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).


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

That living fossil ate my best friend!

The Meg (2018)
(SPOILERS) There’s a good chance that, unless you go in armed with ludicrously high expectations for the degree to which it's going to take the piss out of its premise, you'll have a good time with The Meg. This is unabashedly B-moviemaking, and if a finger of fault can be pointed, it's that director Jon Turteltaub, besides being a strictly functional filmmaker, does nothing to give it any personality beyond employing the services of the Stat. Obviously, though, the mere presence of the gravelly-larynxed one goes a long way to plugging the holes in any leaky vessel.

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018)
(SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless Heat rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but Den of Thieves is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …