Murder on the Orient Express: ‘The Grand Hotel’ of murder mysteries is a grand tribute to the golden age of Hollywood

Murder on the Orient Express(1974) , based on Agatha Christie’s famous novel, is a glossy, star studded murder mystery directed by Sidney Lumet. The film boasts an all-star cast consisting of Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall and others, topped off by a highly enjoyable performance by Albert Finney as detective Hercules Poirot.

When the venerable  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios(MGM) – which once boasted It Had ‘More Stars Than There Are in Heaven’  – unveiled it’s super production The Grand Hotel in 1932, it became a trendsetter, that continue to influence movie making even today. The concept of the film was very simple: the studio gathered together all it’s topmost stars – each playing characters from different professions, nationalities and backgrounds and, having their own set of problems –  in an exotic location, and then let the drama play out. The film would eventually end with each character somehow resolving their problems and leaving the place on  happy note. For The Grand Hotel, MGM assembled all it’s big stars of the day: Garbo, Joan Crawford, The Barrymores, Wallace Beery etc. The film was a box office smash;  won a best picture Oscar and spawned several remakes; but most of all , the basic concept was repeated in several films over the years. The formula had a huge resurgence in the 1960’s and 70’s, when it was applied to films of all genres: Romantic dramas, Comedies, Disaster films, War films, Westerns ( think of VIP’s, How the West was Won, The Longest Day, It’s mad ad mad World, Airport, Yellow Rolls Royce, The Poseidon Adventure )  and finally, with the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, to Murder mysteries. Here, the luxurious Orient Express, that travels from Istanbul to Calais, is The Grand Hotel surrogate, populated by stars from different generations and nationalities. Murder on the Orient Express, produced by John Bradbourne & Richard Goodwin and directed by Sidney Lumet, is what one would call a classy, A list production. The film is specifically designed to invoke the glamour and nostalgia of the golden days of Hollywood studio filmmaking, particularly in it’s lavish, outlandish production and Costume design, both done by the eminent Tony Walton; and in it’s glossy color photography, thanks to the great cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth; and an excellent orchestral score, created by British composer Richard Rodney Bennett. The film was adapted to the screen by writer Paul Dehn , with some unaccredited help from the eminent playwright Anthony Shaffer.

Then there is the star cast of the film.The filmmakers chose to cast the picture with, either stars from Hollywood’s golden age or, the more contemporary, classy British stage and screen actors, completely eschewing the (American) modern, method actors that were populating the Hollywood films of the time. The film itself is designed to be less than a thriller, more a a glossy, whimsical Drama on the lines of The Thin Man film series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. as well as Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall, where the pleasure is in watching the  funny, insolent interplay between characters\stars during the process of criminal investigation rather than the solving of the actual mystery. There is Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall: two sparkling stars from the golden age, mainly associated with the ultimate Hollywood film detective star Humphrey Bogart– Bergman was his great screen lover in Casablanca; Bacall was Bogart’s great reel & real life love. The British contingent is lead by Sean Connery, then one of the biggest stars in the world , thanks to his success as the British super spy James Bond. But the truly inspired choice of casting was British Stage & screen stalwart Albert Finney as Detective Hercules Poirot

Director Lumet, who came from theater and, has previously directed ensemble dramas like 12 Angry Young Men, seems a perfect choice to bring this novel to screen. But he was always a gritty,minimalist filmmaker, who never indulged in flashy spectacle of any kind, whether in the setting, production values or the presentation of stars. It’s also interesting to note that he made this film in between two of his most down and dirty, New-Hollywood, New York crime dramas , Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, both starring Al Pacino. So this film is quite a stretch in that regard for Lumet, even though it was a very tightly budgeted film. As the film takes place in 1935,  Lumet has designed it to look like a film from 1930’s and 40’s; he directly pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, the ultimate master of glossy suspense\mystery dramas; mainly his  film The Lady Vanishes, which was a film completely set on a train. One of the most unique aspects of Orient Express is, that it starts out with a haunting montage featuring newspaper clippings and newsreel footage of a tragic kidnapping of a three year-old girl from a wealthy Anglo-American family named Daisy Armstrong in 1930. The kidnapping of young Daisy would end up playing a major role in the true identities of the murder victim and the suspects in the film. This is a device borrowed directly from Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, where News on the March style newsreel footage was used to establish the lead character of Kane to give an inkling as to the mystery of Rosebud that the investigators in the film are trying to solve. The film then jump-cuts to Istanbul in 1935, where famed Belgian-born detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), is about to journey back to England via the Simplon Orient Express. Despite the unusually heavy booking in the train’s Calais coach, Poirot manages to secure a berth thanks to an old friend, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam), who happens to be a director for the Orient Express’ owner – the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. On the Train, several members of the coach, who all seem to be admirers of the famous detective, tries to make Poirot’s acquaintance, but Poirot, who is tired after solving an important case in Europe,  is in no mood to engage in any sort of friendly talk, and quotes Garbo’s famous line from ‘The Grand Hotel’: ‘Garbo wants to be alone‘, to excuse himself from any more badgering from his ‘fans’. But one fellow traveler turns out to be particularly persistent: a mysterious American art collector named Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), who informs Poirot that someone has been sending him threatening notes. He is scared for his life and offers ten thousand dollars to the detective to becomes his bodyguard. Due to Poirot’s instinctual dislike of Rachett, the detective refuses to help, post which, Ratchett seems to suddenly vanish into thin air; this is the first hint of something mysterious going on in the train. Soon the train finds itself snowbound in Yugoslavia during its second night; while all passengers are fast asleep, Rachett is stabbed to death in the middle of the night. The next day, Ratchett’s body is found, with 12 stab wounds of varying depth and, clues pointing to almost every passenger in the coach. Signor Bianchi requests Poirot to unearth the murderer before the snow clears, as after that , the Yugoslavian police will take over the investigation and it will tarnish the reputation of the train to have an unsolved murder. The rest of the film deals with Poirot investigating the case; thoroughly interrogating all the passengers of the Calais coach, searching out evidence and finally, solving the mystery around the murder

Obviously, two thirds of the film is devoted to Poirot’s criminal investigation, and it could have very easily turned bland and pedestrian, if not for the star power on display here : Anthony Perkins, doing a remix of his Norman Bates act, as Ratchet’s jittery secretary McQueen; John Gielgud as loyal manservant Beddoes; Lauren Bacall as the loudmouthed widow Hubbard; Wendy Hiller as condescending Princess Natalia and Rachel Roberts as her maid Hildegarde;  Vanessa Redgrave as evasive English teacher Mary and Sean Connery as her intense lover Col. Arbuthnott; Ingrid Bergman as God-terrifying missionary Greta; Denis Quilley as Mafia-linked car salesman Foscarelli; Colin Blakely as theatrical agent Hardman; Jean-Pierre Cassel as  conductor Pierre Michel; and finally, Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset as Hungarian diplomat couple Count and Countess Andrenyi. One of my favorite performances in the film is a  gem of a  cameo by  Jeremy Lloyd, who portrays an obsequious British Army officer and, who serves as Poirot’s escort during the crossing of the Bosphorus Strait.The interplay between Finney and Lloyd is the funniest moment in the film.

But the masterstroke here is the casting of Albert Finney as Hercules Poirot.  When Agatha Christie created the character of the Belgian detective, she would have never imagined that it would lead to  one of the most  wildly enjoyable , over the top performance in movie history. It is such an outrageous , out of the box , courageous performance that would have made him either eternal, or an eternal laughing stock.  It’s to his credit that it turned out to be the former. His performance called for a complete overhaul of the actor, both physically and vocally: he put on a body suit to convey the massive girth, His hair is slicked down to a patent-leather shine, a constantly quivering French mustache and a thick Belgian accent; but over and above these ‘technical’  embellishments, it’s the sheer bravado that he brought to the role that made it legendary. The performance is like a mixture of opera and Kabuki, that keeps the film interesting and entertaining throughout; The film being a familiar whodunit, with a tame ending, it needed that blast of craziness that Finney’s performance provides here; it is brilliant, it’s very straight and serious  and it’s also high comedy. But it’s not being flashy for the sake of it, He’s so flashy because he’s meant to lure our attention to his reactions rather than the others’ actions. During the course of his investigation, Poirot deduces that Ratchett is actually Casetti, the criminal responsible for kidnapping and murdering Daisy Armstrong. And as it turns out, every passenger in the Calais coach is one way or the other related to the kidnapping case. But we are not aware of  this fact until Poirot gives his final summation of the case. His flashy act is, both, a way to imperceptibly extract information from the suspects, as well as to distract , us, the audience from knowing what he is deducing from his interrogation.

Just watch the scene where he Is confronted by the arch villain Ratchett for his protection: check out his reaction when Widmark shows him his gun, Poirot is not only ‘not impressed’, but he is sure this is a sinister character, which he conveys with that one amusing expression; also check out his line reading,  when he rejects Ratchett’s offer with a,”my interest in you is dwindling” , and his reaction after, when Ratchett simply seems to disappear from sight. Finney also keeps the interrogation section interesting, by changing his body language and dialogue delivery, for each of the suspects. He is putting up an exaggerated theatrical performance to extract the truth from each one of them. And finally he tops it all with a tour de force extended monologue at the end where he deconstructs the crime, how it happened, who was involved and why. It’s a astounding mixture of wit, sarcasm, sensitivity, pride and arrogance where he’s over the moon that he has been able to solve the case, but is also moved by the emotions of the people involved in the crime. It’s just one of a kind performance in a year filled with one of a kind performances like Al Pacino in the Godfather II or Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. It’s another matter that none of these nominated performances won the Oscar that year. Finney, who would turn down the lead role in David Lean’s iconic film Lawrence of Arabia would make his film debut with the British kitchen sink dramas of the 1960’s. He would essay a wide range of characters on stage and screen through the course of his illustrious career, the most famous of which is the star making title role in Tom Jones: It’s another delightful turn, mixing comedy and drama (most evident in the famous Dining sequence which mixes food and sex), which seems to have been good preparation for his performance in this film.

This exaggerated, baroque theatricality is again part of director Sidney Lumet’s design for the film. Every character in the film is putting on a ‘theatrical’ performance, trying to come across as someone they are not. In the beginning, the Istanbul railway station becomes a sort of proscenium, with each actor making his entrance, one by one. Then they get on the train and give a performance, and finally, when the entire ‘play’ is over, we get a theatrical curtain call, where each actor steps out, one at a time, for his or her bow.  In the film it is portrayed as a toast, which each character gives, after they have all being successful in their mission, with Lauren Bacall and Jacqueline Bisset forming a proscenium, with their backs to the screen. This ties into the film’s overall ambitions, to replicate movies from a certain era and also to pay tribute to the concept of stars and the craft of acting, which formed an inherent part of that movie culture

Agatha Christie  published her first novel (and introduced Poirot) in 1920. Christie steadily grew her eccentric character throughout the decade, creating her first masterpiece in 1928 with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Although she was finding Poirot’s character “insufferable,” Christie trudged on to write Murder on the Orient Express in an Istanbul hotel room in 1934, inspired both by her journey on the Orient Express as well as the recent tragedy of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and murder.Agatha Christie didn’t find Poirot quite insufferable enough to stop writing about him, turning out excellent fiction until she died in 1976 with more than 30 novels and 55 short stories alone dedicated to the idiosyncratic Belgian with his fine mustaches. Although her work was frequently being adapted for film and stage, this Sidney Lumet adaptation is the only one that had  her approval, maybe because, it was a straight re-telling of the novel. She also found Albert Finney’s portrayal closest to her original vision, though she felt the mustache was wrong.. The film proved to be a box office success, earning $36 million domestically on a budget of $1.4 million  and, received six Oscar nominations, with a supporting actress win going to Bergman. Bergman was initially offered the role of Princess Dragomiroff, but instead requested to play Greta Ohlsson, which was a much smaller role. Her entire Oscar winning performance is included in an unbroken 5 minute sequence, in which she talks uninterruptedly, going through a gamut of emotions. The film’s London premiere was attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Agatha Christie, who at 84 was making her last public appearance before her death 15 months later. She was married to a famous archaeologist at the time and she had this to say about her marriage: “It’s wonderful. The older I get, the more he loves me.”. A typical Christie quote , which Hercules Poirot would have approved. The success of Orient Express spawned several star-studded Christie adaptations like Death on the Nile and The Mirror Crack’d, but none as successful as this one. Finney never returned to play Poirot again; it was left to actors like Peter Ustinov to portray the detective in the subsequent adaptations. Orient Express was remade recently by Kenneth Branagh, who also played Poirot in the film. But i didn’t like it at all; i continue to prefer the original 1974 version. It’s hard to replicate the alchemy that was achieved in that film; with that group of stars, a great director and a truly memorable lead performance.


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