About the last thing you’re likely to associate with Sidney Lumet is an elegant entertainment. Oh, you can find stylishness in a number of Lumet pictures—for instance, Bye Bye Braverman (1968) or Dog Day Afternoon (1975)—but it’s a heavy-handed stylishness without a trace of elegance. It’s exactly the sort of thing that makes his ill-advised film of The Wiz (1978) such a spectacular disaster. But somehow in 1974 Lumet headed up the ultra-elegant Murder on the Orient Express—one of the best all-star mystery pictures ever made. It must have been just the right mix of talents, since nothing else in Lumet’s filmography suggests such a movie was in him. Subsequent attempts for more Agatha Christie films using the same formula by producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin never quite measured up, and the bulk of screenwriter Paul Dehn’s other work is fairly undistinguished or worse (Battle for the Planet of the Apes, for example). A lot of the credit probably goes to Albert Finney’s perfect embodiment of Hercule Poirot, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe it’s simply a case of the stars being in alignment.
Following a surprisingly creepy prologue that sets up the reason for the titular murder, the film plunges straight into the luxurious exotica of the story—and never really lets up. The film adheres to Christie’s novel with admirable faithfulness, but is also at pains to create the perfect atmosphere for a movie in which pretty (or at least striking) people are involved in a crime in pretty settings. The setup is classic. Even without guessing the role Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark) played in the events depicted in the prologue, he’s so unpleasant that there’s never any question as to who’s going to be the murder victim. The parade of star suspects is delightful, but much of the film truly does belong to Finney’s Poirot—and to his scenes with Martin Balsam and George Colouris—all of which are endlessly entertaining and fascinating. There’s no depth here, but as entertainment, it’s pure gold.