Skip to main content

Ladies and gentlemen, you are all aware that a repulsive murderer has himself been repulsively, and perhaps deservedly, murdered.


Murder on the Orient Express
(1974)

Peter Ustinov is my favourite incarnation of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, for much the same reason that Margaret Rutherford is my favourite Miss Marple. Their renditions of the characters bring the warmth and sparkle of their own personalities to the parts. In the case of Poirot, in particular, I’ve never much cared for David Suchet’s “definitive” portrayal (Joan Hickson’s Marple is a different matter). But in Sidney Lumet’s big screen version of her most famous tale (well, probably), neither of the main suspects is in the frame.  Rather, the unlikely choice of Albert Finney applies boot polish to his hair and waxes his ‘tache.


Finney’s performance is so self-consciously BIG and theatrical, that it shouldn’t really work. In some ways it doesn’t; it’s very much a “performance”, not a character brought to life, and it cannot be seen as anything other than an actor enjoying his own hammery. But still, ultimately it doesn’t feel out of place amidst the period artifice, the two-dimensional suspects with their two-dimensional motives, and the absurdity of the plot that Christie has constructed. Perhaps Finney thought he needed to make a big splash or be lost amid his scene-stealing fellow thespians? Or maybe the extensive make-up he endured every day dictated his approach; rather large than be buried by it. Credit where it’s due, however; you don’t think you’re watching a 38-year old at work.


Finney wasn’t the first choice; both Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield were unavailable. The Academy was clearly impressed, as Finney garnered a Best Actor nomination (no doubt in the same way that big crowd-pleasing turns are sometimes seen rewarded; see also Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean). It seems Agatha Christie herself was also pleased, just not with the moustache. She considered the film as a whole by far the best adaptation of her work (generally, she had not been impressed).


Paul Dehn wrote the script, an Oscar winner for Seven Days to Noon more than two decades earlier. At the time of Orient Express (his final screenplay, and also nominated for an Oscar) he’d been getting steady work on ‘60s espionage fare (both Bond and Le Carré, the latter working with Lumet on lacklustre George Smiley-in-all-but-name The Deadly Affair) before becoming a regular on the Planet of the Apes sequels. The less well-received And Then There Were None/Ten Little Indians was released at close to the same time as Orient Express, but not by producers John Brabourne and Richard B Goodwin. They went on to produce three further big screen Christies (two Ustinov Poirots and Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d).


As to why Orient Express was such a big hit, maybe the period escapism was to the tastes of audiences at just that moment. More likely, it was simply a case of producer shrewdness. It may have been classier than its disaster movie peers (if, ultimately, no less ridiculous) but the same approach was taken of “if you pack your picture with stars, audiences will come”. Which still doesn’t explain the Oscar attention (six nominations); costumes and cinematography perhaps, but were they really recognising Dehn for adapting something so preposterous well, or did they actually think the novel held up to scrutiny? Ingrid Bergman walked away with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar; good as she is, you’d be hard-pressed to say why she received special attention (perhaps because it’s mostly one long scene of attention-grabbing affectation).


Sean Connery was first cast, as his star was the brightest at the time (ironically as, this film aside, much of the decade would be a box office drought for him). Sidney Lumet thought that his name would attract others, but it appears that no one needed much encouragement. Connery’s enjoyably full of bluster, but everyone is required to perform in broad strokes; there’s limited screen time to make an impression, so it’s as much about the audience recognising an actor as it is eliciting a performance.


Some, like Jacqueline Bisset and Michael York, make little impact. Richard Widmark’s victim/villain is ideally cast; he leaves a strong wake behind even when he’s left the screen (although flashbacks continue to remind us). Anthony Perkins is all awkwardness and nervous energy, like Norman Bates redux (whether that’s appropriate to the character I don’t know, but it’s memorable). Lauren Bacall is highly annoying, which I guess is the point, but I don’t know that she suggests anything going on under the surface. Wendy Hiller is given some great lines, and pulls off shameless theatricality. Ironically, the best players are the most natural ones; John Gielgud’s long-suffering butler is a treat. He could do this kind of thing in his sleep, but his reserved disdain is never less than wonderful. Top honours go to a delightfully sexy, vibrant Vanessa Redgrave; her character is fostered with limited motivation and dialogue but Redgrave delivers her fully formed (not remotely something the film is aiming for, but still not an inconsiderable achievement).


Lumet says his love of melodrama attracted him to the picture, but the very stylisation of the film made it much more difficult that he expected. Credit to the director for wanting to flex his creative muscles, and he provides a plush, elegant piece of work, but his best work tends to lean in the opposite direction. This is the guy who didn’t quite have the feel for Network’s satire (interesting as the film is) and who was completely at sea with musical The Wiz. But put him in the contemporary crime genre (to describe it at its loosest) and he invariably delivers the goods, providing films or power, depth and resonance. Lumet lacks a light touch, and he is never sure of himself with comedic elements; as many feel forced and laboured here (Martin Balsam’s decisiveness that every successive suspect interviewed by Poirot is the murderer) as hit the target (Connery taking the piss out of the detective’s pronunciation of “PEEP cleaner”).  Orient Express is an exercise in aesthetics, which well-reflects the approach of the novel’s author, and as such it is a success (although, to a modern eye the preponderance of soft-focus photography, no doubt to indulge certain cast members no longer in their prime, is distracting and slightly tacky), but it doesn’t really bring out the best in Lumet.


Ina Rae Hark  (Twelve Angry People: Conflicting Revelatory Strategies in Murder on the Orient Express) comments that Lumet and Dehn imbue Christie’s characters with the rudiments of inner psychology largely absence from her novel(s), although Hark admits this is common to adaptations of her work. She observes that Lumet is chomping at the bit in the interrogation scenes (perhaps not on The Offence levels, but relatively), and its true that his prodding sometimes feels at odds with the mannered, parlour game etiquette one expects from Christie.


But more damaging is a structural one; the film lacks the probing of characters/suspects that go with leisurely pacing.  Generally this can be relied upon to provoke the viewer’s investigatory faculties (it is certainly present in other screen versions of Christie mysteries). At 128 minutes, it’s not that as if there’s insufficient time to achieve this.


The author was inspired by Lindberg baby case, hinging the central murder on the kidnapping and murder of the child of a wealthy couple some years earlier. Lumet announces this immediately by kicking off with newsreel footage of that event. Later, he punctuates the investigation with further snatches of this footage; a decision of dubious merit. One can see how he thought prepping the audience would be a sensible move, as it saves getting bogged down later on and throwing off the narrative momentum.


But Poirot’s interrogation of his suspects is perfunctory, spending a couple of minutes with each before announcing he knows the identity of the killer and then launching into a lengthy explanation. Little tension or suspense is generated regarding the suspects, and the red herrings are discarded with barely a glance. Lumet seems to be unable to get on board with the misdirection required by this type of plot. Both Death on the Nile and Evil under the Sun do much better jobs of spreading the seeds of suspicion and motive before the little grey cells come into play.


Which raises the other problem with Murder on the Orient Express. Without, spoiling it for the uninitiated, this is surely the battiest of murder plots (perhaps it’s for this reason that it is so preeminent in the author’s catalogue). Usually with a Christie, I will nod to myself and commend the mind that made it all so immersive (if replete with unlikely coincidence and circumstance for it to be pulled off). They don’t invite picking apart because they “feel” satisfying and resolved. Here, the whole isn’t so much a house of cards as an illustration of what happens when you dynamite the deck. Christie almost appears to be mocking her audience’s credulity, daring them to call her out on the absurd extravagance of it all.


Not vintage Lumet then, nor vintage Christie. But the period-soaked ensemble ensure this an amiable two hours, and Finney’s performance is nothing if not memorable (divisive, might be a better word).


Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.