Starring 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, and Michael York
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Star-studded whodunit deserves more scholarly attention.
In an Entertainment Weekly article several years ago discussing Art Carney’s 1974 Best Actor Oscar for Harry and Tonto, the writer mentioned that Carney beat Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II, and Dustin Hoffman in Lenny. To that writer—and probably to much of his audience—there were only four nominees in the Best Actor category that year, four nominees who mattered. In actuality, there was fifth nominee—Albert Finney for Murder on the Orient Express. That film, however, has not enjoyed the ongoing critical cache that a film nominated for six Academy Awards (its lone win being Ingrid Bergman’s for Best Supporting Actress) might expect. Unlike Godfather II, Chinatown, Lenny, The Conversation, A Woman Under the Influence, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, even Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Murder on the Orient Express is not considered one of the landmark films from 1974 by film scholars. When examining the career of director Sidney Lumet, any writer might be excused from glossing over it as an anomaly that came between Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
One reason for this dismissal could be the fact that the film seems to belong to an earlier era. Todd Berliner, with no little snobbery, claims, in an article discussing genre-bending tendencies in 1970s films, that “The period did produce some pictures that made no effort to reconceive the conventional tropes of the genre: the whodunit Murder on the Orient Express [et al]…for instance would not have looked much different had they appeared a decade or two earlier” (25). Unlike the gritty, edgy films that were popular with critics and remain defining films of the early-mid-1970s, Murder on the Orient Express is lush and deliberately glamorous. It’s not just a period piece; it recreates filming techniques from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The titles appear as placards; the prologue relating the backstory is interspersed with newspaper headlines, as 1930s films often related information to the audience. Even some of the stars seem to have been dragged right out the old studio era—when Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman clink champagne glasses at the end, one can imagine hearing the strains of “As Time Goes By” in the background.
The story takes its inspiration from two historical incidents: the 1932 kidnapping and killing of the Lindbergh baby and the 1929 blizzard that trapped the transeuropean luxury train, the Orient Express, in Turkey for six days. The film opens with a silent prologue relating the details of the kidnapping and killing of Daisy Armstrong, the child of a prominent New York society family. The film begins with a crime, not the one of the title, but the past crime that will precipitate the murder on the train, unlike the novel, which withholds the knowledge of the Armstrong case until after the murder. The opening sequence establishes the milieu of the story as a world where a child can be stolen from her home in the dead of night and brutally murdered.
The first image of the prologue is the Armstrong mansion lit in eerie blue light, superimposed with “1930/THE ARMSTRONG HOME, LONG ISLAND, N.Y.”—the choice of the word “home” signifying greater intimacy than “house” or “mansion.” In The Poetics of Space, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard suggests that a sense of intimacy and shelter is implied by the idea of the home: “Before he is ‘cast into the world,’…man is laid in the cradle of the house….Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house” (7).
The prologue, however, quickly dispels this sense of enclosure and protection. The second image is of Daisy’s broken tea set, followed by a newspaper headline announcing her kidnapping. The audience next sees Daisy being pulled from her bed by an unknown man; the kidnapper is, also, a housebreaker. He walks past a bound and gagged figure—all the people we see are in silhouette and unidentifiable. On his way out of the house, he runs into the butler, and the kidnapper’s partner coshes him on the head. This act is witnessed by a woman at the top of the stairs, who screams. As the kidnappers escape in the getaway car, they drive the chauffeur off the road. The home space has been violated. Perhaps, one of the more startling images of the prologue is of Daisy’s dropped teddy bear at the scene of the crime. Innocence is shattered.
Robert Rushing offers an important argument in understanding the importance of the home space in Murder on the Orient Express. In his article “Traveling Detectives,” Rushing states, “travel is understood only when it is oriented by and measured against the space of home. Detective narratives are also closely tied to the home: they defend (and in many cases repair) a domestic space ruptured by violent crime” (91). However, the “violent crime” that “ruptures” the “domestic space” in Murder on the Orient Express is not the murder that takes place within the main narrative of the novel and film, but the past crime, the kidnapping and killing of Daisy Armstrong.
The film then flashes forward to five years later when noted detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is preparing to board the Orient Express to make the journey from Istanbul to Calais and, eventually, on to London. The spaces of the film, now, lack the stability and permanence of the home. They are temporary—a ferry, a hotel, a train station, and, ultimately a train—they are all spaces defined by impermanence. Train stations are meant to be left, hotels are temporary, and spaces of transportation, like ferries and trains, are consistently changing location, never stable, never in one place.
In his first days on the train, Poirot observes an eclectic group of characters, and he is singled out by the sinister Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark), who claims to be a retired businessman and asks Poirot to be his bodyguard. Poirot refuses. The next night he witnesses a series of mysterious happenings, and the train becomes lodged in a snowdrift somewhere in Yugoslavia. In the morning, Ratchett is discovered, having been stabbed to death twelve times.
As the title would suggest, the element of place is a key component in Murder on the Orient Express. The action of the film is set almost entirely on the train. 110 minutes of the 128 minute running time take place on the train; only the opening 18 minutes—the titles, the prologue, and short sequence in Istanbul before the train departs—occur outside it. Once the action enters the train, it never leaves it.
For most train films, the setting is one that combines the dichotomous concepts of entrapment and movement. Perhaps the best example of this is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), which clearly drew its inspiration from Christie’s novel. A key difference between the two is that in The Lady Vanishes, the snowstorm that stops the train is overcome at the beginning of the film, and the train is allowed to continue its transeuropean journey throughout the film, which shows the characters trapped on the train as it speeds across the countryside. Murder on the Orient Express, on the other hand, compounds the sense of being trapped within the train by the snowdrift that traps the train itself. As Bachelard tells us, snow “reduces the exterior world to nothing rather too easily. It gives a single color to the entire universe which, with the one word, snow, is both expressed and nullified for those who have found shelter” (40). In Murder on the Orient Express, the world outside the train does not exist. The passengers have no communication with the outside. There are vague mentions of the Yugoslavian police who may or may not arrive at some time in the future, but they have no bearing on the events in the train. The windows of the train, which had previously shown the landscape, are now iced and fogged, looking onto a completely white exterior, in a sense completely obliterating that exterior. Yet, unlike those discussed in Bachelard, the passengers have not yet found shelter. They are in an indeterminate space between places. They are confined, essentially, in nowhere.
When he took on the project of Murder on the Orient Express, Sidney Lumet was no stranger to making films set in confined situations. His debut film was 12 Angry Men, also costarring Martin Balsam, who, in this film, plays train company director Signor Bianchi. Ina Rae Hark, in an article in Literature Film Quarterly (1987), points out that “the narrative occasion of Murder on the Orient Express…springs from a type of situation that has attracted Lumet throughout his career: it concerns a disparate group of people under pressure confined within a limited space from which they cannot escape” (37). Citing (in addition to 12 Angry Men) The Hill, The Pawnbroker, The Anderson Tapes, and Dog Day Afternoon, she claims that “Lumet’s characters have found themselves in a mise en scène that stresses enclosure” (37).
The claustrophobia of Murder on the Orient Express is established as soon as the characters board the train. The mincing and stout Poirot walks down the narrow corridor in the sleeping car, bumping into some characters, barely maneuvering his way around others, and being hit with doors as still others open their sleeping compartments. It is his first encounter with the cast as a whole, and the train simply does not seem big enough for the lot of them.
The film is probably best known for its cast of 14 international stars (and three notable British character actors), about half culled from the film world and half with stage backgrounds. The cast includes six Oscar winners and five non-winning Oscar nominees, for a total of 29 Oscar nominations and eight Oscars. The film, like the train, does not seem big enough to hold such a cast. With the exception of Finney and Martin Balsam, as Bianchi, the detective’s sidekick, each star gets little more than one scene in which to show off their talents. In a documentary about the making of the film, Jacqueline Bisset quips, “There are no small parts, only small actors,” of course, the irony being that there were no small actors in the film. The actors do not seem to have room to breathe, increasing the sense of crowding.
But this is not a bad thing. “There is no substitute for movie stars.” I read that comment in a discussion of classic movies on the Internet this week, and it seems particularly appropriate when considering Murder on the Orient Express. It’s a particularly excellent example of the “all-star movie,” now, sadly, a thing of the past. Stars of great magnitude help bring the disparate and eccentric lot of characters to life. In a film with 16 major characters, star power helps develop each one, bringing life to characters who have little time or space for development. The film suffers from two miscast roles. The very British Denis Quilley and Colin Blakely struggle as the Italian car salesman and the loudly-dressed American, respectively. Blakely’s role would have been ideally suited to young James Caan. Quilley’s role, small as it is, would have been better played by an Italian. Furthermore, the young teacher, Mary Debenham, is one of the more complex characters in the novel. The script by Paul Dehn trims the role immensely. Nevertheless, Vanessa Redgrave’s exceedingly coy performance brings nothing to the character. In the version done for the Poirot television show, Jessica Chastain presents a more layered performance in the role, but, to be fair, the script gives her more to work with.
The other performances, however, are top notch. Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar for her portrayal of the simple, gentle Swedish missionary. While she is excellent in the unglamorous role, the standout performance is that of Lauren Bacall, as the loud, obnoxious American, Mrs. Hubbard. Also perfect is Anthony Perkins as the mother-obsessed secretary, Hector MacQueen. The viewer can almost see the filmmakers winking at us here by having this character played by Anthony Perkins when it’s revealed that MacQueen cries out for “Mother” in his sleep. One doubts, when the script called for a neurotic, mother-loving, sexually ambiguous, young man, that the filmmakers considered anyone but Perkins for the role. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine anyone but John Gielgud as the proper British manservant, Mr. Beddoes.
The film contains such a wealth of great performances that describing them individually is a herculean task. I’ll simply say that the performances meet the quality viewers may expect of Bacall, Martin Balsam, Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Perkins, Rachel Roberts, Widmark, and Michael York. One pleasant surprise is Sean Connery showing range breaking from his then established persona of the suave and charming man-of-the-world, playing a decidedly uncharming martinet.
Albert Finney, as Poirot, has the most to do and makes the strongest impression. Purist Christie fans may bristle at the theatricality of the performance, preferring the soft-spokeness of David Suchet’s interpretation of the character from the long-running television show, an interpretation that runs closer to the version of the character in the Christie novels. However, Finney’s performance has the grandeur needed for the medium of film, which calls for a bigger presence than television does. If fans of the novel can break away from the desire for a film to exactly recreate the experience of a book, they may appreciate that Finney’s and Suchet’s performances do not differ in quality; they simply differ. One of the reasons often cited for Finney’s Oscar nomination, in a year of outstanding leading male performances, is the way he controls the space and dominates the scenes, particularly during the last half hour of the film, which is little more than an extended monologue as Poirot explains his deduction of the crime. Some reviewers have criticized how mannered Finney’s performance is. And, that observation is legitimate; the performance is mannered. Yet, within the context of the film, that is a valid interpretation of the character. Finney is not my favorite Poirot. Yet, his performance accomplishes what it sets out to do and works in the film. Whether viewers like it or not is a matter of personal preference.
The direction, similarly, is outstanding. The train setting differs from other types of enclosed spaces that can be potentially shown on film. Unlike those of most rooms, a train’s dimensions are diametrically opposite those of the film screen, narrow as opposed to wide, deep as opposed to flat. Hark criticizes Lumet for his use of the confined space. She begins her argument by stating, “Lumet heightens the confrontational nature of all the interrogations by stressing the cramped interior spaces of the train, frequently shooting from low or high angles, and packing several people so close together in the frame that the only way to avoid two-shots is to cut to more emotionally-charged close-ups” (38). These close-ups, Hark argues, threaten to reveal the truth too soon; the point is part of her larger thesis that Lumet’s impetus to reveal runs in opposition to Christie’s desire to conceal. She points out numerous places where Lumet’s style and Christie’s narrative seem to be working against each other, ultimately, however, undercutting her own thesis with the statement, “Few viewers unfamiliar with the novel would actually recognize [Lumet’s] revelations for what they are” (41).
In fact, Lumet’s direction, particularly his use of the confined space, is one of the film’s highlights. He maintains interest during the long talky scenes. He moves the camera fluidly, exploring the limited dimensions of the train. He even gives the impression that the frame changes shape, shrinking and growing to accommodate the intensity of the moment.
The narrative of confinement in Christie’s novel is hallmark of its genre. The whodunit genre is, as W.H. Auden explains in his landmark 1946 essay, “The Guilty Vicarage,” dependent on the concept of the “closed society” (149). He writes, “The detective story requires: 1) A closed society so that the possibility of an outside murderer (and hence of the society being totally innocent) is excluded; and a closely related society so that all its members are potentially suspect….Such conditions are met by:…d) the group isolated by the neutral place (the Pullman car)” (149-150). In 1946, Auden would certainly have been aware of Christie’s 1934 novel. (She was, and still is, the bestselling mystery novelist of all time—or, simply, novelist, for that matter—and Murder on the Orient Express one of her most famous novels.) His specific example of the Pullman car almost certainly refers to Murder on the Orient Express, without calling it by name. He goes on to discuss his society isolated by a neutral place: “In this last type the concealment-manifestation formula applies not only to the murder but also to the relations between the members of the group who first appear to be strangers to each other, but are later found to be related” (150). As disparate as the characters may seem in Murder on the Orient Express—they represent 10 nationalities (English, American, French, Belgian, German, Russian, Italian, Swedish, Hungarian, and Greek); multiple age categories, from the very young Countess Andrenyi (Bisset) to the ancient Princess Dragomiroff (Hiller); and multiple classes, from the nobility down through the servant class—they brought together by a crime.
The goal of the detective is to bring about the expiation of that crime, to return the milieu to state of grace. Among fictional detectives, Christie’s character Poirot is particularly suited to this task, for he is a man without a home, perpetually traveling. Poirot first appears as a war refugee in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Like his first novel and Orient Express, many of his subsequent adventures have place names in the title, including Murder on the Links (1923), The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), Peril at End House (1932), Death in the Clouds (1935), Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Death on the Nile (1937), and The Hollow (1946). Still more involve travel. Poirot is a man isolated in the enormity of the world, confronting this evil. After Poirot sets right the community in this story, he leaves. He is absent from the final scene of community renewal. He is of no community and at home nowhere.
Murder on the Orient Express is the apotheosis of the traditional whodunit. It is arguably the greatest example of the genre. What hampers the film’s critical reputation is that word “traditional.” When critics praise films from this period, it’s usually for their innovation. The classic narrative of the film and the film’s conglomeration of classic stars have worked against it in garnering critical attention. Yet, when it was released in 1974, Murder on the Orient Express became the highest grossing British production of all time, a record it held throughout the rest of the decade. Yet, its popularity has worked against it in developing its critical reputation.
The film, however, is daring enough to be traditional in a time when films were valued for their edginess. It fulfills any value system that respects a perfect blend of story, technique, and theme, executed with near perfection. I’ve reached over 3,000 words without mentioning the beautiful art direction, costumes, or music yet. The artistry of the film is undeniable. Among film buffs, it remains highly regarded. And, yet, for the jaded critical establishment, it is too glamorous and too polished. Those qualities reek of middlebrowishness. What scholars miss is the complexity beneath the glamour and the polish. This is not a film that is all style and no substance and all story and no theme. It does not stand out as excellent among the films of the 1970s because it has a timelessness than they lack. It is less of its time and, thus, remains fresher than films that were praised for innovations, which are now old hat. The best indication of the enduring quality of the film is the fact that it remains engrossing, and, perhaps, becomes more so, on subsequent viewings, after the viewer knows the solution of the mystery.