Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Produced by John Brabourne, Richard Goodwin
Screenplay by Paul Dehn, based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth
Edited by Anne V. Coates
Production Design by Tony Walton
Art Direction by Jack Stephens
Costume and Wardrobe by Brenda Dabbs
Music by Richard Rodney Bennett
Paramount DVD – library (2:11)
I haven’t read one in years, but as I recall, most of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels are far more plot-driven than character-driven. The character of her detectives (usually Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot), however, is solidly built and shaped over the course of several novels; we know them well. What the Christie novels often lack (again, if memory serves me correctly) is a consistent atmosphere, which is often easier to pull off visually, especially in plot-driven stories. (Christie fans, please do not send me hate mail. I think she is wonderful and do not mean to imply that she isn’t. But cinema – by its nature – can obviously show and sustain images easily in a way that’s constantly before our eyes.)
Murder on the Orient Express is superbly crafted with detailed elegance. Much of the credit must go to costume designer Tony Walton and wardrobe head Brenda Dabbs. (The film was nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar, losing to The Great Gatsby. The competition that year was fierce, with Chinatown, Daisy Miller, and The Godfather: Part II also in the running.) The art direction by Jack Stephens is also impressive, even though most of the film takes place on a train.
What most audiences don’t realize is that director Sidney Lumet is really giving them a very basic story filled with terrific actors. The plot is simple: wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark) is found stabbed to death in his cabin.
Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) interviews the witnesses, brings everyone together, and pronounces the guilty party. Very simple. And truth be told, the actors playing the characters are more interesting than the characters themselves, which is part of the fun in watching the film.
In addition to Poirot, we have detective’s friend and owner of the train line (Martin Balsam), Ratchett (Widmark), his secretary and translator (Anthony Perkins, 1st photo between text), his manservant (John Gielgud), a chatty American widow (Lauren Bacall, 2nd), a Russian royal princess (Wendy Hiller, 3rd), her German maid (Rachel Roberts), a Hungarian diplomat (Michael York) and his wife (Jacqueline Bisset), a British Indian Army officer (Sean Connery, 4th), an English teacher (Vanessa Redgrave), a Swedish missionary (Ingrid Bergman, 5th), an Italian-American car salesman (Denis Quilley) and an American theatrical agent (Colin Blakely). Oh, and let’s not forget the French conductor of the car (Jean-Pierre Cassel).
I mentioned early in this review that I haven’t read an Agatha Christie novel in many years, but for quite awhile I read them non-stop, covering at least half of the Hercule Poirot novels. Truth be told, as much as it’s lauded, I never thought Murder on the Orient Express was one of the better ones. Telling you why would be getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll refrain, but I will say that the ending of Lumet’s film version is a bit more enjoyable and contains a nice epilogue that’s missing from the book. The film is a fun ride and although it takes awhile before we can actually leave the station, the time goes by quickly. Although it’s not one of my favorite movies, I’ll certainly watch it again, mainly to see these extraordinary actors doing what they do best.
Out of all these marvelous performances, I’m not exactly sure how Ingrid Bergman was singled out to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, much less win. Don’t get me wrong; her performance is fine, but she’s on a train filled with amazing performances. (I would’ve given the Oscar to Wendy Hiller, but Bergman’s impressive unbroken five-minute monologue probably won her the trophy.)
One thing I have changed my mind about since I first saw the film over 25 years ago is the performance of Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. Although he was far from what I’d imagined for the Belgian detective, I always enjoyed the Peter Ustinov films (Death on the Nile , Evil Under the Sun  and Appointment with Death , as well as three made-for-TV movies). I felt the David Suchet performances on TV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013) were far superior and more authentic to the character. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I initially saw Finney’s performance, but I remember being utterly disappointed. How wrong I was. Finney is superb and stands as the only actor portraying Poirot to ever receive an Oscar nomination for the role.
Will that change? A remake of Murder on the Orient Express is scheduled for November 22, 2017. That version will be directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. It also stars Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and many, many more. As impressive as the new cast is, I can’t imagine it surpassing the 1974 ensemble. We shall put the little grey cells to the test and see…
Photos: Dreams are What Le Cinema is For, Waupaca County News