“FLAME OVER INDIA” (1959) Review

“FLAME OVER INDIA” (1959) Review

I have seen my share of movie and television productions set during the heyday of the British Empire over the years. They have featured narratives that range from being rabidly pro-Imperial to being highly critical of British Imperial policies and society. Recently, I re-discovered an old movie that seemed to straddle between the two styles of this genre, the 1959 adventure film, “FLAME OVER INDIA aka NORTH WEST FRONTIER”.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson, “FLAME OVER INDIA” began in the North West Frontier of 1905 British India, when a Hindu Maharajah asks British Army Captain William Scott to take his young son and heir, Prince Kishan, to the safety of the British Governor’s residence in Haserabad, due to a Muslim uprising in his province. Accompanying them is the prince’s nanny/governess, an American widow named Mrs. Catherine Wyatt. They leave shortly before the rebels storm the palace and kill the Maharajah. Upon their arrival in Haserabad, Captain Scott and Mrs. Wyatt learn that Muslim rebels threaten to overrun the Residency, due to knowledge of the young prince’s arrival. The Residency’s Governor, Sir John Wyndham, informs Captain Scott that he must take Prince Kishan to the safety of Kalapur. Scott discovers an old train, the Empress of India, and decides to use it to get Kishan and Mrs. Wyatt to safety. Because of the danger of developing siege in Haserabad, other passengers join Scott, Mrs. Wyatt and Kishan on the journey:

*Gupta – the Empress of India’s driver
*Lady Wyndham – Sir John’s wife
*Peter van Leyden – a Dutch biracial anti-Imperialist journalist
*Mr. Bridie – one of Sir John’s government aides
*Mr. Peters – an arms dealer who does business with all sides
*Two Indian sergeants acting as Captain Scott’s aides

There are some aspects of “FLAME OVER INDIA” that did not particularly impress me. Actually, I can only think of two. In one scene, the Empress of India’s passengers had come across a train that had departed Haserabad earlier in the film. Apparently, the rebels had massacred all of the train’s passengers, leaving behind one infant still alive. Now, I realize that this scene is supposed to be some kind of allegory of the religious strife that marred Britain’s partition from India in 1947 and its role in that strife. The problem is that this scene would have been more suited for a story set during that period, instead of a movie set in 1905. I also had a problem with the film’s final action sequence. It is not terrible, but it struck me as a bit anti-climatic. Especially since it ended with the Empress of India’s passengers evading capture by the train’s entrance into a two-mile long hillside tunnel that led to the safety of Kalapur.

Overall, I thought “FLAME OVER INDIA” was a first-rate movie that seamlessly combined the elements of two genres – action and drama. At first glance, it seemed Captain Scott using a train to convey young Kishan to the safety of Kalapur offered no real challenges – especially against pursuers on horseback. Scott and Gupta had initially planned to sneak the passengers out of Haserabad by freewheeling the Empress of India down a gradient and out of the rail yard, but the train’s whistle unexpectedly blows, alerting the rebels to their departure. The screenwriters ensure that the Empress and its passengers encounter other obstacles to make it difficult to evade their pursuers – including torn up tracks, the train’s nearly empty water tank, the train full of massacred passengers, a bomb-damaged viaduct/bridge and a spy in their midst. If I had a choice for my favorite action sequence, it would be the one in which the Empress of India passengers attempt to fix the sabotaged tracks in the middle of a gun battle. It is a pity that this incident occurred midway in the film.

More importantly, “FLAME OVER INDIA” is an excellent drama in which the political situation – the rebellion within Kishan’s province – served as a reflection of the divisions in British India around the turn of the 20th century and the Britons’ role in its origin. In fact, this topic manifested in a tense scene featuring an argument between Captain Scott and Peter van Leyden following the passengers’ discovery of the train massacre. Earlier, I had commented that “FLAME OVER INDIA” seemed to straddle between those rabidly pro-Imperial movies to those highly critical of British Empire. The quarrel between Captain Scott and van Leyden over the train massacre and British Imperial policy seemed to personify this “no Man’s Land” between the genre’s two styles. But the movie also featured other characters who seemed to represent not only these two positions on Imperial policies, but also that middle ground. Even Captain Scott’s characters seemed to be on the verge of that middle ground by the film’s end.

I have seen “FLAME OVER INDIA” on many occasions, but it finally occurred to me that it reminded me of another film. I noticed that one of the screenwriters was Frank Nugent, who had written the screenplays for several of John Ford’s movies between 1948 and 1963. Although Nugent never worked on one of Ford’s best films, “STAGECOACH”, I realized that “FLAME OVER INDIA” bore a strong resemblance to the Oscar winning 1939 film. Like “STAGECOACH”, this film is about a group of people who undertake a long-distance journey through dangerous territory. And like the 1939 movie, it is also a strong character study of people from different backgrounds, personalities and philosophies. Whereas “STAGECOACH” seemed more like an exploration of class (and regional) differences between late 19th century Americans, “FLAME OVER INDIA” is more of an exploration of the impact of the British Empire upon the movie’s main characters – the Europeans, one American, one Eurasian and two Asians. The ironic aspect of the film’s theme is that even young Kishan, who served mainly as the movie’s catalyst, had the last word about the British presence in India, near the end.

“FLAME OVER INDIA” struck me as a colorful looking film, thanks to its technical crew. The movie was shot at Pinewood Studios, and also on location in India and Spain. And I must say that cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth did a beautiful job with his photography for both locations. And I must admit that I really admired how he balanced his close-up, far-shots and zooming . . . especially during the film’s opening sequence that depicted the Muslim rebels overrunning the palace of Kishan’s father. I was also impressed by Frederick Wilson’s editing of J. Lee Thompson’s direction of the action sequences – especially the opening sequence and that featuring the repair of the damaged tracks. Between Thompson and Wilson, they managed to fill the movie with a great deal of action, suspense and drama. I also enjoyed Yvonne Caffin’s Edwardian costumes for the film. But like her work for the 1958 movie, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”, they did not strike me as particularly mind-blowing, but they certainly did not look cheap or straight out of a costume warehouse.

The 1959 movie did not exactly have a large cast . . . unless one would consider the number of extras. But I have to say that I did not have anything negative to say about the performances in “FLAME OVER INDIA”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Ian Hunter, Jack Gwillim, and Basil Hoskins. Both S.M. Asgaralli and Sam Chowdhary, who portrayed the two sepoys under Scott’s command, had spoken at least two or three lines between them and still managed to effectively convey the idea of competent soldiers. And Govind Raja Ross gave a very charming performance as the young Prince Kishan. He was not the best child actor I have ever seen, but I found him charming.

However, the film’s best performances came the major supporting cast members and the two leads. I cannot say that Ursula Jeans gave a complex performance. After all, I could never regard her character, Lady Windham, as flexible. But Jeans did an excellent job in conveying the conservative, yet ladylike “memsahib” of the British Empire. Eugene Deckers gave a very entertaining performance as the witty and cynical arms dealer, Mr. Peters. In fact, I would say that Deckers gave the most entertaining performance in the film. Wilfrid Hyde-White gave a charming, yet poignant performance as the mild-mannered, yet very open-minded government aide, Mr. Bridie. Hyde-White did such a good job in conveying his character’s likability that even a hostile character like Peter van Leyden recognized him for the tolerant person he was. While checking I.S. Johar’s filmography on the IMDB site, I noticed that he made very few English-speaking films, one of them being the 1978 Agatha Christie movie, “DEATH ON THE NILE”. Personally, I believe his role as the effervescent, yet skilled train engineer/driver, Gupta, to be a breath of fresh air, in compare to his role in the 1978 murder mystery. Johar not only gave a first-rate performance, he managed to create a crackling screen chemistry with leading man Kenneth More.

If I had my choice for the best performance in “FLAME OVER INDIA”, I would choose Herbert Lom’s portrayal of the biracial journalist, Peter van Leyden. Lom did an excellent job in conveying his character’s intelligence, penchant for confrontations and complex anger toward the British presence in India and European colonialism in general. Lom’s Peter van Leyden may have been an unpleasant character, but what he had to say about colonialism and the British attitude toward the subcontinent’s natives resonated with a great deal of truth. The producers of “FLAME OVER INDIA” had originally considered Olivia de Havilland for the role of Prince Kishan’s widowed governess, Mrs. Catherine Wyatt. However, the former was unavailable and they turned to American actress Lauren Bacall to portray the role. One would not expect an American character in a film set in British India. And yet . . . Bacall gave such a first-rate performance as the forthright, yet slightly cynical Mrs. Wyatt that I never gave it another thought. More importantly, she also managed to create a strong, yet natural screen chemistry with More, which took me by surprise. Speaking of Kenneth More, he gave a strong and intelligent performance as the movie’s leading character, Captain William Scott. In a way, More’s portrayal of Scott struck me as rather odd. Superficially, his Scott seemed like the typical British Army officer who believed in the righteousness of the British Empire and regarded its Indian subjects as children. And yet, Scott seemed to be a bit more complicated. He preached like a typically bigoted colonial and behaved like a more tolerant man who had a tight friendship with the likes of Gupta and treated the two sepoys (soldiers) under him as competent fighting men, instead of children who needed to be constantly supervised. Like I had said, More’s Scott proved to be something different from the usual military character in a British Imperial film. Then again, the movie had been made over a decade after India’s independence.

I may have a few quibbles about “FLAME OVER INDIA”, but overall I really enjoyed the film. It might be one of the few British Empire movies that I truly enjoyed before the more ambiguous Imperial films of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The film’s screenwriters also created a first-rate adventure film that also proved to be a complex drama and character study. “FLAME OVER INDIA” also benefited from first-rate cinematography from the legendary Geoffrey Unsworth, excellent acting from a cast led by Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall, and superb direction from J. Lee Thompson. I believe there is nothing further for me to say.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (1988) Review

Appt18

 

“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (1988) Review

Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel, “Appointment With Death” has proven to be a problem over the past 70 years or so. If I must be honest, it is not a great novel. Considering the topic of emotional abuse, it had the potential to be great. But I feel that Christie never achieved what could have been a memorable and haunting tale.

The novel also produced adaptations in the form of a 1945 stage play, a 2008 television movie and a 1988 theatrical release. Of the three adaptations, the 1988 film, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” came the closest in being faithful to novel. Is it the best adaptation? Unfortunately, I have never seen the stage play and have no idea what changes to Christie’s plot had been made. I have seen the 2008 television movie. And honestly? I consider it a colorful travesty. Do I harbor the same opinion of the 1988 film? Well . . . no. It is not a bad film. But I believe it is a far cry from some of the best of the Christie adaptations.

Directed by Michael Winner, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” centered on Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the death of a wealthy middle-aged woman named Mrs. Boynton. Actually, the story began several months earlier, in New Jersey, where the recently widowed Mrs. Boynton learned that her late husband left a second will would enable her stepchildren and daughter to enjoy a financially stable life, independent of her. Jealous of the idea of no longer holding any power over her family, Mrs. Boynton blackmailed the family attorney, Jefferson Cope, into destroying the second will, leaving her in charge of the family finances. The family embarks on a grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land during the spring of 1937. During the sea voyage between Italy and the Middle East, fellow passenger Hercule Poirot overhears two of Mrs. Boynton’s stepchildren, Raymond and Carol, discussing the possibility of their stepmother’s death. More importantly, Mrs. Boynton is surprised by the appearance of Cope, fearful he might inform her children about her husband’s second will.

Following the characters’ arrival in Petra, Poirot and some of the other characters become aware of Mrs. Boynton’s domineering abuse of her stepchildren and daughter. One of the vacationers, a Dr. Sarah King, falls in love with one of Mrs. Boynton’s stepsons – Raymond. But she becomes frustrated by his inability to break free of his stepmother’s grip. Sarah’s frustrations reflect those of Nadine Boynton, who is near the breaking point over her husband’s inability to break free from his stepmother. Also, the old lady’s stepchildren are becoming increasingly worried over Mrs. Boynton’s poisonous influence over the latter’s only child and their half-sister, Ginerva. Things come to a boil during a one day expedition to an archeology dig outside Petra. A few hours after Mrs. Boynton encourages her family to go for a walk, she is discovered dead. It does not take Poirot very long to figure out that the old lady had been murdered. And he is recruited by the region’s British Army representative, Colonel Carbury, to investigate her death.

As I had earlier stated, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” is not a bad film. But it is certainly no masterpiece. Let me be frank. It is quite obvious that the look and tone of this production is more akin to television movie feature from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” than a theatrical movie. It is a bit cheap in compare to star Peter Ustinov’s previous two Poirot movies and the 1974 one that starred Albert Finney. Some of cast members seemed to be going through the motions in their performances. This especially seemed to be the case for Carrie Fisher, Nicholas Guest, John Gielgud and sadly, Peter Ustinov. And when the star of the film seemed almost too relaxed or uninterested in his performance or the film, there is potential for disaster. What makes this sad is that Ustinov gave a funny and energetic performance for his next role as Detective Fix in the 1989 miniseries, “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”. Adding to the film’s second-hand look was Pino Donaggio’s very disappointing score. Honestly, it was probably the worst movie score for any Agatha Christie’s production I have ever heard. It seemed to be 1980s pop music at its cheesiest. And allowing a cheesy 80s pop tune to serve as the main score for a movie set in the late 1930s was one of the worst mistakes that Michael Winner and the other film’s producers made.

But all is not lost. At least Winner can claim he directed the better version of Christie’s 1938 novel. The television movie adaptation made twenty (20) years later seemed like a total disaster in compare to this film. And the 1988 movie had more virtues. Although the movie’s production visuals seemed a bit of a comedown from the Christie movies between 1974 and 1982, production designer John Blezard’s work in “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” still struck me as pretty solid. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Alan Cassie and Shlomo Tsafrir’s set designs and David Gurfinkel’s photography during the archeological dig sequence. John Bloomfield’s costume designs also struck me as pretty solid, but not exactly mind-blowing. Despite Michael Winner’s pedestrian direction and the less-than-spectacular production, I have to admit that Winner, Anthony Shaffer and Peter Buckman did a very admirable job of adapting Christie’s novel. I am not saying this because it is more faithful than the 1945 stage play and the 2008 television movie. The three screenwriters made some changes to the plot – including the deletion of one or two characters – but those changes did not harm the story overall.

Most of the cast certainly injected a good deal of energy, despite Ustinov, Fisher, Guest and Gielgud’s lethargic performances. I was especially impressed by Jenny Seagrove as the stalwart Dr. Sarah King, David Soul’s sly performance as the Boyntons’ slippery, yet charming attorney Jefferson Cope, and John Terlesky’s earnest performance as Raymond Boynton. As far as I am concerned, both Lauren Bacall and Hayley Mills gave the funniest performances in the film. Bacall’s hilarious portrayal of the rude and pushy American-born Lady Westholme almost reminded me of her performance as the verbose Mrs. Hubbard from 1974’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. However, her Lady Westholme struck me as funnier. And Hayley Mills was equally funny as Lady Westholme’s impromptu traveling companion, the obsequious Miss Quinton. But the engine that really drove “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” turned out to be Piper Laurie’s performance as murder victim, Mrs. Emily Boynton. There were moments with Laurie’s performance became somewhat hammy. But she did a great job in portraying a manipulative and emotionally sadistic woman with a talent for keeping her stepchildren in line. I found her performance very commanding.

Overall, I would not consider “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” to be one of the best movie adaptations of a Christie novel. Heck, I can think of several television movie adaptations that I would view as better. But I believe it is the better of the two adaptations of the 1938 novel. I wish I could say that director Michael Winner and Peter Ustinov’s performance as Hercule Poirot contributed a good deal to this movie’s production. But it was not that difficult for me to see that Winner is at heart, a mediocre director. And Ustinov’s performance seemed at worst, lethargic. And yet, the rest of the cast (aside from two others) and a solid script prevented “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” from sinking into a mire of crap. At least for me.

 

 

carriefisher2-xlarge

Carrie Fisher (1956-2016) R.I.P.

Favorite Films Set in the 1900s

Meet-Me-in-St-Louis-Trolley

Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1900s decade:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1900s

1 - Howards End

1. “Howard’s End” (1992) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this exquisite adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel. The movie starred Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham-Carter, Samuel West and Oscar nominee Vanessa Redgrave.

 

2 - The Assassination Bureau

2. “The Assassination Bureau” (1969) – Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas starred in this delicious adaptation of Jack London’s unfinished novel about a woman journalist who uncovers an organization for professional assassins. Basil Dearden directed.

 

3 - A Room With a View

3. “A Room With a View” (1985-86) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this excellent adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel. The movie starred Helena Bonham-Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis and Oscar nominees Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot.

 

4 - Gigi

4. “Gigi” (1958) – Oscar winner Vincente Minelli directed this superb adaptation of Collette’s 1944 novella about a young Parisian girl being groomed to become a courtesan. Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan starred.

 

5 - The Illusionist

5. “The Illusionist” (2006) – Neil Burger directed this first-rate adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”. The movie starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell.

 

6 - The Great Race

6. “The Great Race” (1965) – Blake Edwards directed this hilarious comedy about a long-distance road race between two rival daredevils. The movie starred Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood.

 

7 - Flame Over India aka North West Frontier

7. “Flame Over India aka North West Frontier” (1959) – Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall starred in this Imperial adventure about a British Army officer who serves as escort to a young Hindu prince being targeted by Muslim rebels. J. Lee Thompson directed.

 

8 - Meet Me in St. Louis

8. “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) – Judy Garland starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Sally Benson’s short stories about a St. Louis family around the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair in 1904. Vincente Minelli directed.

 

9 - The Golden Bowl

9. “The Golden Bowl” (2000) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this interesting adaptation of Henry James’ 1904 novel about an adulterous affair in Edwardian England. The movie starred Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam.

 

10 - North to Alaska

10. “North to Alaska” (1960) – John Wayne, Stewart Granger and Capucine starred in this surprisingly fun Western about how a mail-to-order bride nearly came between two partners during the Nome Gold Rush. Henry Hathaway directed.

Top Ten Favorite AGATHA CHRISTIE Movies

About two years ago, I had posted my ten favorite movies based upon some of Agatha Christie’s novel. Two years later, my tastes have changed a bit. Here is my new list: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE AGATHA CHRISTIE MOVIES

1. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his debut as Hercule Poirot in this intriguing mystery about the detective’s investigation into the death of a wealthy Anglo-American bride on her honeymoon, during a cruise down the Nile River. Directed by John Guillerman, David Niven co-starred.

2. “Evil Under the Sun” – Peter Ustinov portrays Hercule Poirot for the second time in this witty and entertaining mystery about the detective’s investigation into the murder of a famous stage actress. Guy Hamilton directed.

3. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Poirot investigates the 15 year-old murder of a famous, philandering artist in order to clear the name of his widow, who had been hanged for killing him. David Suchet and Rachael Stirling starred.

4. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this classic, all-star mystery about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the death of a mysterious wealthy American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1986) – Joan Hickson stars as Jane Marple in this superb adaptation of Christie’s story about an unusual newspaper announcement that leads curious village inhabitants to a supper party and a murder. John Castle co-starred.

6. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a man disinherits his sole beneficiary and bequeaths his wealth to others just prior to his death, Poirot is called in to investigate. David Suchet and Geraldine James stars.

7. “Towards Zero” (2007) – Geraldine McEwan starred as Jane Marple in this excellent adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel about the investigation of the murder of a wealthy, elderly woman.

8. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot races against time in this haunting tale to prove whether or not a young woman was responsible for the murder of her aunt and the latter’s companion.

9. “Cards on the Table” (2005) – In this fascinating mystery, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a mysterious dinner host named Mr. Shaitana, in which four of the suspects may have committed a previous murder. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker starred.

10. “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980) – Four years before she stepped into the role of television sleuth Jessica Fletcher, Angela Landsbury portrayed Jane Marple in this entertaining mystery about a visiting Hollywood star filming a movie in St. Mary’s Mead. Guy Hamilton directed.

“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 37 years.