Agatha Christie’s novel got the all-star treatment in 1974 with the sleek, elegant, nigh on to perfect Murder on the Orient Express. Though very much a product of its time — an era when it was common to create films around the biggest stars available — it has not dimmed in the least with the passage of time. I grant you that there are Christie purists who tend to think more highly of the TV adaptations of her stories, but this is as good as it gets for big screen Agatha Christie, who prior to this had not fared well in the movies — at least so far as her series characters were concerned. An attempt to create a series of Hercule Poirot movies in Britain in the 1930s resulted in one (apparently bad) movie that bombed so completely that it took the projected series with it. The less said the better about the 1965 Frank Tashlin abomintation, The Alphabet Murders, with Tony Randall (really?) as Poirot. This, on the other hand, is the Rolls Royce of mystery movies — and it did start a series, even though no subsequent film lived up to Murder on the Orient Express.
In many ways, the film seems like a fluke. Conceptually, it’s like the big-budget, big-star disaster movies of the same time period. It was released the same month as Earthquake and a month earlier than The Towering Inferno. All of these stem from the same hit source — 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. They all have the same basic mindset — except Orient Express skips the disaster, of course. To add to its unlikeliness is the choice of Sidney Lumet as the director. Lumet may have been many things as a director, but high on the list of things he wasn’t was anybody’s idea of the guiding force behind a movie that was all about style, wit, elegance and sophistication. (His next film would be the more typical Dog Day Afternoon.) But somehow, he pulled it off. No doubt that cast, production design, Tony Walton’s Oscar-nominated costumes, Richard Rodney Bennett’s Oscar-nominated score and Geoffrey Unsworth’s Oscar-nominated cinematography had something to do with it, but Lumet shouldn’t be excluded from the praise.
At the center of the film — besides Mrs. Christie’s delightfully convoluted mystery — is Albert Finney’s Poirot. Unlike Tony Randall before him and Peter Ustinov after Randall, Finney buried his own personality in the character. This has caused some to consider the performance too mannered and too distant, but I disagree. He’s certainly less cozy and avuncular than Ustinov, but those qualities are more Ustinov than Poirot. Poirot is supposed to be arrogant and vain. He’s supposed to be peculiar. And he’s supposed to be supremely unaware that he’s…well, a little bit ridiculous. All of these are qualities that Finney evidences from the onset — and which he enlarges upon as the film goes. He also is more than a little prone to showy theatrics, role playing and making use of the way others perceive him as strange to get what he wants from the suspects. And to lighten it all, there are some wonderfully comic exchanges with Martin Balsam and George Coulouris.
The story itself finds Poirot as an unexpected passenger — luckily or unluckily depending on who you are — on the Orient Express on the night when a particularly detestable specimen of humanity (played by Richard Widmark, who was always good at being detestable) is murdered. Since the train is snowbound, it falls to Poirot to figure out who among the 12 — all played by high-rent actors — is responsible for the crime. As far as this kind of sophisticated murder mystery is concerned, the results are beyond compare.
Plays for one show only at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14 on Wednesday, Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m.