Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of the famous Agathie Christie mystery is an opulent, sophisticated diversion.
In his charmingly candid 1995 memoir Making Movies, director Sidney Lumet discusses at length the painstaking art direction and production design that went into recreating Murder On The Orient Express‘s mid-1930s setting. Lumet and production designer Tony Walton worked endlessly, “polishing every tile” to try to recapture the famous train’s ultra-luxurious Art Deo trappings, in many cases using authentic Wagon-Lit furniture and paneling in their own sets. Lumet was determined to make the film entertaining and frothy, admitting such tones weren’t normally his strength but that he was going to create a cheerful spirit “if I had to kill myself and everyone else to accomplish it.”
That weird duality – determined to amuse – infuses the film with a sophistication and chilly elegance that’s fun to watch but that become almost intangible once the film is left to memory. As a filmmaker Lumet is always a master craftsman if not always an artist, and his straightforward approach to material that’s similarly two-sided – smart but not pretentious, weighty but not substantial – sometimes feels workmanlike. Then again, Christie’s novels aren’t known for their humanity or emotion, either, and half the fun is watching the clues and motives fall, machine like, into their proper place.
The story involves Christie’s master sleuth, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) and his attempts to solve the murder of one of the train’s passengers as it was caught overnight in a snow bank. The victim, an American millionaire (Richard Widmark) with a shadowy past, had attempted to hire Poirot as his bodyguard only the night before. Relaxing in the next sleeper car, Poirot hears the crime and agrees to assist his Wagon-Lit executive friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam) solve the murder before the train is dug loose and the local police arrive. But the first class coach is packed tight with a dozen suspects of several different nationalities, and the crime may connect to a notorious kidnapping and murder (itself immediately evocative of the Lindberg baby abduction) five years before. Much of the film’s second half concern’s Poirot’s meticulous, crafty interrogation of each suspect, with hard-focused flashbacks serving to illustrate their alibis.
Though getting neither the time nor the space to truly stretch out into distinct characters, the stellar cast makes the most of their screen time, alternately loud or quiet, or quietly loud. Ingrid Bergman won an Academy Award for her turn as Greta, a simple-minded Swedish missionary, but the rest of the players, like a full if slightly too-rich meal, satisfy in giant doses. Of the loud set, Lauren Bacall is brassy and imperious as an American aristocrat, while Tony Perkins gives his role as the victim’s secretary a shifty, overzealous spark. On the quiet side, Bergman is memorable, as always, and Jean-Pierre Cassel is poised and haunting as the train car’s conductor.
More or less underused, considering their star power, are Sean Connery and John Gielgud as two very British veterans hiding behind their military and national bearing. “Why must the English conceal even their most impeccable emotions?” Poirot wonders aloud, one of the dozens of subtly penetrating observations that Paul Denn and Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay gives Finney to chew and bellow. Poirot, a self-professed “ignorant Belgian,” is the center of the whole piece, and Finney plays the character big enough to fill the train’s narrow aisles and passageways. In a film meant to be a nostalgic trip back to vanished grandeur, the sheer hot air of Finney’s performance, full of Old World pomp and pretension, provides the gravitational pull to hold everything around it in place.
Which is probably for the best, because the climax of the film essentially requires him to yell at the giant supporting cast in one long and complicated explanation of his murder hypotheses. (He has two, of course. A story such as this would consider having a single theory unforgivably crude.) The ending, as most solutions to good mysteries usually manage, achieves the balance of seeming a surprise at first but inevitable upon reflection. The explanation is spelled out, acted out, and then reiterated just to make sure the audience gets what’s going on; the mystery train doesn’t leave stragglers. Poirot gets his man, or men, or women and men, and with nothing else to say the film stops, and the effervescence begins to dissipate at once. Ultimately, Murder On The Orient Express is not a great film, but it is a great film while you’re watching it, which is all it wants anyway.
- Michael Kabel