! No wonder I'm so screwy! LOL I could NEVER forget that harrowing opening sequence (which belongs there... it, as you say, plays fair by helping to set up the circumstances of the mystery), the sight of Lauren Bacall holding up a knife and the bedsheets being pulled back to reveal a pair of pajamas with multiple bloody stab wounds in them... I was agog to say the least.

    But I also was exposed to those life-changing elements such as exquisite settings, incredible clothing, all-star casts, effective music and all the other things you pointed out. It's just a sensationally elegant movie with a peerless cast of faces.

    I got to see Jackie's pale blue boarding ensemble & hat at an exhibit a few years ago and it was teensy. What an amazing experience it was to come within inches of that costume. Her beauty in this is searing.

    1974 was indeed an incredible year for movies and many of my favorites landed at that time. It may not have been appropriate for me to be present at some of them, but the impression they made on me and my love of the cinema in indisputable. MOTOE is a movie that one can watch over and over, even if they do know and recall the outcome, because it is filled to the brim with excellent acting, atmosphere and comforting luxury. And like some other great mysteries, sometimes the pleasure isn't solely in finding out whodunnit, but how and why they did!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      You grew up during an especially thrilling era in film! To be exposed to so much in the way of spectacle (disaster films) and cinematic innovation at such an impressionable age, I would wager is a good deal more stimulating than the conveyor belt of cookie-cutter merchandise films young people get today (said grandpa).
      I love that you found the opening sequence to be a harrowing and dramatically indispensable as I...without such a chilling start, the first 30 minutes would feel like a light comedy. Its stylistic departure from the rest of the film applied instant gravitas to what unfolds as a stylish drawing room murder mystery.
      And you're right in saying this film can be enjoyed over and over again. After one ceases needing to have the mystery solved, there are a wealth of excellent, small performances to relish. Like an Altman film, you can cast your eye on any character at any given time and discover something new in the performances.
      Always great to hear from you, Poseidon! Thanks!

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  4. I'm glad you mentioned the very scary opening sequence that conveys the entire backstory of kidnapping and murder through nothing more than yellowed newsprint. Like you, I was freaked out by that scene--but it effectively set up everything that follows. And then we transition into that glorious 1930s luxury.

    Although I don't think anyone can touch David Souchet as Poirot in the TV/PBS adaptations, my favorite Poirot movie is Death on the Nile with Ustinov much more subdued than he was in Evil under the Sun. A rich girl steals her poor cousin's handsome fiancé. When the rich girl is murdered, the obvious suspect is her cousin, but she's been in Poirot's company all evening. So who did it? And how? Worth a look if you haven't seen it.

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    1. Good to hear others find the opening sequence to be both essential and effectively atmospheric. I've always felt those who found it unnecessary displayed a lack of understanding how movies are responsible for establishing a tone.
      A poor fiilmmaker would have started the film with Poirot's arrival on the ferry and in doing so, placed the audience in the position of passively processing expositional dialog, searching for a thread.
      To begin the film by showing the kidnap in shadowy detail is to invite the audience to engage itself immediately (even before Poirot) in trying to fathom what connection these elegant railway travelers have with the grim events they just witnessed. It always felt to me like the difference between an active or passive viewing experience.

      I've never seen the PBS series, my partner has, and says Souchet is indeed a fine Poirot. I own a DVD of "Death on the Nile" and enjoy that one a great deal as well. The costumes are great, Angela Lansbury is marvelous, and it's full of twists and surprises.

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  5. Hi Ken,

    Great read! I'd agree this is undeniably the best version of any Agatha Christie novel with Evil Under the Sun coming in a close second, not just in entertainment value but style and star power. While Sun has elegance and flair the somewhat hazy cinematography of Orient Express give it an almost dream-like quality. What an incredible group of stars all perfectly cast down to the smallest part. One of the great things about this is that I adore every single performer in it, well to be honest I only like York and Perkins but they are both terrific here.

    I know Ingrid won the Oscar and she gives her customarily accomplished performance, though I don't see it as award worthy and her winning probably cost her the award for her truly deserving work in Autumn Sonata a few years on, but for me Betty Bacall is the real scene stealer. Blustery and boorish she is the perfect portrait of the overbearing tourist you want to avoid, she should have been nominated.

    I love Vanessa Redgrave in this, her interview scene is wonderful! Looking great she is loose and saucy, she's always been a tremendous talent but rarely had a chance to do lighthearted material. While there is a mix of tension and flippancy in her role it shows that she was able to throw off the mantle of dramatic import and kick up her heels when necessary. She's so well matched with Sean Connery as well, it's a shame they never co-starred again especially as the script's main focus.

    Ever since my early-probably too early-viewing of Airport I've always adored Jacqueline Bisset. She is at the height of her beauty and her clothes are completely amazing. Her tremulous reading of the high strung countess is aces. Having seen her in person I can verify she is a delicate thing but with a strong energy to her.

    When Lumet met with the producers initially he had a list of whom he wanted to cast in each role, he got his wish in every case but one. Originally Marlene Dietrich was his choice for the imperious Princess Dragomiroff but the producers thought she'd be too camp, I weep a little inside at their shortsightedness for surely she would have been great. Wendy Hiller makes the part her own though with a larger than life performance that is probably the campiest thing in the film so the laugh is on them.

    Richard Widmark, one of my favorite actors, is also first-rate in his small part. Balancing his performance he at first seems just an innocuous businessman but he lets just enough of the bastard show through that it doesn't come as a surprise when his past is revealed. He stated in interviews he took the role simply for the chance to work with the rest of the cast and had a great time doing it. I think the same was true for the rest of the cast and it shows in their easy camaraderie.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Thanks for calling attention to Redgrave in this. She is everything you say and more. She and Connery are a striking couple and it is nice to see her in a lighter, snappier vein than usual.
      Bisset is, of course, exquisite and indeed I too think every part is perfectly and wisely cast (although i would have enjoyed Dietrich, too).
      You probably have the DVD, but if you don't, its very much worth it for the extras. paramount is notorious for just throwing its films in barebones DVD releases, but the extras and cast interviews for this are really worthwhile.

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  6. I'm crazy about Ustinov's interpretation of Poirot, as you said he seems somewhat enchanted with it but then who is more enchanted with themselves that Hercule Poirot? Finney makes a sensational Poirot too, very different from Peter and with an astonishing makeup job that he slept through every morning because he was doing a play at night while this was filming!

    I'm in total agreement with you about the opening sequence being essential, it informs the entire remainder of the film. Without it the rest wouldn't be nearly as involving. The inky photography of it also gives a sense of time and place. It's finely judged in the way it dispenses the story, big blaring headlines for most of the story and then at the tragic conclusion the opportunities for sensationalism over just a small blurb way down the page saying simply "Daisy Slain". I don't know if it was deliberate on Lumet's part but to me it's always seem a subtle observation on the press's coverage of events.

    Even though the film is on the long side it never feels like it because Lumet keeps it humming along nicely with that musical score that sets the scene well without overwhelming the flow of the picture.

    I did see this with my folks upon it's initial release, quite an accomplishment since neither were big moviegoers and even when they went it was usually to radically different kinds of films. My father was much more Deliverance and the like while Mom leaned towards The Sound of Music, Funny Girl etc., as if to highlight the uniqueness of them both being interested in the same picture the theatre was packed with a real cross section of people and ages.

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    1. I'd heard that about Finney and the makeup! It certainly is an amazing transformation.One of the most successful i've seen.
      As you note, it's nice that Finney's and Ustinov's Poirots are so different. One can enjoy both and not need to compare.
      Love your observation of the dwindling sensationalism of the newspaper coverage of the kidnapping! So true and so indicative of what we do with sensationalist tragedies as they lose their momentum.
      I'd love to think that was intentional touch. Nicely noted, Joel!

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  7. Hello Ken, thank you for your excellent review of this classic. I really have to watch "Murder on the Orient Express" again, all though I agree with you that "Evil under the Sun" is more fun. "Evil" is my favourite Agatha Christie movie, followed closely by "Death on the Nile".

    I remember "Orient Express" seemed so stuffy and airless with all those big stars looking so dour locked inside that train in the snow. (I wouldn't be very happy either in the same situation what with the murder, being cold and the late arrival!)

    I remember the film as having a very clever solution at the end but after having seen the film once, all the mystery was gone. I do know who did it in the other Christie films that I have seen but in this one the startling surprise of who did it is so much more exciting than all the scenes leading up to it! Knowing the shocking conclusion has made me pass this film over in favour of the sunnier Christie filmatisations.

    I felt that some of the stars, like Vanessa Redgrave and Albert Finney, were slumming in this very glamorous family entertainment. Others like Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery and Anthony Perkins badly needed a hit movie after several years without one. The performances I enjoyed the most were Ingrid Bergman's, Wendy Hiller's and Lauren Bacall's. They bring some life into the movie and are the reasons I will watch the film again. I liked the comment you wrote about the film being a "thinking man's disaster movie"! This film is a little like the first "Airport" movie with all the passengers sitting and listening to someone explaining the situation.

    Still I'd rather watch this film again than most of of the new films being shown today. Perhaps there won't be any more Agatha Christie films released to the cinemas now that the David Suchet "Poiot" TV series has filmed every single Chrisite book by now?

    Thanks, Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      You make many good points about what many people find appealing in Ustinov's Poirot films over this one. While I appreciate the lack of an overly-jocular tone, and get a kick out of the almost theatrical reliance on dialog, I think there are many who, like you, find the film too static.
      When I was younger, I wasn't as aware of the professional status of some of the stars of the film as I am now. They were all BIG names...a mix from Hollywood's Golden Era (Bacall, Bergman), Britains New Wave (Finney, Rachel Roberts), and the New Hollywood (Bisset, York). Their all ebing worthy of being called stars lent an air of mystery as to who was going to be guilty.
      Alas, as more of these Christie films began being made, they began to take on the air of episodes of "The Love Boat" to me. I half expected Charlene Tilton to show up.
      Lastly, that's an interesting question about Christie ever returning to the cinema after the length and popularly of the TV series.
      Perhaps some level of reinvention along the lines of what has been done with Sherlock Holmes is the only thing that could revive it...like Marvel Comics getting hold of the rights and putting Poirot in a cape and tights.
      Thanks very much, Wille!

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    2. I've now read so much good about this film that I really need to see it again. I'm looking forward to watching Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall and Vanessa Redgrave again. I shouldn't have said that the stars were slumming. I'm beginning to understand that this is miles better than most of the other Christie Movies (the Tony Randalls?). It was so long ago since I saw it last.

      I really do want to see "Murder on the Love Boat" starring Charlene Tilton!

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    3. Hi Wille
      I'm glad you're inspired to see this movie again, but, while different from my own, I think your opinions about the film are very valid. These things are always a matter of personal taste, and Murder on the Orient Express IS a film very much propelled by it's performances and dialog, not so much its action.
      If you see it again any time soon, come back with your impressions.
      Oh, and yes, by the time Tony Randall got to Agatha Christie...

      And I'm not sure, but Charlene Tilton seems a natural for one of those Murder She Wrote episodes. I'm curious but not so interested as to take the time to IMDB it.

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  8. Great post Ken!
    I can remember seeing this one in 1974 with an older audience and you could hear them sighing with nostalgia. As you point out, 1970s Hollywood produced a lot of mainstream commercial stuff as well as the classics like "Chinatown" and "Nashville" we now revere. People tend to forget that "Love Story" and "Airport" were much more popular than anything by Altman or Polanski.
    I think Ingrid Bergman was terrific in this picture and well deserving of an Oscar because she was so funny in a type of role she never played before - a mousy but sly fraud. The fact that her big scene is done in one long take gives it the charge of a theatrical performance - you can how tickled she was to send up a Swedish prig. Bergman was so smart to reject the Wendy Hiller part that Lumet offered her in favor of this comic turn. I love the whole movie but there have been times when I have just watched Bergman's interrogation scene because it never fails to lift my spirits.
    Getting back to the theatricality of the whole movie, I love the way Lumet worked in that toast scene at the very end which is like a curtain call for the fabulous cast (Vanessa Redgrave's wink is priceless!)
    Thanks again for reminding me of so many moments in a wonderful film..

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    1. Thanks, Joe
      Love what you wrote about Bergman's performance. It highlights several qualities tat are often lost when folks discuss the Oscar win and compare the length of her screen time. Your labeling her "a mousy but sly fraud" captures perfectly what is so amusing about the performance. When one sees the film a second time, the awareness of Bergman is an unsophisticated person attempting to pull the wool over Poirot's eyes gives her scene a layer of humor not necessarily evident the first time around. And indeed, the long takes and close up focus on her darting eyes (there's even a marvelous flash of a look she gives Poirot to see if her scam is having the desired effect), compounded with our awareness of her glamorous screen image really makes for a memorable bit worthy of the attention heaped upon it at the time.
      You have a great eye for the small details that make this film special (I love the entrance of York and Bisset with the oranges falling out the cart.
      And how terrific of you to comment on the "curtain call" finale and Redgrave's saucy little wink! Thanks, Joe.

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  9. It had to have been “Murder on the Orient Express” that introduced me to that bewitching detective, Hercule Poirot (what a name!). By now, I’m sure I’ve seen all of the films and most of the television adaptations more than once. I’m quite smitten with the diminutive Belgian and his “little gray cells” (and much prefer Albert Finney and David Suchet to Peter Ustinov, who sometimes annoys me, perhaps because he so often seems “so enchanted by his own performance.”) There are many other fine actors in juicy roles in the film, but I tend to favor Wendy Hiller's turn as the ancient aristocrat. And I can almost smell the decrepit princess’s powdery fragrance whenever she’s on the screen. It’s interesting to me now to notice that when I first saw this film in my youth it was Sean Connery and Michael York who caught my eye, while today it is Jean-Pierre Cassel (father of the handsome and talented Vincent).

    I first saw "Orient Express" in a packed theater in a small town. Not having read any of Agatha Christie's novels, I didn't anticipate the ending at all and went through the film, as each suspect was questioned (and as I’m sure Ms. Christie and Mr. Lumet intended), thinking, "Aha! THAT's the one!" Though the mystery ends in one viewing, this is a film with enough riches that it can be enjoyed time and again. I think much of its power, at least for me, is that it does feel like a real ‘30s film – if very much seen through a 70s lens. And the production design and costume design are simply out of this world. I’m sure it was with this film that the romantic fantasy of traveling on the Orient Express took root in many imaginations, including mine. That is one flawlessly elegant and evocative set!

    You’ve done a brilliant job of articulating the greatness of “Murder on the Orient Express,” Ken and, as happens often when I read your posts on films you and I both like, you’ve put me in the mood to watch it again.

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    1. Hello Eve
      You're the first person to give the great Wendy Hiller her due in this film. She and her dog at that dinner table never fail to crack me up.

      Also, funny you should mention jean-Pierre Cassell...I've seen this movie many many times, but only in this recent viewing did I ever take note of what a strikingly handsome man he is! A real babe, in fact, with the most amazing eyes. Why now and not before is beyond me, but perhaps it's like the mature, discerning palate one acquires over time? Although I've liked Vincent Cassel since "Black Swan" only until I researched this piece did I learn he is Jean-Pierre's son!

      Your recollection of your first viewing ("Aha! THAT's the one!") reminds me of the recurring gag of Martin Balsam being certain after each interview that he has divined the guilty party.
      Thanks for sharing your detailed, evocative memories of this film with us. I daresay the way in which you describe the unique pleasures this film yields to you will certainly put other readers in the mood to watch the film again, as well. Thanks, Eve!

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  10. A brilliant exegesis. And marvelous commentary from everyone else, too.
    And...
    " justice is sometimes hollow reward for the loss of loved ones "
    ... thank you.
    iain (Godfrey Hamilton)

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    1. Hi Gregory
      Thank you very much! I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and I agree, such interesting comments from everyone!

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  11. This was my first Agatha Christie read, I loved it.It was such an awesome book. First I regretted buying it - for some reason or another I thought it would be dry and boring. Thankfully, once I forced myself to actually read it, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Yea, it was an excellent read. The mystery was great - I thought I had it all figured out but it was only towards the end where I started to suspect what was really going on, and that was only because there were loads of clues, and even then I wasn't sure. The reveal at the end was just amazing.

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    1. Hello Neha
      What a wonderful book to be introduced to Agatha Christie! Your experience sounds very much like my own. My biggest problem was that I found the book so engrossing it somewhat interfered with everything else. I really couldn't put it down until the mystery had been solved.

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