US Release Date: 11-24-1974
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
- Albert Finney, as
- Hercule Poirot
- Lauren Bacall, as
- Mrs. Hubbard
- Martin Balsam, as
- Ingrid Bergman, as
- Jacqueline Bisset, as
- Countess Andrenyi
- Jean-Pierre Cassel, as
- Sean Connery, as
- Col. Arbuthnot
- John Gielgud, as
- Wendy Hiller, as
- Princess Dragomiroff
- Anthony Perkins, as
- Vanessa Redgrave, as
- Mary Debenham
- Rachel Roberts, as
- Richard Widmark, as
- Michael York, as
- Count Andrenyi
- Colin Blakely, as
- George Coulouris, as
- Denis Quilley, as
- Vernon Dobtcheff, as
- Jeremy Lloyd, as
- John Moffatt as
- Chief Attendant
Ingrid Bergman and Albert Finney in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.
Prolific mystery writer Agatha Christie was reportedly disappointed in all of the previous movie adaptations of her work and so initially refused the proposition to film this one. According to legend it was only after the studio sought the intervention of Lord Mountbatten that she reluctantly agreed. Her opinion of the finished work was a grudging appreciation, except for one aspect; her famous detective's mustache. According to her biographer, she said, "I wrote that he had the finest mustache in England — and he didn't in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn't he?"
The story is set on the titular train. Hercules Poirot (Albert Finney) is aboard, returning home to England. One morning he wakes up in his berth to find that the train has become trapped in the snow and that Mr. Ratchett, the wealthy American businessman in the cabin next to his, has been stabbed to death. Monsieur Bianchi, a director of the train line and an old friend of Poirot's seeks his help in unmasking the murderer. The suspects are the other passengers and their servants. Ratchett's body and cabin are overflowing with clues (perhaps too many?) and it's up to the little Belgian detective to sort through them and unmask the killer.
Finney is nearly unrecognizable as the fastidious Poirot. His hair is slicked down, his mustache twirled, and his accent thick, but the little grey cells are as sharp as ever. Although there's almost no action and most of the film is set in the claustrophobic confines of the train, this is a demanding part and Finney excels in it. His final summation scene where he gathers all of the suspects together to explain his solution to the murder, filled 8 pages in the script and takes up nearly 30 minutes of the film's running time. Compounding the difficulty of that scene is the fact that it required more shots than could be captured in a single take in the cramped set and so it had to be shot several times to capture all the required angles.
The suspects on the train are all played by famous actors. Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, and Michael York are the headlining stars as the cast of colorful characters. We learn just enough about them and their backstory to suspect them all in turn. Each one of them gets a moment to shine as he/she are interviewed by Poirot. Bergman won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her small part and for really only one scene. Her interrogation is shot in one extended take that runs for nearly 5 minutes without break. Her character is Swedish, but after spending so many years in English speaking countries, she required a vocal coach to recapture the accent of her birth. The big name cast not only all deliver great performances, but they add to the fun simply by their presence. The only person director Sydney Lumet was unable to get was Marlene Dietrich for the part of Princess Dragomiroff, but the studio thought the idea too campy and so it went to Wendy Hiller instead.
As with all Agatha Christie stories, the solution to the mystery is rather ingenious. You may or may not see that solution ahead of time, but it hardly matters. The real joy in her work are the questions rather than the answer. Despite featuring a murder, there's never any sense of danger, nor any real action, and yet the story remains captivating. There's a dose of humor injected here and there that keeps things from getting too heavy handed. Some of it provided by Mrs. Hubbard, the caustic American, played by Lauren Bacall. And Finney is a delight as the eccentric Poirot.
The success of this film, costing just $1.4 million, but earning $36 million in North America, lead to several other all star Agatha Christie adaptations.This would be the only one to star Albert Finney. Peter Ustinov would take over the part starting with 1978's Death on the Nile. Christie wouldn't live to see those later adaptations. She died in 1976 at the grand old age of 85, perhaps still disapproving of the films of her books, but satisfied that this one at least came close to matching her writing.
Lauren Bacall in Murder on the Orient Express
Unfortunately, I once caught the end of Murder on the Orient Express on television, and so knew already who murdered Ratchett. Sure, it can be fun watching a murder mystery, trying to discover the killer along with the investigator, but it can also be fun watching it from the other side, as the murderer lies and squirms under Poirot’s questioning. I enjoyed watching the actors' performances as Poirot interviewed the suspects and made connections between several of them and the death of a little girl from five years earlier.
Murder on the Orient Express was published in 1934. The details of the little girl’s death, shown in the opening of the movie, are clearly based on the 1932 kidnapping and murder of 20 month old Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. who, like the child in the movie, was kidnapped and killed even after the ransom was paid. The much talked about crime fascinated millions including, obviously, Agatha Christie.
Although a murder has occurred and a killer is among them, the movie contains some wonderful light moments. As Scott wrote, Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Hubbard provides some humor. When asked how she knew there was a man in her darkened room with her eyes shut, she replies, “Because I've enjoyed very warm relations with both my husbands.” “With your eyes closed?” she is asked, before explaining, “That helped.”
John Gielgud, playing a snobby butler just as he would several years later in Arthur (1981), provides some laughs here as well. When his bunkmate looks down from the upper birth, he enquires of the book Gielgud is reading, “Is it about sex?” In true Hobson form, he responds, “No, it's about 10:30, Mister Foscarelli.” In fact, you can enjoy this movie for the cast alone.
I laughed when Tony Perkins is interviewed and speaks of having mother issues. You cannot watch that scene without thinking of his role in Psycho (1960). For a movie buff, it was quite fascinating when Lauren Bacall, the former wife of Humphrey Bogart, was seated next to Ingrid Bergman, Bogies co-star from Casablanca (1942), arguably the best movie ever made. This was Sean Connery’s second theatrical trip on the Orient Express. He first rode on it in From Russia with Love (1963) playing the well-traveled James Bond.
Murder on the Orient Express has much to enjoy but it takes a little while to get going. We have the obligatory character introduction scenes early on and the director let the camera linger on the outside of the train a bit too often. In Scott’s review, he starts the plot description with the discovery of a murder onboard the titular train. What Scott did not mention was that it does not happen until a third of the way into the movie. However, once Poirot walks into the compartment and announces “Touch nothing.” The game is afoot and the movie remains enthralling to its conclusion.
And the killer is...
Murder on the Orient Express boasts one of the most impressive all-star casts ever assembled for a motion picture. The fun in watching an Agatha Christie movie, apart from trying to guess the murderer's identity, is in watching the famous faces of the ensemble bring her colorful characters to life. No one in the cast disappoints. Agatha Christie mysteries share similar plots: a bunch of strangers (or are they?) find themselves in an isolated location, a murder takes place, and Hercule Poirot (or Miss Marple) must gather clues, interrogate suspects, and in the last scene, expose the killer. It's a winning formula that's easily translated from page to screen.
I loved Peter Ustinov as the funny little Belgian detective in Death on the Nile. However, after watching Albert Finney's take on Hercule Poirot, I have to agree with Scott that Finney's is the better performance. As delightful as Ustinov is in the role he doesn't bury himself in the part like Finney does here. Finney completely disappears, becoming the insufferable but ingenious detective with the oddly slicked down hair and waxed mustache.
Eric mentioned that the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong was clearly based on the Lindbergh case. That's not the only thing Christie took from the headlines. The setting was likewise based on a true incident; a westbound Orient Express train that was stranded in the snow for five days in 1929. (Although there was no record of a murder taking place.)
Nostalgia was just becoming a booming business in 1974 and director Sidney Lumet includes several details to appeal to America's fondness for looking back on a more innocent era. Near the beginning of the movie, in the scene in a restaurant in Istanbul, the orchestra plays the sentimental favorite “Red Sails In The Sunset”, which both Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo had recorded in 1935. They also play “On The Good Ship Lollipop”. Later on in the movie Hercule Poirot sings a few lines of “Animal Crackers In My Soup”. Shirley Temple was, indeed, the biggest movie star in the world in 1935. Poirot proves himself a fan of popular culture another time as well when he responds to Mrs. Hubbard by saying, “Some of us, in the words of the divine Greta Garbo, want to be alone.”
Ingrid Bergman is good but I'm not so sure she deserved to win her third Oscar for this small part. As Scott said, it really consists of just one extended scene done in one long take during which the camera rarely leaves her face. Granted she is brilliant in it. In her late fifties at the time she remained quite strikingly beautiful, still very capable of giving great face for the cameras. But an Oscar for one five minute scene?
Poor Lauren Bacall, sure she steals a few scenes here but she never got her due from Hollywood. This was the third movie she had made in which another actress, with less screen time, would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The other times were Claire Trevor in Key Largo (1948) and Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind (1956). Bacall, who passed away last summer a few weeks shy of what would have been her 90th birthday, received just one Oscar nomination in her long and illustrious career. It was for playing Barbra Streisand's mother in The Mirror has Two Faces (1996). She lost to Juliette Binoche in The English Patient. May she rest in peace.
As both my brothers already made perfectly clear, Murder on the Orient Express ranks among the very finest of the many cinematic adaptations of the mystery novels written by the prolific Agatha Christie. In fact, I think it ranks among the handful of greatest whodunits ever filmed. And last but not least the Oscar nominated period costumes by Tony Walton are to die for.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1974)