Murder on the Orient Express
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).