Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1974) | Pop Culture Crossing

            Murder on the Orient Express is a 1974 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s book of the same name.[1] The movie features an all-star cast providing strong performances, a multi-layered story, and impressive production design. Complex as it is, the story does have some weaknesses. Nevertheless, if you are looking for a film whose mystery revolves around a set cast of characters, then you will likely be entertained by this one.

            The story takes place within the context of a horrifying kidnapping and murder that occurred five years prior. Now, in the modern day, renowned investigator, Hercule Poirot, is travelling on the Orient Express from Istanbul as he heads for the United Kingdom. Shortly after its departure, the train is stalled by snow-packed tracks, which conveniently provides the sleuth with enough time to solve the murder of a man in his train car.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

            However, there are two critiques that expose discordance.[2] First, it should be mentioned that the sequence showing the passengers boarding the train is well done. Outside of Poirot, Colonel Arbuthnot, and Mary Debenham, it serves as an introduction for the other characters. While the passengers are boarding the train, the camera focuses on both an Arab and African family. The viewer is left to believe that they, too, are passengers on the locomotive. Sadly, they are only seen here and are inconsequential. It appears as though they are featured only to give the Orient Express its exotic flare and mystique.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

            Despite the murder taking place in Poirot’s car, every passenger on the train should have been investigated, specifically since it is stressed that the train is at maximum capacity. Since the group of suspects are purportedly not the only passengers, this could have easily been changed by having one character note how this particular trip had an uncharacteristically small number of travelers. Doing so would have bred more continuity.

            Instead, highlighting a cast of American and European characters as the suspects and using trivial extras to depict foreign characters in an attempt to illustrate the train’s global demographic was noticeable and narrow-sighted. If this was done because the only passengers who had access to the car in which the murder occurred were its occupants, then it should have been clarified.

            On the other hand, it may ironically show that only the Western passengers are neurotic and possible murderers. Historically (and more realistically), it is likely indicative of both the time frame in which Christie penned the story, whose characters are typically Western-centric, as well as the period in which the film was produced. These observations are not “story-breaking” but should be noted nonetheless.

            Second, the snow-blocked train tracks are bemusing. Though it is treated as a core plot point, an argument could be made that it is McGuffin because it has no true purpose. It is implied that the snow delay allows enough time for Poirot to conduct his investigation. The train is stopped in Yugoslavia, which is early in the voyage. When the investigation commences, there is no clear concept of time, insinuating that the mystery is solved rather quickly. Once the credits rolled, I was left wondering why this was included as there would have been ample time for Poirot to solve the mystery before reaching the final destination.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

            There are some additional angles to consider, however. Perhaps this story point was introduced to prevent the murderer or murderers from making an inconspicuous escape, either while the train was in motion or at a stop along its route. Additionally, there may have been concern that the story, either Christie’s original work or Paul Dehn’s screenplay, would receive criticism if Poirot miraculously solved the mystery just as the train prepared for its final stop. These are all pertinent issues and should be weighed accordingly. This analysis notwithstanding, the delay still felt overhanded.

            Murder on the Orient Express’ slow burn pace is emblematic for this type of film, especially since the mystery is not solved until the last minute. Fortunately, the murder, mystery, and investigation enliven the story and will keep viewers on their toes. Yet audiences should be aware that Murder on the Orient Express is not an action-packed, high-speed mystery.  

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

            As the story develops, there may be parts you consider to be too convenient or even lazy. Viewers are, in fact, encouraged to watch the film in its entirety. Despite the aforementioned critiques, the third act is entertaining as Poirot posits his theories about the murder. One critical plot point is very serendipitous, but without it the story would not exist.

            Tonally, the film is steeped in a mystery involving a manageable group of suspects. Red herrings and distractions provide ample flavor to the characters. All of this keeps the framework tight and unpredictable as there are not hundreds of potential clear-cut culprits. As such, it has a similar tone to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Whereas The Hateful Eight featured a small cast confined to a cabin, Murder of the Orient Express presents a distilled cast aboard a train.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

            The opening sequence’s tone is very similar to the Charles Lindbergh kidnapping case, both of which are horrendous. Given the way it introduces the film, you are led to believe that sequence will have an impact on the main narrative. The way in which this is not treated merely as exposition is commendable and convincingly executed.

            Strong performances are provided by the entire cast. Each character is distinct and audiences will question whether certain character traits are idiosyncrasies or ploys. This makes for an active and entertaining viewing experience.

            Albert Finney’s Hercule Poirot is masterfully portrayed. Poirot’s sharp, detail-oriented mentality is a highlight of the character and is on full display in the film. Finney’s interpretation of the investigator’s own eccentricities and his interactions with the passengers are great.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

            Lauren Bacall’s Mrs. Hubbard is the most flamboyant character. Bacall does a terrific job depicting her boisterous behavior, lending credence to the stereotype of Americans being bombastic and abrasive. Mrs. Hubbard is juxtaposed by Ingrid Bergman’s Greta, a quiet character with an interesting past. Complementing the shy nature of the character, Greta does not have a lot of screen time. Bergman apparently made a positive impression on Academy voters as she was awarded the Oscar for Actress in a Supporting Role, the film’s only Academy Award.[3]

            Sean Connery’s Colonel Arbuthnot is well-acted. Although Connery sounds the same as he does in nearly all his other films, he delivers some of his lines is a very comedic manner. He also has nice on-screen chemistry with Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Mary Debenham.

            Jacqueline Bisset’s Countess Andrenyi, Jean Pierre Cassel’s Pierre, John Gielgud’s Beddoes, Wendy Hiller’s Princess Dragomiroff, Michael York’s Count Andrenyi, Richard Widmark’s Ratchett, Anthony Perkins’ McQueen, and Rachel Roberts’ Hildegard all provide convincing performances of their respective characters. Their interactions with one another, their unique qualities, and their reactions to the murder and Poirot’s investigation are well done. In short, the characters and their performances are highlights of the film.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

            Murder on the Orient Express has impressive technicality. The production design is wonderful and the sets are beautifully constructed. When mixed with the cinematography, it makes you feel as though you are really in the train’s compact, tight areas. There is at least one time in a cabin when a camera rises for a high angle shot. Though it is nicely composed, it did provide a reminder that the cabin was a set and likely not a fully reproduced train car. Similarly, the film’s main orchestral theme exquisitely complements its aesthetic train motif. The orchestral rhythm effectively mirrors the perpetual tempo and “chug” of the Orient Express’ steam engine.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures | EMI Film Distributors

            While some elements should have been reworked and polished, Sidney Lumet does provide strong direction, as evidenced by the convincing performances and remarkable technicality. In addition to Bergman’s Oscar win, Murder on the Orient Express received the following nominations: Actor, Albert Finney, Cinematography, Writing, Screenplay Adapted from Other Material, Music, Original Dramatic Score, and Costume Design.[4]

            In conclusion, Murder on the Orient Express has some problems, but is still a very fun, enjoyable mystery film. The mystery itself will keep you perceptive of the context, details, and the amalgamation of characters. If you are looking for an unpredictable, labyrinthine mystery, or if you enjoy the methodical, constrained train sequences in James Bond movies, it would behoove you to watch this whodunit and two hour train sequence. It is definitely a movie you will enjoy dissecting with others.

 Back Matter:[5]

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Production: EMI Film Distributors; G.W. Films

Director: Sidney Lumet

Producer: John Brabourne; Richard Goodwin

Screenwriter: Paul Dehn (screenplay); Agatha Christie (book); Anthony Shaffer

Director of Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth

Editor: Anne V. Coates

Art Direction: Jack Stephens

Production Design: Tony Walton

Music: Richard Rodney Bennett

Budget: ca. £1,500,000

Release Date: November 24, 1974 (USA)

Cinematographic Process: Spherical

Laboratory: Technicolor

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Copyright Holder: EMI Film Distributors Ltd.

Cast: Albert Finney; Lauren Bacall; Martin Balsam; Ingrid Bergman; Jacqueline Bisset; Jean Pierre Cassel; Sean Connery; John Gielgud; Wendy Hiller; Anthony Perkins; Vanessa Redgrave; Rachel Roberts; Richard Widmark; Michael York; Colin Blakely; George Coulouris; Denis Quilley

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Rating: PG; Descriptors: N/A[6]

Running Time: 2 hours and 8 minutes (128 mins.)

Bibliography: 

[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Agatha Christie,” accessed June 18, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Agatha-Christie.

[2] Though these two parts may need additional polish, it should be noted that the critiques provided may be nullified upon subsequent screenings as the story’s intricacy makes it conducive for multiple viewings. Thus it is probable that additional viewings will reveal new details and provide clarity.

[3] http://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1975/M?qt-honorees=1#block-quicktabs-honorees.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071877/?ref_=ttfc_fc_tt.

[6] http://www.filmratings.com/Search?filmTitle=murder+on+the+orient+express&x=0&y=0.