Review: Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

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MOTOEThe 1974 film version  ‘Murder On The Orient Express’ is arguably the most famous and successful of the plethora of films created from the works of revered crime writer Agatha Christie. It was both a critical and commercial success, with it getting several Oscar nominations and winning one for Ingrid Bergman as Best Supporting Actress.

Viewed today, MOTOE is an enjoyable watch although the context of the film and peripheral issues surrounding it are arguably more interesting than the film itself.

The plot concerns famed detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) travelling on a luxurious train through Europe in the 1930s. When the train is stalled in a snow storm, a mysterious businessman (Richard Widmark) is murdered in his cabin and there are 13 potential suspects that Poirot has to examine to find out who the culprit is.

Unlike a lot of film adaptations of Christie works, MOTOE was an all-star lavish affair. There would be few films from any era that would have as impressive as a cast as this, with half-a-dozen Oscar winners and several others getting Oscar nominations.  The cast covered several generations of cinema ranging from the Golden Era of Hollywood (Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall) to those at the peak of their careers (Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave). If nothing else, the film is worth seeing for such a high-quality cast together in one area do their thing.

As a film, MOTOE has an atypical feel for a 1970s film, and not just because of its period setting. The film has a classic, old-fashioned style with none of the trendy tricks of 1970s cinema present. And its deliberately slow, stately place makes it feel like a film from an earlier era. (As an aside, the jarring 1970s hairstyles of numerous extras is the only sign of what era the film was made)

There is much to enjoy this film, and this includes the maligned performance of Finney as Poirot. Finney was criticised for making Poirot a cruder character than how he’s portrayed in the novels but I feel Finney had a very well thought-out, specific take on the character. In the early scenes before he boards the train, he portrays Poirot as vain, cumbersome and rather difficult. When the crime takes place, Poirot is transformed as he is in total command and control and is always a step ahead of everyone. This is a person who lives for criminal deduction and little else. It is a fine character performance.

But with such a cast, there’s something to enjoy from all involved, ranging from the entertaining hamminess of Lauren Bacall to the deftness  and subtlety of John Gielguld and Vanessa Redgrave.

Is MOTOE a great film? Not quite because the features that made this work so well as a novel (in particular the famous twist ending) just doesn’t work as well in cinematic form. Christie’s resolutions were so inventive and elaborate that in film form they seem hard to replicate convincingly.

As well, the conventions that Christie employed so often in her work (each suspect interviewed individually, Poirot providing a lengthy and elaborate explanation in front of all the suspects before revealing who the guilty party was) seem a bit stodgy and unlikely as a film, even in one as lavish and classy as this one. The characters and the situation itself seem stock types, not real flesh and blood characters so while one is fascinated to know what the resolution is, there doesn’t seem to be much at stake.

And on a broader level, this is perhaps why adaptations of Christie novels and play have disappeared from cinema since the 1990s and reside on television instead (and very successfully too). Their conventions and structure seemed more suited to regular TV movies instead of one-off cinema films where their conventions were less likely to interest modern audiences.

Another interesting aspect of the making of this film is the director of it, Sidney Lumet. At first glance he seems one of the least likely directors to helm a film like this, especially as someone who became known for his tough, gritty realistic New York crime dramas.

But in fact MOTOE has a very similar structure to Lumet’s great early success ’12 Angry Men’. A group of characters confined to one place forced to interact over the issue of a major crime with many uncomfortable truths about the characters revealed to others.

Lumet is in fact in his element with this film and adds much to its quality with his subtle framing of conversation scenes, providing interest and insight where other directors would merely point and shoot. In anycase, it’s a tribute to Lumet’s skills that in the space of a couple of years he could helm films as diverse as Dog Day Afternoon, Network and this film with such aplomb.

Overall, MOTOE is an enjoyable throwback to an era when Agatha Christie mysteries were box-office gold and that it wasn’t just Irwin Allen disasters films in the 1970s that boasted such talented cast lists.

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