Travelling first class

Nostalgia overblown to perfection

Published: Nov 10 2017, 01:01:am

Thursday, February 20, 1975.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Written by Paul Dehn. Based on the 1934 novel by Agatha Christie. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Running time: 128 minutes. Mature entertainment with no B.C. Classifier’s warning.
    It was the 1950s. Television was new, and a show called Dragnet was very, very popular.
    Freberg, a satirist, cut a comedy disc called St. George and the Dragonet, one of the all-time 78 rpm classics. It climaxed with St. George, a parody of Jack Webb’s police Sgt. Joe Friday, arresting the dragon.
    “I’m taking you in on a 502,” he says in his matter-of-fact manner. “You figure it out.”
    “What’s the charge?” blusters the dragon.
    “Devouring maidens out of season.”
    “OUT OF SEASON!!!,” roars the beast. “You’ll never pin that rap on me!!! (screaming) Do you hear me? COP!!?
    “Yeah, I hear you. I’ve got you on a 412, too.”
    “A 412? (outraged bellow) WHAT’S A 412?!!
    “Overacting. Let’s go.” (Dum de dum dum.)
    As the Orient Express pulls out of the Istanbul station, its boiler emitting clouds of steam, the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden lathers on a lush, heroic theme. Sharp-eyed filmgoers will catch the engine’s registration number: 230-C-353.
    It should have been 412.
    In his Murder on the Orient Express, director Sidney Lumet achieves a marvellous consistency. Virtually everyone in this loving and lovely reconstruction of a 1930s Hollywood murder mystery — including the arrogantly efficient Continental locomotive (played by an SNF “G” class Pacific) is guilty of a 412.
    In many minds, including my own, the crime is richly justified.
    The period setting suggests it. The material demands it.
    Indeed, where else but in the the films of the 1930s could a dining car passenger roll his eyes and say “for three days all these people, total strangers, meet in this train whose engine controls their destinies.”
    The plot in this case was the creation of Agatha Christie, circa 1934. Her original novel was something of a mystery writer’s exercise, a literary sleight of hand designed to play on the reader’s expectations and conventions of the genre.
    Faced with the mystery is Dame Agatha’s fussy little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), a passenger on the train’s Calais coach. During his first night aboard, two unexpected things happen.
    Annoying, but innocuous, is a snow slide that halts the train somewhere in Yugoslavia. Bothersome, but a challenge, is the murder of one of the luxury coach's passengers, a mysterious American millionaire named Ratchatt (Richard Widmark).
    “Frontally stabbed ten, no, 12 times,” reckons fellow passenger Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris), elaborating on the obvious. Worried about bad publicity and delay in Zagreb is railway director Bianchi (Martin Balsam).
    He asks Poirot to take on the case.
    Fascinated by the fact that there are “too many clues in this room,” Poirot agrees. First, he questions the dozen suspects individually, then calls the group together to announce his conclusions.
    In moviedom’s “good old days,” the years that big studios were the rule in Hollywood, a cast could have been put together from the ranks of contract players. Familiar faces with exotic names such as Mischa Auer, Akim Tamiroff, Frank Orth and S.Z. Sakall would have produced a film full of larger-than-life, thoroughly professional performances.
    Today the drill is different. Murder on the Orient Express, an archetypically American film, is a British production. It features a cast of name stars playing character roles.
    Thus Finney, almost unrecognizable as the crotchety, petulant Poirot, finds himself questioning the likes of (in alphabetical order):  
●    Lauren Bacall, exuding self-confidence as the overloud Harriet Hubbard, a former grande dame of American theatre.
●    Ingrid Bergman, a standout as Greta Ohlsson, a nervous, Swedish-born medical missionary.
●    Jacqueline Bisset, cake-icing beautiful as Countess Andrenyi, the wife of a quick-tempered Hungarian diplomat played by Michael York.
●    Jean-Pierre Cassel, stiffly sentimental as Pierre-Paul Michel, the porter on the Calais coach.
●    Sean Connery, brusque and precise as Col. Arbuthnot, an officer in His Majesty’s Army in India returning to London with his mistress Mary Debenham, a flirtatious, self-possessed heiress played by Vanessa Redgrave.
●    John Gielgud, as Edward Beddoes, the wry image of a gentleman’s gentleman and butler to the late Ratchett.
●    Wendy Hiller, practically embalmed in her make-up as elderly Russian Princess Dragomiroff, still regal in exile.
●    Anthony Perkins, twitchy as ever as Hector McQueen, an American art expert who was also a Ratchett employee.
●    Rachel Roberts, incredibly Prussian as Princess Dragomiroff’s loyal lady’s maid Hildegarde Schmidt.
    Now that, as they say in the publicity handouts, is a cast. Along with Widmark (and, of course, Finney), all are credited above the title.
    The game is called Spot-the-Murderer. The rules demand that the audience see all of the clues that the detective does so that it can match wits with the professional.
    In maklng his film, Lumet was constantly aware of the style and conventions of the period. He provides filmgoers with a rich feast of incidental atmospheric details, the kind of background material so badly needed in (and missing from) Billy Wilder’s recent remake of The Front Page.
    Happily, Lumet uses the scene in the Istanbul railway station not only to introduce his cast, but to give some sense of the elegance of first-class travel on this romantically-named train.
    We see chefs choosing fresh food and well-aged drink for its tables, and are introduced to a conductor who greets each passenger in his or her native tongue. In the background, the flavour of Istanbul as an international crossroads is enhanced by the sight of kimonoed Japanese, robed Arabs and black Africans.
    Overall, the film is bathed in an assertive, playfully overbearing score by Richard Rodney Bennett. It’s music that works well with Paul Dehn’s script, a screenplay that allows for small pleasures, such as the following exchange;
    Poirot, concluding an interview: “You never smile.”
    Princess Dragomiroff: “My doctor has advised me against it.”
    Filmgoers in the mood for some fun will have difficulty following such advice. A deliberate and necessary 412, Murder on the Orient Express is overblown and played to perfection.
    This is the movie that they don’t make them like anymore. And it’s welcome.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1975. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: A nostalgia-driven confection in a year of gritty Oscar contenders — The Godfather: Part II was the best picture winner, among such nominees as Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny and The Towering Inferno — director Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express still managed to pick up a win (Ingrid Bergman as best supporting actress) out of six nominations.
     All-star movies were in fashion during the 1970s, with 1974 offering audiences a choice of four. Included were director Jack Smight’s Airport 75, Mark Robson’s Earthquake, John Guillermin’s The Towering Inferno and, of course, Lumet’s Murder.
    Its success set off a boomlet of Agatha Christie adaptations, all following the formula of filling the screen with familiar faces. The first of these, director Peter Collinson’s Ten Little Indians, was a five-nation European co-production based on her 1939 novel Ten Little Niggers. (For obvious reasons, the book was later retitled And Then There Were None, though the American distributor of the 1975 movie had no trouble with the equally derisive Indians version.) Actor Peter Ustinov became Poirot for the next A-list star gathering, John Guillermin’s Death on the Nile (1978), and Angela Lansbury played Jane Marple in Guy Hamilton’s The Mirror Crack’d (1980). Ustinov returned for two more outings as Poirot — 1982’s Evil Under the Sun, also directed by Hamilton, and Michael Winner’s Appointment with Death (1988) — before audiences lost interest. Largely forgotten, but worth mentioning because of its Canadian connections, is Ordeal by Innocence, British television director Desmond Davis’s 1985 adaptation of Christie’s 1958 novel. Top-billed were Donald Sutherland and Christopher Plummer, actors who had earlier worked together in Bob Clark’s all-star 1979 Sherlock Holmes feature Murder by Decree.

See also:  Another movie in which a train has a starring role is Silver Streak, director Arthur Hiller’s 1977 comedy set aboard an American transcontinental played by the CPR’s Canadian.