Saturday, 1 August 2015

2nd Annual British Invaders - "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974)

Today’s post I submit as part of the 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.
I am of the opinion that Agatha Christie is one of the finest writers who ever lived. She is the best-selling author of all time, behind only the Bible and William Shakespeare. Never have her books gone out of print and she remains just as popular today as she ever was – she is the undeniable Queen of Crime.

The interesting thing about Christie’s work though is that it is very difficult to bring to the screen. Some of her whodunits are, at their heart, dialogue-driven books with a detective questioning each of the suspects in turn as he or she searches for means, motive, and opportunity. So, it is not surprising that the earliest adaptations of Christie’s novels didn’t turn out so well – though I am myself rather partial to Rene Clair’s 1945 And Then There Were None and of course the brilliant Witness for the Prosecution (1957). So, it isn’t surprising that Christie was hesitant about seeing an adaptation of one of her most famous novels Murder on the Orient Express when producers John Brabourne and Richard B. Goodwin approached the authoress. However, Christie did give her blessing on the film and the result, the 1974 film of the same name, is a remarkable bit of cinema history, and perhaps the best adaptation of Christie’s work to the big screen.

Murder on the Orient Express finds famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) returning to England from Istanbul aboard the Orient Express. Frightened businessman Ratchett (Richard Widmark) is also traveling on the Calais Coach and approaches Poirot for protection fearing his life. The detective turns down the proposition and the following morning Ratchett is found brutally murdered. Anyone traveling in the car is suspect. Who is responsible?

The all-star cast of Murder on the Orient Express
The first thing which anyone watching Murder on the Orient Express is likely to notice about the film is the impressive cast list. Albert Finney is joined by (to name a few): Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York. As I noted above, Christie’s work – this novel in particular – is centralized around interview sessions between detective and suspect. So, it is imperative that the cast make the repetitive actions interesting to watch. And I must say that the distinguished cast exceeds brilliantly. I truly cannot find fault with any of the performers in the film; each of them are cast in roles which play to their strengths. Lauren Bacall is a pleasure to watch as the loud, slightly obnoxious American tourist; Sean Connery has great screen presence as the haughty English colonel; and Anthony Perkins is a bit of a Psycho homage as the neurotic, mother-obsessed secretary. Top honors though must go to Ingrid Bergman who plays against type as a Swedish missionary. Bergman’s performance is, simply put, magnificent, especially since she is able to convey so much in one short, five-minute scene with Albert Finney. She deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

It has become accepted recently to put down this film especially in light of the recent (and brilliant) television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot starring David Suchet as Poirot. But, frankly, I cannot understand the criticism. Murder on the Orient Express is a handsomely-mounted picture and Albert Finney truly takes center-stage as Christie’s little Belgian detective. Finney’s interpretation of the detective was the first that I saw and I think that I shall forever associate Finney with Poirot. His mannerisms and demeanor are, slightly different than the soft-spoken character of Christie’s novels (by comparison Finney is far more theatrical and he gesticulates wildly at times), but he holds the viewer’s attention with ease. The final summation of the case – which runs nearly half an hour – is placed entirely on Finney’s shoulders and he holds your rapt attention. Finney also has brilliant comedic timing which play up some of the detective’s eccentricities. Bemoaning the poor food at a restaurant, Finney’s Poirot tears up a menu and pours his coffee into a nearby plant and later, after interviewing Jean-Pierre Cassel who has tearfully discussed the death of his wife and child, Poirot suggests moving onto less-distressing matters only to bring up the murder seconds later. Finney was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and the nomination was certainly warranted.

Cast aside, Murder on the Orient Express succeeds in generating atmosphere. The movie is, for the most part, steeped in a world of high society. The recreated Orient Express is opulent in the extreme, but grandeur is not the only feeling which the film can generate. The prologue depicting the media circus which surrounded the kidnapping of the Armstrong baby (which turns out to have a great impact on the case) is quite disquieting; the scenes tinted yellow to mirror the yellow journalism which persisted during the era.

A word must also be said for Richard Rodney Bennett’s original score. His original waltz which plays as the train pulls out of the station is inspired. It is a beautiful and jazzy score (also Oscar-nominated) which really underscores the film in a tremendous way.

Murder on the Orient Express was the first in a series of Agatha Christie adaptations: 1978 saw the release of Death on the Nile starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot. The film also featured an all-star cast with such luminaries as Bette Davis, David Niven, and Angela Lansbury on hand to play suspects. Lansbury returned to play Christie’s detective Miss Marple in 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Kim Novak. And in 1982, Ustinov played Poirot once more in Evil under the Sun opposite Diana Rigg, Roddy McDowell, and James Mason. But, none of these adaptations could eclipse Murder on the Orient Express. It is a compelling film to watch and is, to this day, one of my favorites. I cannot think of another whodunit which has done better. Even Agatha Christie, notorious for not liking adaptations of her books, acknowledged that the movie was a genuinely fine effort. 

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