NOTE: As it would be nearly impossible to review or analyze this film without including all parts of it, this will be one of my very few posts that is NOT spoiler-free. Read on only if you dare!
I would like to begin by thanking the hosts of this awesome blogathon: Little Bits of Classics and Christina Whener. I apologize that my post is so late, but I am eternally grateful that both of you gave me the perfect opportunity to see this film for the first time, and I’m even more esctatic to be able to write about both Agatha Christie and Lauren Bacall for their birthdays! So without further ado, I send many belated birthday wishes to Miss Christie and Miss Bacall, and on with the post!
I was instantly intrigued by the art deco style of the title cards as well as the chilling score playing over them. It’s clear by the use of color and cinematography — even before we see any of the characters — that this film is from the 1970s, but I’ve always felt that movies from that decade and the one prior shed a new and possibly more realistic light on the 20s and 30s (I find The Sting (1973) and Splendor in the Grass (1962) to be the best examples of this). The use of color in the opening montage was also very functional and deliberate, as the crime scenes and newspapers regarding the disappearance of Daisy Armstrong were tinged with a blue-gray that showed the grief of the incident. The flash of red at the end that paired with the announcement of her murder really grabs the audience’s attention as any clever use of color should, and makes me wonder what sort of connection ties this story to the rest of the film.
The first of the many characters that we meet during the course of the film is our star detective, Hercule Poirot. He is immediately revealed to be a strange yet intelligent man, who surprisingly does not seem to show a great deal of empathy for the lives of others. Next we begin to meet some of the characters who will soon become the passengers of the Orient Express and eventually suspects in the murder of Mr. Ratchett. Colonel Arbuthnot (Sean Connery), followed closely by the woman who we eventually find out is his lover Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave). We see the murder victim in question, Ratchett, and his secretary McQueen (Anthony Perkins) as well as his valet Beddoes (John Gielgud), the elderly Princess Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) and her maid Hildegarde (Rachel Roberts), Count and Countess Andrenyi (Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset), the twice-wed Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), devout missionary Greta (Ingrid Bergman), the Italian car salesman Foscarelli (Dennis Quilley), Pinkerton’s employee Hardman (Colin Blakely) and the steward on the Express, Pierre (Jean-Pierre Cassel). As Poirot expertly unravels the details of the murder, he slowly but surely finds out that every single suspect was once connected to the Armstrong family.
Agatha Christie attended the premiere of this film when she was eighty-four years old,
just fourteen months before her death on January 12th, 1976. Murder on the Orient Express (1974) was supposedly the only film adaptation of her novels that she was completely satisfied with, and she praised Albert Finney’s portrayal of the shrewd Hercule Poirot as the closest screen version to her character that she had ever seen (though she was reportedly unhappy with the whimsical moustache that he was given in this film). The film was no walk in the park for lead actor Albert Finney, however, as he was starring in a stage play while filming, and the task of completing both productions allowed Finney hardly any sleep at all. In an attempt to make the actor’s life a little bit easier as he played both parts simultaneously, the makeup department would pick him up every morning in an ambulance and painstakingly transform Finney into Detective Poirot while he was still asleep in his pajamas! To make matters worse for him, Poirot’s famous monologue at the end of the film required take after take as the set did not allow for more than one camera to occupy the cramped train compartment at one time. This of course was no easy feat for the peculiar detective, as his closing speech was over eight pages long.
Finney’s performance certainly paid off as I found the actor’s performance to be delightful, though he was completely unrecognizable in the main role. High praises could also be given to the rest of the all-star cast, including Ingrid Bergman, who won an Academy Award for her performance and had to redevelop her Swedish accent with the help of diction coaches to play the role of Greta. Oscars aside, I must admit that my two favorite performances in the film were those of Anthony Perkins and belated birthday girl Lauren Bacall, who played the suspicious secretary McQueen and the talkative Mrs. Hubbard, respectively. Other notable appearances included the always wonderful Sean Connery as Colonel Arbuthnot, Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Debenham, Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful Countess Andrenyi, Martin Balsam in a wonderful leading role as Bianchi, and of course Richard Windmark as the murder victim Ratchett, who only took on the role in order to meet the array of other stars who would be present during filming. Of course it’s really no wonder that the cast was so impeccable, as I found out that the film boasts fifty-eight Oscars between the members of the cast and crew.
Despite the valiant efforts of the cast, director Sidney Lumet, and composer Richard Rodney Bennett, I did find a few issues with the film’s plot. Granted, this may be because I have only seen the picture once, but I can’t seem to understand why twelve people, who were all very closely related to the same family and the same crime committed five years ago, happen to be on the same train at the same time on a totally separate continent. Also, if all twelve of these people were so closely related, how did none of them slip up even once to Poirot and reveal that they knew each other? These points lead me to believe that it was either a completely improbable coincidence or that it was planned, and if it was, I noticed no evidence or explanation of this aforementioned plan in the film. I also find it difficult to believe that all twelve of the compartment’s passengers (despite having motive) were completely fine with participating in the murder. The only character to show any remorse at all is Greta, but only because she was committing a crime in the eyes of God. Not a single person seemed worried that they were breaking the law, that one of the world’s greatest detectives was onboard the same train, or that they would more than likely be going to jail. I think more detail could have been provided from the novel to answer these plot holes, or even better I think a sequel that would contain the confessions and backstories of each of the passengers would be a clever way of clearing everything up and tying all of the film’s loose ends. Despite these lingering questions, I still find the film to be a mystery as genius as only Agatha Christie could pen, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who loves a good crime thriller or is a fan of murder mystery dinner theatres, as this was without a doubt the tale that sparked the genre.