Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

with Albert Finney (Hercule Poirot), Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Hubbard), Martin Balsam (M. Bianchi), Ingrid Bergman (Greta), Jacqueline Bisset (Countess Andrenyi), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Pierre), Sean Connery (Colonel Arbuthnot), John Gielgud (Beddoes), Wendy Hiller (Princess Dragomiroff), Anthony Perkins (McQueen), Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Debenham), Rachel Roberts (Hildegarde Schmidt), Richard Widmark (Ratchett), Michael York (Count Andrenyi), Colin Blakely (Cyrus P. Hardman), Denis Quilley (Foscarelli)

written by Paul Dehn

directed by Sidney Lumet

It’s a long time since I viewed Albert Finney‘s sole performance as Hercule Poirot, that punctilious little Belgian detective who is known to modern audiences primarily as the superlative David Suchet. In my memory, Finney’s portrayal was far sillier than Suchet’s, and I have to now make my sincere apologies to Mr. Finney: his Poirot is a delight from his surprisingly subdued first appearance, through to his just-the-right-side-of-melodramatic denouement, all the while interrogating his witnesses with the same smoothness that he sucks down Creme de Menthe. One of the biggest advantages that Suchet has – in an episodic medium – is to present all the aspects from Christie’s series, as well as the resulting emotional tangents and consequences. Doing one film, an actor runs the risk of only displaying the most overt quirks. (A problem I seem to recall of the Peter Ustinov films, but I’ll be rewatching them soon enough!)

Albert Finney as Poirot, and John Gielgud as Beddoes

Thankfully, Finney overcomes this. He obviously can never show the depth of characterisation that Suchet could display over more than twenty years, but Finney plays the quirks without them ever becoming ‘quirks’. Physically, he’s perfect; emotionally, he’s beautiful: managing to expose his anger during the denouement and during his confrontation with Mary Debenham, while also easily portraying the quick-wittedness in Poirot’s mind. Surprisingly, Poirot’s arrogance is almost not mentioned, save one great joke at the film’s end. All in all, I can’t complain.

The rest of the cast are equally as strong, although – with a dozen suspects – most of them feel underdeveloped. The fact that Ingrid Bergman scored herself an Academy Award nomination says a lot about the ’70s, an era when it was far more common for actors with only one or two intense scenes to get such awards (see, for instance, Beatrice Straight’s win for her role in Network). Her scene is very, very good (as I’ll discuss below), but – with the exception of Lauren Bacall as the overbearing Mrs. Hubbard – all of the suspects are similarly marginalised outside of their individual interrogation. It’s an unavoidable side effect of this novel: so many characters and so much reliance on clues, and I wonder if the ‘big names’ make it easier? The characters certainly stand out more here than in Suchet’s recent adaptation, perhaps because we don’t need as much exposition: oh sure, we still need to understand who the babe in the slinky, white gown is, but we all at least will recognise her in her next scene, since it’s Jacqueline Bisset.

The film has a breezy 15 minutes of introduction as the passengers gather in Istanbul, followed by a slowly tension-building sequence of the train en route. The opening sequence is simply stunning, leading up to a very ‘classic film’ moment in which the music builds as the train takes off. It’s self-consciously nostalgic (this era had long ended by the time Sidney Lumet made this film), and there’s a certain film nostalgia in everything from the music to the performances. They’d nearly all feel over-the-top in a modern film, but the exquisite old-world style of the train carriage somehow makes them seem perfectly in place. Although it’s common practice now, it seems audacious for this big-name film to wait thirty minutes before giving us the murder, yet somehow it works. And perhaps that is the crucial element that makes this movie stand out: it’s not all about the clues, like some of the drier Christie novels, but never does it become too much of a character piece, like some of the (arguable) missteps with the more recent ITV Christie adaptations. Instead, it’s a near-perfect fusion: every scene is quietly advancing the plot, even when we don’t know it.

Wendy Hiller as Princess Dragamiroff

To the cast, then: it’s hard to single anyone out – both because everyone here is a consummate professional, and because, as I mentioned, no one gets to dominate the proceedings. Wendy Hiller is simply gorgeous as Princess Dragomiroff: she doesn’t get a lot to do, but her performance stays on the just the right side of the line between outright grotesque and a slightly subtler one. Bergman, who was offered the role of the Princess, turned it down to play the smaller part of the missionary Greta Ohlsson. To better service her, Lumet chose to film her entire scene in one five-minute take, and you know what? It works. As I said above, her Oscar win was probably a bit excessive, but Bergman’s performance is a marvel (and props to Finney, for allowing his back to be on camera for five minutes during a particularly interesting scene.) We can tell that Greta is lying about something, but we’re never sure how much of her story – and personality – is a fake, and how much is real. It’s one of those lovely moments where, once the answer is revealed at the end of the film, the performance takes on several more levels. Bergman’s face is amazingly expressive (also true of George Colouris, in the small role of Dr. Constantine.)

Ingrid Bergman as Greta Ohlsson

No one else gets very much to do, although Rachel Roberts stands out as the ladies-maid Hildegarde Schmidt, in a performance which these days would be over-the-top, but plays perfectly into the heightened reality of Murder on the Orient Express. Still, no-one falters for a second: John Gielgud is effortlessly classy as Beddoes; Richard Widmark makes a perfectly slimy impression as the tortured Mr. Ratchet;  Bacall is beautifully brassy; and Anthony Perkins is equally over-the-top as McQueen. (I wonder if the casting of Perkins as a man with mummy issues was deliberate?) Perkins must surely have loved this experience, as he was a true puzzle nut, and used to plan elaborate puzzles for his friends with Stephen Sondheim, with whom he also wrote the intriguing murder mystery film The Last of Sheila.

The rest of the cast are never really ‘suspects’ in the same sense, as their scenes are so depleted, but they all look good doing so! Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset as the Count and Countess are, simply, stunning. Those two could have some very attractive children. Vanessa Redgrave is reserved but powerful as Mary Debenham, although Sean Connery seems to be just playing himself as Colonel Arbuthnot. Sadly, the other suspects – Foscarelli, Hardman, Pierre – appear for only cameo interviews before the denouement, so prove less than noteworthy.

If there’s anything that feels unnecessary, it’s the opening sequence: a flashback to the root cause of the murder. I understand the temptation: stories don’t just begin when the book does and, as a screenwriter, you want to be able to show the linear start of the tale, to allow for compelling, full, character arcs. Some examples of this technique – such as Suchet’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – can be quite eyecatching. Others – such as the one used here – are affecting (and, perhaps, useful for an audience who weren’t as likely to pick up on references to the Lindbergh case?). Yet, even aside from taking away some of the grandeur of the ‘proper’ opening, the flashbacks tend to lead the mind in a deliberate direction. Suchet’s Christmas and Hickory Dickory Dock effectively reduced the number of suspects, since your mind could extrapolate vague connections, even if you couldn’t quite narrow things down. In this case, things aren’t quite so cut and dry – the movie quickly picks up on the connection – but the power of that earlier murder lies in the momentary flashbacks throughout the film and the emotional responses of the characters. The opening sequence is, I would argue, simply redundant.

Poirot (Finney) assembles the suspects: (from left): Jean-Pierre Cassel, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, George Coulouris, John Gielgud, Colin Blakely, Rachel Roberts, Wendy Hiller, Denis Quilley, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam

Still, it’s a minor complaint. The lengthy final scene is good fun and makes great use of the tight atmosphere inside the carriage. This kind of directorial blocking and acting panache just isn’t found anymore. Almost the entire film is set inside the confines of this train carriage, and yet it feels so much more spacious than the Suchet adaptation. Probably the biggest difference between adaptations is the final, emotional resonance. Poirot certainly mentions his conscience, and the final celebrations are a little muted, but there’s still an overwhelming air of relief, and Poirot’s exit is accompanied by somewhat ‘quirky’ music. That’s not to say that the film ignores the troubling circumstances of the final decision (and the mix of sadness and joy is affecting in its own way), but this is a far cry from the grim ending of Suchet’s film.

In closing? This may not be a truly great film (this wonderful review suggests it’s great while you’re watching it, which works for me!) but it’s perfectly cast, looks exquisite, and manages to find a decent balance between the character and plot aspects of the mystery, or as much as one can within a 100 minute timeframe. It’s a shame that Finney didn’t return for future films – apparently because the make-up had been stifling enough in the Orient, and would have been hellish in the desert – but he makes a dynamic impression here, nonetheless.

Up next: I review the first two Peter Ustinov films.