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Murder on the Orient Express

Movie Information

The Story: Belgian detective Hercule Poirot finds himself in the position of solving a murder mystery on the Orient Express — with an abundance of suspects. The Lowdown: Absolutely first-rate, star-fueled, big-budget movie fare. As far as this type of movie, it's nothing short of perfection.
Genre: Mystery
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Albert Finney, Martin Balsam, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave
Rated: PG

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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11 thoughts on “Murder on the Orient Express

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    an era when it was common to create films around the biggest stars available

    It’s kind of shame that this has fallen by the way side recently. The only films that seem to do this nowadays are comedies about holidays.

    I guess Nolan’s Batman pictures hem close to this approach – filling the supporting casts with people with Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson.

    But I’d love to see a mystery film done like this again. But I have a bad feeling that studios are getting jittery about star-lead light thrillers after THE TOURIST underperformed.

    I fear more dodgy Christopher Nolan impressions in our future.

  2. Erik Harrison

    I’ve always been reluctant to see this – partially because Sidney Lumet seems like such bad casting, as you mention, partially because of a partisanship to David Suchet’s Poirot.

    Still, I suppose I should get around to it.

  3. Ken Hanke

    My guess is that the Suchet partisanship is going to work against it — much as I suspect my Finney partisanship works against the TV films.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Then again, a film historian friend of mine remarked upon reading this review that Finney got what no one else has — and that what he’s giving is actually a very naturalistic performance of any extremely mannered character. There may be something to that.

  5. luluthebeast

    I’ve always preferred Finney’s portrayal of Poirot over the others; more nuanced and closer to the stories. Ustinov was, well, Ustinov.

  6. Jeremy Dylan

    My guess is that the Suchet partisanship is going to work against it — much as I suspect my Finney partisanship works against the TV films.

    I’m a huge fan of Suchet’s Poirot, but this is leagues ahead of his version of the same story. It’s quite in keeping with the tone of the early Suchet telefilms though.

  7. Scott K. Ratner

    Well, I like the film well enough, but I don’t at all buy that Finney is giving “a naturalistic performance of an extremely mannered character.” That description is a cheap alibi. I respect Finney as an actor generally, but when he tries to play “older” (as he did here and in SCROOGE), his insistence on heavy makeup and immovability in his neck and shoulders creates an extremely mannered, unnatural persona that constantly reminds me I’m watching a man in heavy makeup moving unnaturally. To me, it’s the Paul Muni problem times ten. I never for a second believe I’m watching the character, at all times I think I’m watching an actor (unsuccessfully) TRY to play the character. True, Ustinov is playing Ustinov (or, at least, a recognizable Ustinov variation), but I much prefer it to the irritating enigma that is the Finney Poirot. Suchet is in a sense the perfect balance, though I agree that the film MOTOE is many times better than the Suchet version. Though I still believe that any adaptation of this novel is hampered by the fact that among Agatha’s novels, it holds among the LEAST cinematic potential, with only one murder, no subsequent murder or even attempts, all taking place on a train that isn’t moving.

    Incidentally, I must make one factual correction. The 1930’s attempt at adapting Poirot stories resulted in 3 films, not 1, all starring Austin Trevor.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Well, you see, Scott, the thing is…well, you’re wrong about Finney here. (I can’t argue about Scrooge, but that sucks on so many levels, it’s hard to worry about individual components.) You can have both Ustinov and Suchet. I concede, however, you are right about Trevor. Has anyone actually seen any of those?

  9. Scott K. Ratner

    I’m pretty sure Everson saw LORD EDGEWARE DIES, and that same film has a vague review on imdb from someone named Peacham. I’ve done a bit of homework to try to track them down, to no success, but I never see them on lists of lost films.

    As to Finney, I was struck by the phoniness of his Poirot at age ten! I went to the premiere of the film, was blown away by the stylishness of the work (the opening credits alone were quite stunning), but then found myself saying “there’s a man all made up in heavy disguise.” Almost as bad as Alan Arkin as the elder Roat, or one of the “Adrian Messenger” disguises. It’s the kind of vocal characterization that is so gruff and heavy handed that it doesn’t allow for subtlety of tone (which is where Ustinov especially does well). If I met the Suchet Poirot, I’d think “here’s a affected, quirky, somewhat annoying man,” but if I met the Finney Poirot I’d be thinking “here’s a man in disguise, a man trying to act like what he isn’t.” That’s the difference for me. I realize that Warner Oland was Swedish, but when I see his Chan I think “there’s a Chinese man,” whereas when I see Sidney Toler I think “there’s a man made up to look Chinese.” It’s that kind of difference.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I’m pretty sure Everson saw LORD EDGEWARE DIES, and that same film has a vague review on imdb from someone named Peacham. I’ve done a bit of homework to try to track them down, to no success, but I never see them on lists of lost films.

    Everson probably saw it as a youth in a theater in GB. I doubt they’re lost per se. I suspect it’s more a case of no one being sufficiently interested to dig them up. They smack of quota quickies.

    As to Finney, I was struck by the phoniness of his Poirot at age ten!

    Nothing to be ashamed of. I thought Lon Chaney, Jr. could act when I was ten, but realize now I was in error.

    We’re not going to agree on this, because I disagree with you straight down the line. I liked him in 1974 — I was 20 — I continue to like him. I don’t like Ustinov’s portrayal and don’t care about Suchet’s.

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