Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Paul Dehn
Based on a Novel by: Agatha Christie
Starring: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Michael York
Running Time: 128 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Growing up, I was an avid reader and used to churn through quite a few books back in my high school and college days (I still love books now, but don’t find the time to get through many). For a couple of years I had a particular penchant for a good murder mystery and discovered the joys of Agatha Christie. I haven’t read any for a long time now, but I got through several of her classic paperbacks back in the day. With enjoyable plots full of red-herrings and elaborate motives, as well as larger than life characters, they were an easy read, even if they weren’t great works of literature. The 70s and early 80s saw a handful of big budget film adaptations of her novels, four of which are being re-released by Studiocanal in the UK; Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Mirror Crack’d and Evil Under the Sun. I was tempted to watch and review all four, being an old fan of the format, but I’m forever swamped with screeners, so stuck with the first of the set, 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, the success of which kick started this mini boom.
Albert Finney stars as Christie’s most famous character, Hercule Poirot, who embarks on a journey back home on the titular train. Of course, whilst he’s there, a fellow passenger is murdered; the unpleasant Ratchett (Richard Widmark). A clue is discovered that implicates this man in the infamous ‘Armstrong baby’ kidnapping and murder case (details of which are described in an opening montage). As Poirot questions the other passengers about Ratchett’s murder, he finds that most of them seem to have good reason to hate the man, so Poirot has got his work cut out for him as he tries to crack the case. This all leads to a typically grand reveal of the culprit(s) to draw the film to its conclusion.
This is grand, glossy Hollywood fare of a slickly professional standard. As such it’s a surprise to see Sidney Lumet in the director’s chair. Not that he didn’t make slickly professional films, but he’s more famous for realistic, gritty thrillers and dramas, not light crowdpleasers like this. Supposedly he fancied a change of pace to prevent typecasting and he certainly pulled it off as the film made a sizeable amount of money (in the UK in particular) and snagged an Oscar win (for Ingrid Bergman’s supporting performance) as well as several nominations and some BAFTAs. It’s still a lot of fun to this day too, effectively translating the joy of figuring out Christie’s convoluted plots into a condensed film form. The final reveal feels a little like a cop-out perhaps, but the way it is explained and the journey taken to get there works well enough to pull it off. The coda which follows is morally suspect too, adding a refreshingly bitter aftertaste to an otherwise sugary concoction.
All the technical aspects of the film are finely tuned, from the attractive cinematography which makes the most of the confined space of the train, to the wonderful score which is appropriately grand, dance-like and lavishly orchestrated.
The film’s main draw however is its cast. It’s a mightily impressive collection of mega-stars to have in one film. A couple weren’t exactly at the peak of their careers at this point, but pretty much all of them were big names at some time and many still are. Having so many movie stars sharing the screen means there are a lot of egos at play and you get a sense that some are trying to outdo each other. The performances, as such, are all rather large, but that’s all part of the charm. Finney plays Poirot particularly over the top, but it makes him all the more watchable.
As slick and enjoyable as it all is though, I wouldn’t want to praise the film too highly, as it is all rather generic and fluffy at the end of the day. It offers few genuine surprises, lacks subtlety and is certainly not Lumet’s finest couple of hours. Those criticisms can be brushed off though if you’ve got a taste for this kind of film. It’s a finely mounted, big and brash, old fashioned who-dunnit with a cast to die for (pun certainly intended), so, like a good Agatha Christie novel, it’s easy to breeze through, even if you forget all the details a few days later.
Murder on the Orient Express is out on Blu-Ray & DVD on 23rd October in the UK, released by Studiocanal. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds great. There’s a nice natural looking grain to the transfer and colours come through nicely. Audio is robust too.
There are a handful of special features included too. These include:
– Making Of (50mins)
– New interview with producer Richard Goodwin
– Behind the scenes stills gallery
The Making Of, which is actually split into chunks and looks to have been made a decade or two ago, is a lot of fun, with contributions from a lot of the major players. It’s full of enjoyable anecdotes as well as some interesting tidbits on the production process. Goodwin’s interview is equally worthwhile, although there’s a little crossover.