“All Aboard the Orient Express”

2863027809_ec8c8b49c8_o

Below is a look at two major movies and a television movie that featured journeys aboard the famed Orient Express:

 

“ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS”

I will be the first to admit that I am not one of those who demand that a novel, a movie or a television production to be historically accurate. Not if history gets in the way of the story. But there is an anal streak within me that rears its ugly head, sometimes. And that streak would usually lead me to judge just how accurate a particular production or novel is.

Recently, I watched three movies that featured a journey aboard the legendary train, the Orient Express. Perhaps I should be a little more accurate. All three movies, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963) featured a famous route that came into existence nearly a year following World War I called the Simplon Orient Express. The original route for the Orient Express stretched from Paris to Istanbul via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. Then in 1919, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits introduced a more southerly route, due to the opening of the Simplon Tunnel. This route stretched between Paris and Istanbul, via Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Belgrade and Sofia. Writers Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming made the Simplon Orient Express route famous thanks to their novels, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and “From Russia With Love” (1957). And the movie adaptations of these novels increased the route’s fame.

Both Christie and Fleming’s novels featured the Simplon Orient Express’ route from Istanbul to Yugoslavia. There are reasons why their stories do not stretch further west to as far as at least France. In “Murder on the Orient Express”, the train became stuck in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia and detective Hercule Poirot spent the rest of the novel trying to solve the murder of an American passenger. And in “From Russia With Love”, British agent James Bond and his companion, Tatiana Romanova, made it as far as either Italy or France. The 1974 and 2010 adaptations of Christie’s novel, more or less remained faithful to the latter as far as setting is concerned. However, EON Production’s 1963 adaptation of Fleming’s novel allowed Bond and Tatiana to escape from the train before it could cross the Yugoslavia-Italy border.

While watching the three movies, I discovered that their portrayals of the Simplon Orient Express route were not completely accurate. I can imagine the thoughts running through the minds of many, declaring “Who cares?”. And I believe they would be right to feel this way. But I thought it would be fun to look into the matter. Before I do, I think I should cover a few basics about this famous train route from Istanbul to Paris-Calais.

During its heyday, the Orient Express usually departed from Istanbul around 11:00 p.m. Following the rise of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the Orient Express extended it route to stops in Greece in order to avoid the Soviet-controlled countries. The only Communist country it passed through was Yugoslavia. When the train became the slower Direct Orient Express in 1962, it usually departed Istanbul around 4:15 p.m. I do not know whether a restaurant car and/or a salon “Pullman” car was attached to the Direct Orient Express when it departed Istanbul between 1962 and 1977. One last matter. In the three adaptations of the two novels, the Orient Express usually made a significant stop at Belgrade. It took the Orient Express, during its heyday, at least 23 to 24 hours to travel from Istanbul to Belgrade.

Let us now see how accurately the two “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” movies and the 1963 “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” flick accurately portray traveling aboard the Simplon Orient Express (or Direct Orient Express) on film. I will begin with the “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel.

 

finney-gielgud

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)

Following the conclusion of a successful case for the British Army somewhere in the Middle East, Belgian-born detective is on his way home to London, via a train journey aboard the famed Orient Express. When an American businessman named Samuel Rachett is murdered during the second night aboard the train, Poirot is asked by his friend and director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, Senor Bianchi, to investigate the crime.

In this adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet, the Simplon Orient Express that left Istanbul did so at 9:00 at night. The movie also included a dining car attached to the train. One scene featured a chef examining food being loaded onto the train. This scene is erroneous. According to the The Man in Seat 61 website, there was no dining car attached to the train when it left Istanbul. A dining car was usually attached at Kapikule on the Turkish/Bulgarian border, before it was time to serve breakfast. The movie also featured a salon car or a “Pullman”, where Hercule Poirot interrogated most of the passengers of the Istanbul-Calais car.

 

oe2

 

LE-CRIME-DE-L-ORIENT-EXPRESS-MURDER-ON-THE-ORIENT-EXPRESS-1974_portrait_w858

 

According to the “Seat 61” site, there was no salon “Pullman” car attached to the train east of Trieste, Italy. Christie needed the presence of the car for dramatic purposes and added one into her novel. The producers of the 1974 movie did the same. At least the producers of the 1974 used the right dark blue and cream-colored car for the Pullman. More importantly, they used the right dark blue cars for the train’s sleeping coaches, as shown in the image below:

 

oe3

 

In the movie, the Simplon Orient Express reached Belgrade 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. For once, the movie was accurate. Somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, the Orient Express ended up snowbound and remained there until the end of the story.

 

 

6a00e5500c8a2a88330133f413d531970b-800wi

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010)

This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel first aired on Britain’s ITV network in 2010. The television movie started with Hercule Poirot berating a British Army officer caught in a devastating lie. After the officer commits suicide, Poirot ends up in Istanbul, where he and a British couple witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. Eventually, the couple and Poirot board the Orient Express, where the latter finds himself investigating the murder of an American passenger.

I do not know what time the Simplon Orient Express departed Istanbul in this adaptation. The movie never indicated a particular time. This version also featured a brief scene with a chef examining food being loaded aboard a dining car. As I previously mentioned, a dining car was not attached until Kapikule. The movie did feature Poirot and some of the Istanbul-Calais car passengers eating breakfast the following morning. In this scene, I noticed a major blooper. Car attendant Pierre Michel was shown serving a dish to Poirot in the dining car. Note the images below:

 

pierre michel1
Pierre Michel greets Poirot and M. Bouc before they board the train

 

pierre michel2
Pierre serves breakfast to Poirot

 

Why on earth would a car attendant (or train conductor, as he was called in the 1934 novel) act as a waiter in the dining car? Like the 1974 movie, the ITV adaptation also featured a salon “Pullman” attached to the train, east of Italy. In fact, they did more than use one salon “Pullman”. As I had stated earlier, the westbound Simplon Orient Express usually acquired a salon “Pullman” after its arrival in Trieste. But in this adaptation, the producers decided to use the dark blue and cream-colored “Pullman” cars for the entire train as shown in these images:

 

oe1

 

IMG_7341

 

This is completely in error. As I had stated earlier, the Orient Express usually featured a dark-blue and cream-colored salon “Pullman” between Italy and Paris. But it also featured the dark-blue and cream-colored seating “Pullmans” between Calais and Paris. There is no way that the Orient Express leaving Istanbul would entirely consist of the blue and cream “Pullman” cars.

However, the train did arrive at Belgarde at least 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. Like the other movie, the train ended up snowbound between Vinkovci and Brod and remained there until the last scene. However, I am confused by the presence of the police standing outside of the train in the last scene. Poirot and the other passengers should have encountered the police, following the train’s arrival in Brod, not somewhere in the middle of the Yugoslavian countryside.

 

 

image

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017)

In this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel, in which Kenneth Branagh directed and starred, Poirot solves a theft at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The detective hopes to rest in Istanbul after traveling there via the Mediterranean and Agean Seas, but a telegram summons him to London for a case and he boards the Orient Simplon Orient Express with the help of young Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. When an American passenger named Samuel Rachett is found stabbed to death following his second night aboard the Orient Express, Poirot is asked to solve his murder.

 

 

This movie featured the departure of the Simplon Orient Express around 7:00 p.m., instead of eleven o’clock. However, this is probably the only adaptation of Christie’s novel that featured the strongest similarity to the real Sirkeci Terminal in Istanbul, the train’s eastern terminus.

However, I also noticed that passengers boarded via the dining car, at the tail end of the train. That is correct. This adaptation also has a dining car attached to the Orient Express in Istanbul, instead of having it attached at Kapikule, the Turkish-Bulgarian border crossing. And unlike the previous adaptations, the dining car and the lounge car are dark blue like the sleeping compartments, instead of a color mixture of dark-blue and cream-colored. Which was an error.

 

 

The movie did not feature a stop in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. It did, however, featured a brief stop at Vinkovci, before it encountered a snow drift, later in the night. Since it was definitely at night when the train stopped at Vinkovci, no error had been committed. Especially since it was not quite dark when the train departed from Istanbul. And the journey between Istanbul and Belgrade lasted roughly 24 hours. At the end of the film, Poirot departed from the Orient Express at Brod. This is also appropriate, since the train had been snowbound somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod in the novel. More importantly, unlike the 2010 adaptation, Poirot gave his false resolution to Rachett’s murder to the police … in Brod and not in the spot where the train had been trapped.

 

 

007FRWL_423

“FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963)

Ian Fleming’s tale begins with the terrorist organization, SPECTRE, plotting the theft of the KGB’s a cryptographic device from the Soviets called the Lektor, in order to sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on British agent James Bond for killing their agent, Dr. No. After Bond successfully steals the Lektor from the Soviet consulate in Istanbul, he, defector Tatiana Romanova and MI-6 agent Kerim Bey board the Orient Express for a journey to France and later, Great Britain.

While I found this adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel extremely enjoyable, I found myself puzzled by the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s journey aboard the Orient Express. It seemed so . . . off. In the movie; the Orient Express conveying Bond, his traveling companions and SPECTRE assassin “Red” Grant; departed Istanbul somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. The train departed Istanbul around nine o’clock at night, in Fleming’s novel. Mind you, the novel was set in the 1950s and the movie, set in the early 1960s, which meant that its departure in the movie was pretty close to the 4:15 pm departure of the Direct Orient Express train that operated between 1962 and 1977. I do not recall seeing a dining car attached to the train, during its departure in the movie, so I cannot comment on that. But after the train’s departure, the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s Orient Express journey proved to be mind boggling.

The main problem with “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” is that Bond’s journey proved to be the fastest I have ever witnessed, either on film or in a novel. It took the train at least three-to-four hours to reach Belgrade, following its departure from Istanbul. One, it usually took the Orient Express nearly 24 hours to reach Belgrade during its heyday. During the first ten-to-fifteen years of the Cold War, it took the Orient Express a little longer to reach Belgrade, due to it being re-routed through Northern Greece in an effort to avoid countries under Soviet rule. This was made clear in Fleming’s novel. But the 1963 movie followed the famous train’s original eastbound route . . . but at a faster speed. After killing Grant, Bond and Tatiana left the train before it reached the Yugoslavian-Italian border. Bond’s journey from Istanbul to that point took at least 15 hours. During the Orient Express’ heyday, it took at less than 48 hours. And during the 15 years of the Direct Orient Express, it took longer.

Unlike many recent film goers and television viewers, historical accuracy or lack of it in a movie/television production has never bothered me. I still remain a major fan of both “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974 version) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”. And although I have other major problems with the 2010 “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, there are still aspects of it that I continue to enjoy. Historical inaccuracy has never impeded my enjoyment of a film, unless I found it particularly offensive. But since I can be occasionally anal and was bored, I could not resist a brief exploration of the Hollywood and British film industries’ portrayals of the Orient Express.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

When news of Twentieth Century Fox releasing its own version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”, many people groaned. In a way, I could understand their reaction. This new movie would mark the fifth adaptation of the novel – the second theatrical version. However, being a major fan of Christie’s story about a murder aboard the famed trans-European train, I was among those who did not groan. 

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh, who also starred as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” begins in Jerusalem 1934, where Poirot has been asked to solve the theft of a valuable artifact from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After achieving his goal, Poirot boards a boat that conveys him to Istanbul in Turkey. Among his fellow passengers is a British governess named Mary Debenham and a Afro-British former-Army soldier-turned-physician named Dr. John Abuthnot. Poirot plans to remain in Istanbul for a few days of rest. But he receives a telegram, summoning him to London to solve another case. Monsieur Bouc, a young friend of his who happens to serve as a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, manages to acquire a berth in one of the second-class compartments in the Calais coach of the Orient Express.

Both Poirot and Bouc are surprised to discover that the Calais coach is unusually full for the winter season. A day following the train’s departure from Istanbul, one of the passengers – an American “businessman” named Samuel Rachett – informs Poirot that he had received death threats and wants to hire the Belgian detective to serve as his bodyguard. Due to his instinctive dislike of Rachett, Poirot refuses the offer. During the second night of the train’s journey, the Orient Express becomes stranded somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, thanks to an avalanche. The following morning, Rachett’s dead body is discovered with a dozen stab wounds. Bouc asks Poirot to discover the killer’s identity. Since each train car was locked at night, Poirot has focused his suspicions on those who were inside the Calais coach:

*Mary Debenham
*Dr. John Abuthnot
*Hector McQueen, Rachett’s secretary
*Edward Masterman, Rachett’s English valet
*Mrs. Caroline Hubbard, a middle-aged American tourist
*Pilar Estravados, a Spanish-born missionary
*Princess Dragomiroff, an exiled Russian princess
*Hildegarde Schmidt, Princess Dragomiroff’s German maid
*Biniamino Marquez, a Spanish-born automobile salesman
*Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat/acclaimed dancer
*Countess Helena Andrenyi, Count Andrenyi’s German-born wife
*Gerhard Hardman, a German scholar
*Pierre Michel, the Calais coach’s car attendant

Not long after he begins his investigation, Poirot discovers Rachett’s true identity – a gangster named Lanfranco Cassetti, who had kidnapped a three year-old heiress named Daisy Armstrong two years earlier. After Daisy’s parents had paid the ransom, Cassetti killed young Daisy and fled the United States. It becomes up to Poirot to discover which Calais coach passengers have connections to the Armstrong kidnapping case and find the killer.

What can I say about this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel? Of the five versions of “Murder on the Orient Express”, I have only seen four. But I am not here to discuss the other three versions I have seen . . . only this new adaptation.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not a perfect movie. Well to be honest, I have yet to see a perfect adaptation of Christie’s novel. But there were a few aspects of this film that I did not like. Most of those aspects had a lot to do with camera shots. I did not like how Branaugh had allowed his passengers to board through the dining car at the end of the train. Honestly? I did not care for that tracking shot of Poirot making his way through the train . . . with the camera focused on him through the windows. I found it rather distracting and slightly confusing. Nor did I care for how Branaugh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot the scene featuring the discovery of Rachett’s body. From the moment when the victim’s valet discovered the body to Dr. Abuthnot examined it and conveyed his prognosis, Branaugh and Zambarloukos did the entire scene from a high angle shot from above in which I could barely, if at all, see the victim’s body. I found it very frustrating to watch. And rather unnecessary. I have one last complaint and it concerned a character. Namely . . . Count Rudolph Andrenyi. In Christie’s novel, Count Andrenyi was described as a hot-blooded Hungarian and a diplomat. In “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the Count remained a hot-blooded Hungarian. But for some reason, Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green had decided to change his profession from a diplomat to a professional dancer. Why? Other than showing Count Andrenyi in a fight with two men at the Sirkeci train station, I saw no earthly reason to change the character’s profession. Worse, while being questioned by Poirot, the latter brought up the matter of a diplomatic passport. Why would Poirot bring up this matter to a man who was a professional dancer?

Thankfully, I managed to enjoy “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” a great deal, despite its flaws. Thanks to Branaugh and a first-rate crew, the movie radiated a sharp rich elegance that struck me as different as the previous adaptations. And I have to give credit to cinematographer Zambarloukos for this look. There were others who had contributed to the film’s look and style. I especially have to commend production designer Jim Clay for his re-creation of the Orient Express – along with the help of the art direction team led by Dominic Masters and set decorator Rebecca Alleway:

murder_on_the_orient_express_production_design_1_embed murder_on_the_orient_express_production_design_2_embed

I doubt that the film’s re-creation of the famous luxury train at Longcross Studios was completely accurate. But I must admit that I was more than impressed by how people like Clay, Masters and Alleway still managed to re-create the style and ambiance of the famous train. My admiration for their work at Longcross also extends to their re-creation of the famous Sirkeci railway station. I found it rich in detail and atmosphere . . . and if I must be honest, slightly mind blowing:

murder_on_the_orient_express_production_design_3_embed

I suspect that none of crewmen who worked on “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” will receive any recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their work. Pity. As for Patrick Doyle’s score, I must be honest and admit that I did not find it particularly memorable. In fact, I found Doyle’s occasional use of 1930s tunes more memorable than his original work.

How did I feel about Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green’s treatment of Christie’s novel? Aside from my nitpick about the Count Rudolph Andrenyi character, I had no problems with it. Yes, I realize that both Branaugh and Green had made some changes to Christie’s story. But you know what? So did the other versions I have seen. And there were no real changes to the plot, aside from allowing the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping to occur two years previously, instead of more. Most of the changes were made to some of the characters, instead of the plot. For instance:

*Although Hector McQueen had remained Rachett’s secretary, he was discovered to be embezzling from the latter.
*John Abuthnot is portrayed as an Afro-British doctor, who is also a former Army sniper, instead of a British Army colonel stationed in India
*Swedish-born missionary Greta Ohlsson becomes the Spanish-born missionary Pilar Estravados, whose name was borrowed from Christie’s 1938 novel, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”
*Italian-born car salesman Antonio Foscarelli becomes the Spanish-born salesman Biniamino Marquez
*Monsieur Bouc is portrayed as a much younger man, who profession is dependent upon family connections

As one can see, the changes in characterizations is based upon changes in ethnicity and nationality. Hell, I had more of a problem with the changes made by the Count Andrenyi character than I did with the above changes. And if I must be honest, I found the changes made to the John Abuthnot character rather impressive and interesting. Despite these changes, he remained intensely in love with Mary Debenham and protective of her. Another change I noticed is that Branaugh and Green had allowed Poirot to question the suspects in different parts of either the Calais coach, the dining car, the Pullman lounge car and various spots outside of the stranded train. I must admit that I found this variation in minor locations around the train rather refreshing. Watching Poirot question most of the suspects (with the exception of Princess Dragonmiroff and Hildegarde Schmidt) inside the Pullman coach had struck me as a bit repetitive in the 1974 and 2010 versions.

I would not be surprised if certain Christie fans and film critics had accused Branaugh of political correctness. Not only did the screenplay pointed out Dr. Abuthnot’s race via characters like Gerhard Hardman, but also Biniamino Marquez’s ethnicity via Hector McQueen. Considering that the movie is set in 1934, I did not mind. More importantly, it would have been odd if someone had not commented on Dr. Abuthnot’s race or Senor Marquez’s nationality. In fact, in Christie’s original novel, some characters made a big deal over the nationalities of the other suspects.

The important thing is that despite these changes, Michael Green’s screenplay more or less adhered to Christie’s novel. And he did so with style and a good deal of pathos in the film’s last half hour that I found more than satisfying. I was especially surprised by how the film treated Poirot’s character in the end. In the novel and previous adaptations, Poirot had remained on the train after solving the murder. Not in this adaptation. After exposing the crime and reporting his findings to the police in Brod, Poirot left the train. And I was thrilled. As I have stated numerous times, if I had been Poirot, I would have left that train myself.

I must admit that I had experienced a few qualms when I learned that Kenneth Branaugh had cast himself as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The large moustache he had utilized for his performance did not comfort me, until I realized that it matched the description of the literary Poirot’s moustache. I have stated in the past that I believe that British actors with a Continental background – like Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and David Suchet – tend to give more believable portrayals of Poirot than English speaking actors. Branaugh ended up proving me wrong. He gave a very charming and energetic performance as Poirot, without wallowing in the occasional moments of hammy acting. I also enjoyed how he portrayed Poirot’s development in the story from a charming and intelligent man seeking a little peace before his next case to the slightly outraged man who found himself conflicted over how to handle the consequences of Rachett’s murder.

There were other performances that I found very interesting. One came from Johnny Depp, who gave an effectively slimy portrayal of the former kidnapper-turned-murder victim. His performance really impressed me, especially in one particular scene in which Rachett requested Poirot’s services as a bodyguard. Depp displayed his versatility as an actor by conveying his character’s attempt at friendliness and a sinister form of intimidation. I also appreciated Michelle Pfieffer’s portrayal of the extroverted Caroline Hubbard, which I found both humorous and sexy. And yet, Pfieffer’s finest moment came near the film’s end, when Poirot exposed her character’s deep secret. She gave a very emotional and effective performance. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley portrayed the two suspects that Poirot had first encountered – namely Dr. John Abuthnot and Mary Debenham. It is interesting that the literary versions of this pair proved to be more hostile (and bigoted) toward Poirot than the other passengers. In this version, both are more friendlier toward Poirot, yet both maintained a subtle wariness toward his presence. I also enjoyed how Odom and Ridley managed to convey more complexity into their performances, when confronted with their lies by Poirot and their willingness to fiercely protect each other.

I never thought I would say this, but I thought Josh Gad gave the most complex performance as Rachett’s secretary, Hector McQueen I have ever seen on screen. Thanks to Gad’s first-rate performance, his McQueen literally oozed with moral ambiguity – especially in the film’s second half. Another interesting performance came from Derek Jacobi, who portrayed Rachett’s English valet, Edward Masterman. I was particularly impressed at how Jacobi conveyed his character’s nervousness in being caught in a slip of character by Poirot. And there was Penelope Cruz’s performance as the Spanish missionary, Pilar Estravados. Cruz’s portrayal of the missionary was a far cry from the literary character by portraying her not only as intensely religious, but also intense and slightly intimidating. I found her performance very interesting. Judi Dench gave a very imperious and entertaining performance as the elderly Princess Dragonmiroff. The movie also featured first-rate performances from the rest of the cast that included Olivia Colman, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Willem Dafoe, Marwan Kenzari, Lucy Boynton and yes, Sergei Polunin. I may not have liked the change made to the Count Andrenyi character, but I cannot deny that Poluin gave an effective performance.

I recently learned that 20th Century Fox given approval for a sequel to “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. It may not have been a major box office hit, but it was financially successful. Personally, I am glad. I really enjoyed this new take on Christie’s 1934 novel. And I was not only impressed by the cast’s excellent performances in this film, but also by Kenneth Branaugh’s direction and his superb portrayal of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. If a sequel is being planned, I cannot wait to see him reprise his portrayal of the famous literary sleuth.

 

“MARSHALL” (2017) Review

 

“MARSHALL” (2017) Review

I have a confession. I had no interest in seeing the recent movie, “MARSHALL”, when I first heard about it. I thought it would turn out to be one of those solemn biography flicks about some “great man in history” and his struggles to become successful in his endeavors. But when I learned about the movie’s plot, I changed my mind and decided to see it. 

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “MARSHALL” was about a “great man in history” – none other than the first African-American to be an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. However, this film focused on his position as a defense counselor for and director of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and his role in the 1941 case of “the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell”.

Following the successful end of a case in Oklahoma in 1941, NAACP defense attorney Thurgood Marshall returns to New York City for a rest. However, his rest and reunion with his wife, Vivien “Buster” Burey, is short-lived when NAACP Director Walter Francis White sends him to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell, a chauffeur accused of rape by his white employer, Eleanor Strubing. In order to get Marshall admitted to the local bar and defend Spell, a local member of the Bridgeport NAACP office tries to recruit an insurance attorney named Sam Friedman to help. However, Friedman is more interested in keeping his distance from the controversial case, until his brother Irwin coerces him into getting involved. Judge Foster a family friend of prosecutor Lorin Willis, agrees to admit Marshall to the local bar. But he forbids Marshall from speaking during the trial. This act forces Friedman to act as Spell’s lead counsel, while Marshall guides the former through the jury selection process and the actual trial. Judge Foster’s refusal to allow Marshall to speak proves to be the first of several stumbling blocks in his and Friedman’s efforts to defend Spell.

Despite the movie’s narrative, “MARSHALL” could have remained one of those stately biopics that usually ends up boring me senseless. Thanks to Reginald Hudlin’s direction and the screenplay written by Michael and Jacob Koskoff, the movie proved to be a lot different. Instead, “MARSHALL” proved to be a very interesting re-creation of the 1941 controversial case in which a black man is accused of raping a white woman. Stories or real life incidents involving interracial rape – especially that of white women – have been around for decades. Stories about racism in the U.S. South have been around for a long time, as well. However, I have also noticed that in recent years, Hollywood has turned its eye upon Northern racism, especially in the Northeast. In its portrayal of the “the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell” case, “MARSHALL”turned out to be one of those movies that exposed Northern racism.

I was also impressed by how the Koskoff brothers treated the Spell case as a legal mystery. Ironically, the movie did not begin with scenes that led to Joseph Spell’s arrest. I must admit that I had expected “MARSHALL” to begin with a sequence featuring vague details of the crime. Instead, it began with Thurgood Marshall finishing a case in Oklahoma. The audience learned about the Spell case around the same time Walter White assigned him to defend Joseph Spell. This led me to realize that the entire movie was told from the viewpoint of two people – Marshall and Sam Friedman. Some have criticized the movie for including Friedman as a leading character in the film. They believed this situation robbed the Thurgood Marshall character some of his agency as the film’s leading character, by having Friedman as a co-lead. Personally, I did not mind occasionally watching the film from Friedman’s point-of-view. I found it interesting. And to be honest, history itself set up this situation, due to the trial’s presiding judge refusing to recognize Marshall as Spell’s primary attorney.

However, dealing with a potentially hostile judge and a patronizing prosecutor, and being regulated to secondary attorney for the defense seemed to be a walk in the park for Marshall. He also has to deal with Bridgeport’s racially hostile citizens; pressure from the N.A.A.C.P. to successfully defend Spell; and Friedman, who turned out to be a reluctant and wary co-defender, worried about how his defense of Spell would affect his practice. Marshall also has to deal with Friedman’s lack of experience in criminal law. But the biggest roadblock proves to be Marshall’s growing suspicion that his client is lying about the latter’s relationship with the alleged victim. And I thought the movie did an excellent job keeping these aspects of the story balance, due to the Koskoffs’ screenplay and Hudlin’s direction.

I have a minor quibble regarding the movie. Although the movie made it plain that the N.A.A.C.P. regarded Marshall’s successful defense of Spell as a means to lure more donations for the agency, I believed that it ignored an even more important topic. A part of me wished that the movie had also touched upon Northern blacks’ feelings of being ignored by the agency and the latter’s illusion that most of American racism was focused in the South. Another reason why a “not guilty” for Spell was so important was to convey the message that confronting racism from the North and other parts of the country was just as important as confronting as Southern racism. But I get the feeling that the movie’s producers, writers and director were wary of approaching, let alone exploring this topic.

Considering that “MARSHALL” is not what one would consider a large budget film, I was impressed by its production values. Now I cannot say that any of the film’s technical details blew my mind. Well . . . perhaps two of them did. I found Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography colorful, sharp and lovely to look at. This seemed especially apparent in the film’s exterior shots. I also enjoyed Ruth E. Carter’s costume designs. Not only did I find them to be a close representation of fashion for both men and women in 1941, but they also seemed to be good representations of the major characters’ economic class. As for Richard Hoover’s production designs, Kara Lindstrom’s set decorations and Jeff Schoen’s art direction; I found satisfying, but not particularly memorable.

“MARSHALL” featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Jeffrey DeMunn, John Magaro, Zanete Shadwick, Derrick Baskin, Barrett Doss, Keesha Sharp, Rozanda Sharp, and Jeremy Bobb. Jussie Smollett gave a brief, yet subtle performance as the famous poet, Langston Hughes. And Roger Guenveur Smith was effectively commanding as N.A.A.C.P. director Walter White. Dan Stevens did an excellent job in conveying the patronizing and self-privileged prosecutor Loren Willis. James Cromwell gave a very interesting performance as Judge Foster. Although Cromwell managed to convey his character’s obvious bigotry, it seemed that some of his character’s decisions – including a willingness to allow Marshall to act as second chair for the defense – seemed to express the latter’s unwillingness to put Northern racism on display for the world to see. Kate Hudson’s portrayal of the alleged victim, Eleanor Strubing struck me as effectively ambiguous. Hudson did an excellent job in conveying mixed signals over her character. I felt anger over her character’s charges of rape against the defendant. Yet at the same time, I felt pity toward the character being an obvious victim of spousal abuse. Ironically, Sterling K. Brown also managed to effectively convey the ambiguity of his character, the defendant Joseph Spell. Now, one might wonder why I would regard Spell as an ambiguous character. Brown did an excellent job in expressing his character’s innocence. And yet, the actor also managed to convey the air that his character was lying to Marshall on a certain level.

I have seen Chadwick Boseman in three other films before “MARSHALL”. And I was impressed. But I felt a lot more impressed by his portrayal of Thurgood Marshall in this film. The actor did a superb job in conveying the different aspects of Marshall’s personality – his charisma, witty sense of humor, intelligence and more importantly, a slight perverse streak in his nature. Boseman was very subtle in expressing Marshall’s arrogance and slight tendency of needling . . . especially with Langston Hughes and Sam Friedman. Another first-rate performance came from Josh Gad, who portrayed Friedman, the man forced to act as Spell’s primary defender. I noticed that although Friedman seemed friendly with the head of Bridgeport’s N.A.A.C.P. office, he seemed very wary of helping Marshall with defending Spell. I understood this. He was worried how his participation in the case would look with his own clients and Bridgeport’s Jewish community. But I realized that if Friedman had truly been that racially tolerant at the time, he would not care . . . like his brother. This is why I found it very satisfying to watch Gad develop into that openly tolerant man who no longer cared about how others would regard his views on race and especially African-Americans.

I would never regard “MARSHALL” as one of the best movies of 2017. To be honest, I do not believe in any “best movies of the year” list. But I enjoyed “MARSHALL” so much that in the end, it became one of my favorite movies of that year. And I can thank director Reginald Hudlin, screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff and an excellent cast led by the always talented Chadwick Boseman for making this film so enjoyable and fascinating for me.