Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees reviewed this Agatha Christie classic in the billiard room with a lead pipe...but she has an ironclad alibi.
Agatha Christie's most perfect crime.
Remember the golden age of cinema, when movies were about glamour, excitement, adventure, and above all else, entertainment? When bias-cut satin and suavely angled fedoras dominated the screen? When actors were Stars, larger-than-life personalities whose very names in the opening credits brought applause? Well, we don't have to look as far back as one might think to rediscover such an era. Only, in fact, as far back as 1974, when director Sidney Lumet assembled an all-star cast in a good old-fashioned big-screen spectacle. Based on the novel by Agatha Christie, one of the most popular writers of all time, Murder on the Orient Express is an enjoyable throwback to the large-scale entertainments of classic Hollywood.
Facts of the Case
Skullduggery is afoot on the Orient Express. Among the glamorous, exotic, and mysterious passengers on board for the journey from Istanbul to Calais is a future corpse—and his murderer (or murderess). Fortunately, famed detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney, Eric Brockovich) is also aboard, and when death strikes, the brilliant Belgian takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of the murder. His investigation turns up a link to a five-year-old kidnapping case, but with a train full of suspects—and red herrings galore—determining the identity of the killer will take all his considerable powers of deduction.
Murder on the Orient Express is a prime example of the they-don't-make-'em-like-they-used-to film. It's rare if not unheard of these days to see a good old-fashioned mystery given big-screen treatment; crime dramas we have aplenty, and suspense thrillers, but not this kind of classic plot. The story unfolds according to tradition: We meet the dramatis personae, who are all assembled together in one setting; a murder occurs; an investigation takes place, with interrogations of all the suspects; and the detective finally assembles the entire company in order to relate his conclusions and reveal the culprit. Perhaps because this plot is so familiar and thus predictable, we don't see it very often these days. In addition, since the action is confined to the train (apart from the early flashback sequence that familiarizes us with the kidnapping), this kind of story could easily become boring and stagey in unskilled hands.
Fortunately, Lumet is both skilled and inventive in keeping this nearly self-contained world interesting. He is ably assisted by the witty screenplay by Paul Dehn, which effectively combines humor with intrigue, and he makes effective use of visual variety and movement (cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth deserves special mention for his excellent work both in the close quarters of the train set and in the spectacular tracking shots of the moving train). Thus, although the plot may not hold many surprises (except for the dramatic revelation of whodunnit), it remains very satisfying, especially when the suspects are so interesting in themselves.
The list of suspects could hardly be more illustrious and entertaining than those gathered here: golden-age great Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca), who won an Oscar for her role as the neurotic Swedish missionary; living legend Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not), hilarious as the loud-mouthed American whom everyone avoids; Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End), the fresh-faced love interest of Sean Connery (The Rock), who is the very essence of the British stiff upper lip; grande dame Wendy Hiller, as a haughty Russian princess with the perpetual manner of having swallowed a lemon; Michael York (La Femme Musketeer) and Jacqueline Bisset as an exotic, gorgeous young couple from foreign parts; Sir John Gielgud (Julius Caesar) as the dry-witted butler to caustic "businessman" Richard Widmark; and Anthony Perkins (Psycho), an ingenuous young fellow with—no kidding—a bit of a mother fixation. (I only wish the featurette indicated whose brilliant idea it was to allude to Perkins's most famous role in this way.) These famous faces seem to be having a grand time, swanking around in their fabulous deco costumes and deploying different foreign accents at each other, and it's just as much fun for us to watch them.
Prying into the closely kept secrets of this diverse assortment of stars is Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, brilliant, eccentric, vain, and with a distinctly quirky sense of humor, especially considering the somber circumstances. Some of my friends have expressed their disapproval of Finney's characterization of Poirot, and I must admit that I too find that his interpretation of Christie's character is not the Poirot I picture when I read the books; both physically and in manner he is bigger and more exaggerated than David Suchet, my favorite Poirot and the actor I feel best embodies Christie's character. Nevertheless, in his own idiosyncratic way, Finney's Poirot is highly entertaining and very distinctive. Just as he did in The Dresser, Finney goes through a remarkable physical transformation to play a character significantly older than himself; viewers who have seen Finney in other roles will probably not even recognize him here, so thoroughly has he sunk himself into the character. His Poirot will strike some as over the top, but amid all the colorful suspects, he has the virtue of standing apart and making himself even more memorable than they are. It's also a great deal of fun to watch him at work—calculating, laying little traps for suspects, exulting when his predictions are fulfilled. Throughout his investigation, and through the long series of interrogations, Finney's performance keeps us entertained and engaged in the story.
Audio for this release has been remixed into a new Dolby 5.1 Surround track, which is of remarkably fine quality. Sir Richard Rodney Bennett's spirited musical score sounds so vibrant and clear that you'll think the orchestra is playing live for you in the same room, and dialogue is likewise bold, free of distortion or corruption. For purists, the original mono track is also provided, and this track is likewise pristine in clarity. If only the visual transfer had been rendered with such care and attention. There's a generous amount of black-and-white speckling throughout the film, as well as substantial haziness around sources of light. Color is rich, but the picture could really have benefited from some of the cleaning up that distinguishes the new audio mix.
The film is crowned by a fine new featurette, "Making Murder on the Orient Express." At nearly 50 minutes long, this substantial extra boasts interviews with many of the key players involved in the making of the film: director Lumet, both producers, composer Bennett, production and costume designer Tony Watson, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, and Sean Connery, as well as Mathew Prichard (Christie's grandson) and film historian Nicholas Meyer. The only obvious absentee here is Albert Finney, whose presence is indeed missed, but with so many others here to offer their reminiscences and inside information, it seems greedy to ask for more. This retrospective is divided into four parts: "All Aboard," about getting the film off the ground; "The Ride," about casting and other early decisions; "The Passengers," about the experience of making the film; and "End of the Line," about the film's completion, release, and personal legacy for those involved. There's a lot of fascinating material here, from Lumet's first choice for the role of Poirot to the reaction of famed composer Bernard Hermann to the lively, unconventional theme for the Express itself. We even get an all too brief glimpse of Finney in the early stages of his Poirot makeup, so that we can see just how dramatic his transformation is. Be warned, however, that this feature assumes that the viewer has seen the film and knows the solution to the mystery; if you don't want to have the plot spoiled for you, you should certainly postpone viewing it until after you've seen the film.
A much briefer featurette (less than ten minutes long), "Agatha Christie: A Portrait" features Prichard's reminiscences about his grandmother and her invention of the character of Poirot. The proliferation of film clips becomes annoying, and although the featurette has nice sentimental appeal, it's not very informative.
Visually lavish, with the kind of attention to production and costume design that characterized the golden age of cinema, Murder on the Orient Express is pure entertainment. Even with a controversial interpretation of Hercule Poirot, it's one of the best examples of a big-screen Agatha Christie adaptation to date—it was, after all, nominated for six Oscars—and it's doubtful that we'll ever see its like again. With its roster of legendary talent and its clever screenplay, this is one of the most enjoyable murders you're ever likely to encounter.
The distinguished detective Monsieur Poirot has made the question of guilt crystal clear. The court bows to his judgment. Case dismissed!
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• "Agatha Christie: A Portrait" Featurette
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