Tuesday, February 21

Good 70s Films: Murder on the Orient Express

1974 Mystery
From Paramount Pictures
Directed by Sidney Lumet

Albert Finney
Lauren Bacall
Martin Balsam
Ingrid Bergman
Jacqueline Bisset
Jean-Pierre Cassel
Sean Connery
John Gielgud
Wendy Hiller
Anthony Perkins
Denis Quilley
Vanessa Redgrave
Rachel Roberts
Richard Widmark
Michael York

Devoted fans of this blog know that a major turn-on for me in the movies I choose to see is the large and glittering cast.  I couldn't keep myself from seeing a film with a cast like this one if I tried. Did you see these names?  I always seem to buy a ticket for mysteries as well and what is it about those set on trains that is so damned appealing?  And of course this one is based on a famous Agatha Christie work and as mystery writers go, the style that she had with dispersing such delicious nuggets of clues was about as good as it gets.

I just watched it again, of course, and I certainly recalled who was killed and why and by whom.  But nothing was ruined because I had forgotten many of the ins and outs of the story and the characters.  While I was getting reacquainted, I enjoyed sniffing out those clues while luxuriating in the look and feel of this stylish piece and practically swooning to a magical score.  

Sidney Lumet was a brilliant director... one of my favorites... and while he has done a number of very important films, Murder on the Orient Express is simply pure entertainment.  It is, in some ways, exactly what attending films is all about and a first-class production all around.

Christie was inspired by the 1932 kidnapping and subsequent murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's two-year old son.  The setting was spurred on by a 1929 event when the Orient Express was stuck outside Istanbul for five days.  She then invited her favorite Belgian detective, immodest as ever, to solve a new crime.

The film opens in a particularly stylized fashion.  Via various sepia looks of frantic newspaper headlines and mad dashes in a dark mansion of a man cradling a small bundle and others being hit over the head, we learn that little Daisy Armstrong has been taken.  The entire collection of scenes for this introductory part is done wordlessly.  We know it's important and we need to wait.

Five years later it's 1935 and we observe a number of people board a train out of Istanbul.  The only thing to top the entrance of this glorious cast is the way we say goodbye to them but what fun it is to see each one board. Even here we are treated to clues... if we are paying good attention.  

Hercule Poirot (Finney) is on board and those staying in the same car with him seem a bit unsettled.  We meet an old, wheelchair-bound princess (Hiller) and her stern caretaker (Roberts) and a young and attractive count and countess (York, Bisset). She seems very skittish.  He seems secretive.  There is an irritatingly talkative widow, Mrs. Hubbard (Bacall) whose haughty, American demeanor doesn't seem to be anyone's cup of tea. Another American (Quilley) comes in the form of a car salesman, all full of himself.  Sheepishly out-of-place in looks and demeanor is a missionary from Africa (Bergman) and a couple (Redgrave and Connery) trying hard to make everyone think they're not a couple. There is a pompous American on board (Widmark) who is wealthy, retired from something he's not too willing to discuss and appearing a bit ruthless to his two employees, a secretary (Perkins) and a valet (Gielgud), both of whom appear to very much dislike him..  The American informs Poirot he has two threatening notes and he would like Poirot to shadow him.   The detective declines.  We also meet the French conductor (Cassel) who seems to be into everything and a railway executive (Balsam) who bosses everyone around and is a pal of Poirot's.

During the night, while the train is stopped on the tracks due to heavy snow, the wealthy American is stabbed to death.  Twelve stab wounds are discovered along with an unusual assortment of clues. Poirot's pleasure trip becomes a business trip.

In his sleuthing Poirot discovers the dead man is not who he claimed to be but was the mastermind behind the Armstrong kidnapping/murder and was traveling under an alias while avoiding American shores.  As the wily Belgian investigates the case and interviews the various passengers, he realizes that they all somehow had a connection to the Armstrong case.  No kidding!

Those interviews are all such fun little vignettes, each giving the actor or actress his or her biggest scene.  It's fun to see most of them sitting at separate tables as Poirot is involved with them in certain scenes but the key ones are those impeccable interviews. Otherwise, most of the time these actors are sitting around and silent (as instructed) as Poirot delivers his steely-eyed sermon.  

We know that one of the things I so love about the large cast bit is when they all appear in scenes together.  What could be better than a railroad car for togetherness, looking glamorous and guilty?

SPOILER ALERT:  Poirot quickly uncovers that all 12 participant, in fact, stabbed him. We learn, of course, what their various involvements were in the Armstrong case... grandmother of the little girl, her aunt, godmother, a governess, chauffeur, friend, cook, etc.  The train ride was planned and the deed carried out as they wanted.  They had simply not made room for Poirot being in attendance.  This means, of course, that before being discovered, each of 12 people were involved in a performance for Poirot. (He says to Mrs. Hubbard at the end of her interview, thank you for playing your part.) The receiving line scene at the end was a nice touch and what a delightful way to say goodbye to such an esteemed cast.

It didn't take a lot of imagination to cast Bacall as an aggressive society type or Perkins as a twitching paranoic or Gielgud and Hiller as imperious types. They must have sprung immediately to mind for the casting folks. They certainly all did the job they needed to do. 

One would not have immediately thought of Finney to play the dour, portly, dark-haired, mustachioed Poiret... and in fact, they didn't.  Alec Guinness was first choice and before it was offered to Finney, it was sent to Paul Scofield who was busy on stage. Finney, of course, was far too young (by 20 years or so) and not the right coloring or weight.  It was ultimately decided he could certainly act the hell out of the part and the make-up would do the rest.  And he did and it did.  He is the entire movie, all other roles are small in comparison.  I couldn't take my eyes off him, so dominate was he, and I was always thinking, really, Albie, is that you?

In the long scene toward the end, where he's laying out all his speculation for each character, everyone had to sit around the room, saying nothing, for take after take after take.  It's been said it might be right up there with an actor's least favorite scene ever.  It must have been something for Finney, as well, because those were a lot of words to speak... eight pages' worth and 27 minutes long.

The only criticism of the film is that I occasionally strained to fully understand what Finney was saying.  The accent was just too strong or muffled or something but it was disconcerting when it happened. Of all characters, we certainly needed to be clear on what he was saying.

Bergman had played dowdy types before and would again.  It had been some time since the glamour days of Casablanca or even Anastasia.  I thought she was quite fine but not worthy of the film's only Oscar.  When she accepted it, she famously apologized to fellow nominee, Valentina Cortese, for her stunning turn in Day for Night, saying she deserved the award more.  I thought she was right.

There wasn't a nicer guy in movies playing villains than Widmark and I must say I always got a kick watching him perform with such different types of actors as Gielgud and Perkins.  Gielgud and Widmark had worked together in St. Joan (1957) and Widmark and Bacall had done The Cobweb (1955).  It must have been like old home week, which, in turn, would have made the whole experience more pleasant.  Bergman, Perkins and Cassel had starred in Goodbye Again (1961) and Perkins dispatched Balsam in Psycho (1960).  Finney appeared with Roberts in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and with Bisset in Two for the Road (1967).  Connery and Balsam worked for Lumet in The Anderson Tapes (1971).  Others pairings would result after making this one.

Despite the obvious friendship there was a wariness, Lumet said, during the read-through rehearsals. Those actors mainly from the stage eyed the movie actors with trepidation and vice-versa.  When they settled in, some were still nervous about sharing scenes with some of the best. Gielgud, Hiller, Bergman and Widmark must have been a bit awe-inspiring for some of the others.

Lumet said he needed a big star to get the ball-rolling on attracting big-name actors. Sean Connery was the first one hired because he was the biggest draw at the time. Lumet was the other lure... everyone wanted to work for him.  He was an actor's director.  It was almost always a love affair.

Christie was reluctant to sell the rights to her story to another movie studio because she didn't like their results.  After much hassling she gave in on Orient Express and ended up being greatly pleased.  The famous recluse even stepped out for the premiere. Everyone was also excited about screenwriter Paul Dehn's tight adaptation of her novel.

Someone in this production must have been a train enthusiast because the train feels like a character itself and is treated more lovingly than any of the people.  The introduction of the train (not the real Orient Express in case you were going there) is so exciting that I wanted to contact my Amtrak agent for a ride anywhere.  The camera caresses this long, sleek black train with its solitary red plaque on the front of the engine that reads 230-G-353.  It is so clean and its shine is only masked by the steam pouring out and over it like a protective shield.  We are particularly drawn to the insignias placed on doors and the various beautifully-designed
windows of many sizes and shapes.  

While the camera sweeps the entire train, slowly, as it leaves the station, Richard Rodney Bennett's lush score does everything it can to enrich the experience. He somehow managed to provide a nostalgic feel and yet it was opulent, lilting. The same could be said for scenes of the train moving through beautiful countrysides and even being stuck in the winter wilderness.  That wonderful score was always present, lifting us to where we needed to be. Bennett said he wanted his score to make the train glamorous. His Oscar nomination was well-deserved.

The interior of the train, while truly a sound stage somewhere in London, was more opulence, thanks to the wizardry of  production designer Tony Walton.  Jack Stephens' art direction aided in every way. Walton, by the way, did double time as the costume designer. Bacall, Bisset and Hiller must have been thrilled, along with all of the gentlemen. 

The claustrophobic look was necessary, of course.  It is, after all, a train and it aided and abetted a sinister feel but it also helped that beautifully picturesque outdoor scenes were added from location filming in England, France and Turkey.

If you've missed this delightful film, you should rectify that.  Take a look at the trailer here.  Or you may be interested to know that it has been remade, directed Kenneth Branagh and starring him as Poirot.  Also feaured are Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp.  It will be released this year.

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Movie review

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