“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974) Review

Below is my review of the 1974 adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels – “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”:

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974) Review

Whenever the topic of Agatha Christie novels pop up, many critics and fans seem to rate her 1934 novel, ”Murder on the Orient Express” as among her best work. This stellar opinion seemed to have extended to the 1974 movie adaptation. After all, the film did receive six Academy Award nominations and won one. Is  “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” the best adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Is it my favorite? Hmmm . . . I will get to that later.

But I cannot deny that the movie, also produced by John Bradbourne and directed by Sidney Lumet, is a first-class production. One could easily see that Bradbourne and Paramount Pictures had invested a great deal of money into the production. They hired the very talented and award winning director, Sidney Lumet; along with an all-star cast led by Albert Finney; cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth; production and costume designer Tony Walton; and Paul Dehn to write the screenplay.

One of the most unique aspects of this particular movie is that it started 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. The kidnapping of young Daisy would end up playing a major role in the true identities of the murder victim and the suspects. The movie soon moved to Istanbul, five years later, where famed Belgian-born detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), is about to journey back to England via the Orient Express. Despite the unusually heaving booking in the train’s Calais coach, Poirot manages to secure a berth aboard the train 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. After the train departs Istanbul, a mysterious American art collector named Ratchett (Richard Widmark) informs Poirot that someone has been sending him threatening notes and asks for the Belgian’s protection. Due to Poirot’s instinctual dislike of Rachett, the detective refuses to help. And after the train finds itself snowbound in the Balkans, Rachett is stabbed to death in the middle of the night. Signor Bianchi asks Poirot to unearth the murderer.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” turned out to be the first screen adaptation of a Christie novel to feature an all-star cast. One that only included screen stars such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York and Jean-Pierre Cassel. The cast also included stage luminaries such as John Gielgud (who was a bigger star on the stage), Wendy Hiller, Denis Quilley and Colin Blakely. And all of them gave solid performances, although I do have a few quibbles about a few members of the cast.

Critics had been especially impressed by Finney’s interpretation of the Belgian detective and Ingrid Bergman’s role as a shy and nervous Swedish missionary. Both received Academy Award nominations and Bergman won. Personally, I am not certain if both actors deserved their nominations. They gave pretty solid performances. But I found nothing extraordinary about Bergman’s Swedish missionary. It was a first-rate performance, but not worthy of an Oscar nomination, let alone an Oscar. And although he gave a superb performance, there were times when Finney seemed to drift into some kind of parody of the Continental European. This is why I believe that actors with strong European backgrounds like Peter Ustinov and David Suchet should portray Poirot. But . . . I cannot deny that he gave a very good performance. And he also conveyed certain aspects of Poirot’s personality that I have never seen in Ustinov or Suchet’s portryals – one of them being a talent for manipulating others into revealing themselves during an interrogation. I also enjoyed his brief scene with Jeremy Lloyd, who portrayed an obsequious British Army officer that served as Poirot’s escort during the crossing of the Bosphorus Strait.

And there were times when some members of the rest of the cast seemed to be in danger of drifting into hammy acting. Sean Connery sometimes came off as heavy-handed in his British Army officer routine. And Anthony Perkins’ parody of his famous Norman Bates role irritated me to no end . . . especially since the literary version of his character – Hector McQueen – came off as a completely different personality. However, Perkins had one really good scene that featured no dialogue on his part.  But three performances did strongly impress me – namely Jean-Pierre Cassel as the rail car attendant, Pierre Michel; Rachel Roberts as a German lady’s maid named Hildegarde Schmidt; and Colin Blakely as Cyrus Hardman, an American detective masquerading as a talent scout. Unlike some members of the cast, these three managed to give subtle, yet convincing performances without sometimes careening into parody. And Blakely provided one of the most poignant moments in the film when Poirot revealed his character’s (Hardman) personal connection to the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping case.

As for the movie’s screenplay, I must admit that Paul Dehn and an uncredited Anthony Shaffer did an excellent job in adapting Christie’s novel for the screen. They managed to stay true to the novel’s original plot with very few changes. Their only misstep was in making the Hector MacQueen’s character into a parody of the Norman Bates role from”PSYCHO” (1960), due to Perkins being cast into the role. Or perhaps the fault lay with Lumet. Who knows? However, I cannot but express admiration over the brilliant move to include the montage that featured Daisy Armstrong’s kidnapping and murder at the beginning of the film. It gave the story an extra poignancy to an already semi-tragic tale. Despite these changes, Dehn and Shaffer basically remained faithful to the novel. They even maintained the original solution to the mystery. Granted, the solution made”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” one of the most unusual murder mysteries in the history of Hollywood, let alone the literary world. And although the revelation of the murderer(s) came off as somewhat inconceivable, it made the movie memorable . . . aside from the flashback that revealed Rachett being murdered. That seemed to last longer than necessary. I also have a different opinion regarding the fate of the murderer(s). When I had been younger, it never bothered me. Now . . . it makes me slightly uneasy. If you have read the novel or seen the movie, you will know what I am talking about.

Richard Rodney Bennett had received a great deal of praise and an Oscar nomination for his score. I thought it meshed beautifully with the scenes featuring the Orient Express’ departure from Istanbul . . . and its continuing journey at the end of the film. However, there were times when I found it a bit over-dramatic and slightly out of place for a murder mystery. I really admired Tony Walton’s production designs for the movie. I thought it truly invoked the glamour and magic of traveling aboard the Orient Express in the 1930s. And it also conveyed the claustrophobic conditions of traveling by train, beautifully. Surprisingly, he also designed the movie’s costumes. I can only assume he was trying to adhere to Sidney Lumet’s desire to recapture the old Hollywood glamour from the 1930s. Unfortunately, I felt that Walton’s costumes for most of the characters seemed a bit over-the-top. But I must admit that I admired his costumes for Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman and Vanessa Redgrave’s characters.

In the end, one has to give Sidney Lumet high marks for putting all of this together to create a classy adaptation of an unusual novel. Granted, I have a few qualms with some of the performances, characterizations and the plot’s resolution. And there were times in the middle of the movie when Lumet’s pacing threatened to drag the film. In the end, Lumet’s direction managed to maintain my interest in the story. And ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” remains a favorite movie of mine after 35 years.

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