Billed as the who’s who in who done it’s, Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974) remains an uber glamorous touchstone in Agatha Christie’s cinematic canon; a lush, often daring soufflé that, on the relatively miniscule budget of $1.3 million managed to become the highest grossing film of the year. Lumet, who had previously tried his hand at making light confections only to miserably fail decided to go all out on this outing, heightening the visual flair of the costumes and sets so that little – if anything – remained accurate from the historical period. Instead Lumet instructed Tony Walton, his costume and set designer to embellish wherever possible. Indeed, Lumet’s edict that the costumes look like costumes rather than clothes harked all the way back to Hollywood’s fashion gurus of the 1930s, who concocted absurdly lavish outfits for the stars to wear. The impracticality in Walton’s design reached its zenith with a feather topped hat worn by Lauren Bacall for her arrival at the Istanbul train station. The hat dramatically sloped to the right making it virtually impossible to photograph the actress from any other angle if her face was to remain visible to the camera.
Murder on the Orient Express is, of course, one of Agatha Christie’s most celebrated detective stories starring her incomparably perceptive Belgium-born master sleuth Hercule Poirot. Christie, an avid writer to satisfy her periodic attacks of boredom, created the portly detective with effete mannerisms, an egg-shaped head and immaculately curled moustache after a casual encounter with a real Belgian refugee who had relocated in England. But even in his heyday Hercule Poirot was a justly celebrated fish out of water. Viewed today he is quite simply the strangest hero to ever grace a thriller, much too fastidious and oddly shaped to be loveable and adored. Yet Hercule Poirot is a man of principle, and this, perhaps remains his greatest appeal for Christie’s readership. Agatha Christie’s intent was never to write a ‘likable’ hero. In fact, despite the longevity of Poirot’s career and his popularity with audiences very little is actually known about his background. Rather he emerges fully formed; a mysterious, somewhat inhuman figure who, not unlike Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, is an egotistical loner, enjoying the camaraderie of a select group of male friends whom he regards as his equals, though rarely appreciating people in general, except perhaps to poke fun and his nose into their private lives.
Agatha Christie, who lived to be one-hundred, and was very much alive at the time Sidney Lumet began planning his film, controlled the film rights to virtually all of her stories. But until Murder on the Orient Express she had been rather staunchly opposed to what Hollywood had done with her work. However, Lumet had a pair of aces in his pocket - the first: producer Richard B. Goodwin who had previously made The Tales of Beatrix Potter – a faithful adaptation of that famed author’s celebrated children’s stories. In fact, it was Goodwin’s daughter’s affinity for Murder on the Orient Express that provided the catalyst to make the movie. So Goodwin exploited his friendship with Lord John Brabourne – cousin to the Queen – who effectively persuaded Agatha Christie in the living room of her Wallingford home to grant him the film rights. Paramount and EMI partnered to provide the financing and Lumet went about casting his picture from a veritable gallery of popular stars from their day.
Owing to a mutual friendship and previous working relationship, the first star to be cast in Murder on the Orient Express was Sean Connery. In truth Lumet had no trouble filling out most of the rest of the cast with his first choices. Only Ingrid Bergman defied his offer to play the Princess Dragomiroff; a part eventually given to Wendy Hiller. Instead Bergman encouraged Lumet to cast her as the dowdy Swedish missionary Miss Greta Ohlsson; a cameo that won her the Best Actress Academy Award. Lumet had sought either Paul Scofield or Alec Guinness for the plum part of Hercule Poirot; perhaps after reading Paul Dehn’s masterful script containing eight pages of solid monologue given by Poirot. Only the most spellbinding of actors could pull off such a feat. Regrettably, neither Guinness nor Scofield were available. So Sidney Lumet fell to his third choice, Albert Finney instead. At thirty-one, Finney was far too young and in too good a physical shape to play the bulbous middle-aged Poirot. Yet under Stuart Freeborn, Ramon Gow, John O’Gorman and Charles E. Parker’s brilliant makeup and hair appliances the transformation of Finney into the very embodiment Agatha Christie’s portly crime fighter was startling. Finney, who was also starring in a west end play at the time filming began at Elstree Studios was literally whisked to the set in an ambulance, being made up in its cab during the 35 min. journey from his townhouse to the studio.
The inspired camerawork of Geoffrey Unsworth was divided between real exterior footage photographed on location in the French Alps and an ingenious combination of studio sets and rear projection to simulate the backdrop of a moving train. Tony Walton’s production design made excellent use of partial train cars from the real Orient Express borrowed from various museums, as well as the construction of several train cars built according to scale back at Elstree. This made it exceedingly difficult to film in, but added to the claustrophobic closed quarter’s atmosphere of a real train.
Murder on the Orient Express begins with the abduction of child Daisy Armstrong from the upstairs bedroom of her wealthy parents’ Long Island estate. Agatha Christie’s prologue ominously paralleled the real life gruesome details surrounding the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby – often referred to as ‘the crime of the century’. For those unfamiliar, Charles Lindbergh had been the first man to cross the Atlantic in a plane; an aviator par excellence at a time when aviation itself was still just a dream reserved for a few elitists. Deemed a national hero, Lindbergh’s life seemed storybook complete. But on March 1, 1932 his twenty month old son was abducted from his crib. After 10 weeks of negotiation a $50,000 ransom was paid in exchange for the child’s safe return which never happened. Six weeks later, the boy’s decomposed remains were discovered by a truck driver in an abandoned field.
For the film Lumet and Unsworth recreated the particulars of Daisy’s abduction with an ominous homage to the Lindbergh case, using a combination of live action images dissolving into frozen stills presumably inserted into tabloid newspaper headlines of the day. Anne V. Coates’ unique editing style expedited this prologue considerably, allowing the story to advance by several years in the span of a few minutes. We are introduced to detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) disembarking a schooner on the Bosphorus. While indulging in the delights of a Turkish café, Poirot is inadvertently reunited with his very old and dear friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. As a director of the line, Bianchi insists that the train’s conductor, Pierre Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel) find drawing room accommodations for Poirot on the trip back to England. After insisting that there are no available spaces, Bianchi orders Pierre to place Poirot in the lower birth of passenger, Hector McQueen’s (Anthony Perkins) compartment; a decision that unsettles the already quirky and very nervous Mr. McQueen.
McQueen’s employer, wealthy American businessman, Ratchett (Richard Widmark) is a cold-hearted blowhard who bosses McQueen and his valet, Beddoes (Sir John Gielgud) to exhaustion. Ratchett also attempts to whet Poirot’s appetite for crime solving by offering him a hefty $15,000 retainer to get to the bottom of a series of death threats he has received. The offer is moot to Poirot, who openly tells Ratchett he only takes cases of interest to him “…and frankly my interest in yours is dwindling.” Their conversation does, however, conclude on a note of foreboding mystery. For upon being plunged into relative darkness while going through a tunnel, Poirot suddenly realizes that Ratchett has seemingly vanished into thin air.
The first length of the journey is uneventful. Poirot and Bianchi enjoy eavesdropping on the other passenger’s conversations while in the dining car, with Poirot blissfully declaring in jest, “Thank God we are no longer young,” after witnessing a tiff between the Countess Andrenji (Jacqueline Bisset) and her husband (Michael York). That evening the Orient Express is barred by an avalanche of snow. Stalled on the tracks the guests retire to their compartments to await the plow. But in the middle of the night Poirot is stirred by a minor disturbance in the next compartment which he deems a nuisance at best. Unfortunately, Beddoes discovers Ratchett’s body repeatedly stabbed the next morning. Determined to quell any undue notoriety for the line, Bianchi implores Poirot to solve the case.
Enlisting the help of Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris), Poirot and Bianchi corral the suspects in the dining car for interrogation. There, Poirot soon learns that Ratchett was not who he claimed to be but a gangster named Cassetti who masterminded the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong because Colonel Armstrong had run away with his wife, Sonja Arden Armstrong – Daisy’s mother. Due to grief sustained at the loss of her daughter, a pregnant Sonja went into premature labor, giving birth to a stillborn child before she too died. Paulette, an upstairs maid wrongfully accused of the kidnapping committed suicide and, finally, besought by his overwhelming grief the colonel also took his own life. Cassetti's accomplice was arrested and executed but Cassetti escaped with the ransom and was never apprehended.
Armed with this information Poirot attempts to piece together his case. But against who? The mystery is baffling until Poirot realizes he is not dealing with one murderer, but a conspiracy to commit murder in which virtually every passenger onboard partook. Harboring a deep affection for Sonja, Hector was also the son of the District Attorney who prosecuted the case. Beddoes had been Colonel Armstrong's army batman as well as the family’s ever-devoted butler while Colonel Arbuthnott (Sean Connery) was a close personal friend from the war years. Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave) used to be Sonja Armstrong's social secretary while the Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) is godmother to the Armstrong children. Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts), currently the princess’ lady in waiting, is actually the Armstrong’s ex-cook and the Countess Helena Andrenyi and her husband are Sonja Armstrong's sister and brother-in-law respectively. Greta Ohlsson had been Daisy’s nursemaid and Antonio Foscarelli, now a used car salesman, once the Armstrong’s chauffeur. Michel was Paulette’s father.
But the real instigator of the crime, the one who amassed this motley crew of coconspirators and arranged for Beddoes to drug Cassetti with valerian so he would be unable to defend himself against their orchestrated assault is Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), the sassy, gum-chewing sensualist whose greatest pleasure derived from being the first to plunge the dagger into Cassetti’s heart. You see, Hubbard was actual Arden, Sonja Armstrong’s mother. Poirot, whose forthright nature might otherwise prevent him from partaking in such a diabolical group assassination, is reluctantly forced to concede that under these perverse circumstances a horrible murderer has himself been horribly murdered; yielding to the most unspoiled form of justice. Retiring to his room to prepare a fictional statement for the authorities, that a Mafioso hit man has taken revenge on Cassetti for some undisclosed crime, Poirot quietly observes as the conspirators toast their good fortune and Mrs. Hubbard one by one for making their sweet revenge possible.
Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps Agatha Christie’s most adept murder mystery. Certainly, it remains a rarity within her own literary canon – a rare instance where the criminals are not brought to justice in any traditional sense but rather exonerated for their vengeance because it too seems ironically justified. Christie, who adored travelling, particularly by train, dedicated this book to her second husband with whom she spent many happy trips. Still regarded as one of the undisputed masters in the genre of mystery fiction, the most fascinating aspect of Agatha Christie’s prose remains her intuitive understanding of both the delicacies and intricacies of human relationships. Her legacy is ultimately one of expert craftsmanship in telling a very good story. This film - unlike many based on her literary genius - lives up to the weighty expectations of the novel.
Screenwriter Paul Dehn died shortly after the film’s triumphant premiere – a pity indeed, because Dehn’s craftsmanship on Murder on the Orient Express cannot be underestimated – particularly in light of some more recent attempts to retell this classic story that have miserably failed. No, Dehn’s economy and wit are unparalleled herein; his affinity for Agatha Christie’s prose irreverently preserved, if ever so slightly tweaked to accommodate the language of cinema itself. Albert Finney’s central performance as the fastidious and easily exacerbated Belgian crime solver is exactly as Christie herself has described – although at the time of the release Christie herself thought Poirot’s moustache not quite smart enough. Despite this minor quibbling, the author was pleased overall with the final result and why not?
Murder on the Orient Express remains – as Sidney Lumet had hoped – a movie soufflé, ably abetted by Richard Rodney Bennett’s melodious underscoring. Reportedly composer Bernard Hermann was outraged by Bennett’s contribution when he first saw the film, believing that the composer had betrayed the suspense elements of the story by writing lush orchestrations including a waltz for the train itself. With all due respect to Hermann, he was missing the point of Bennett’s contribution and of the film itself. Murder on the Orient Express is not a ‘who done it?’ per say, but rather a ‘how and why did they do it?’ – a light-hearted deception on top of a deception. In the final analysis, capturing the essence of that ruse must have pleased Agatha Christie immensely.
However, we are not at all pleased by the short shrift given this classy catalogue title on DVD. For shame Paramount! This transfer is heavily marred by age related dirt, scratches and other debris that readily distracts. Worse, Geoffrey Unsworth’s subtly lit cinematography registers in muddy, faded hues with piggy pink flesh tones and a general loss of fine detail, rendering the entire image a softly focused mess. Colors are dull and contrast seems very weak, particularly during night scenes. On the whole there is nothing to delight herein, except perhaps the new 5.1 Dolby Digital that at least manages to compliment Richard Rodney Bennett’s luxurious score. Extras are also a reason to rejoice. There are featurettes on Agatha Christie and a fairly comprehensive making of documentary divided into shorter featurettes with interviews from many of the principle cast and crew. Bottom line: not recommended for its transfer quality, but still worth a look for its panache and brilliant ensemble acting.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)