“It’s like Clue on a train,” is how my aunt described Murder On the Orient Express during a family birthday party this weekend. After the party, we watched it at her house. I had seen it before, quite a few years ago, and so had my aunt, but it was new for my cousin. He said he liked it, though he thought there were a lot of useless shots of the train riding through the scenery.
Excessive train shots don’t bother me, though. I like watching trains move through scenery and it adds a sense of ambience to the murder mystery that is taking place within the train, while outside the train becomes stopped, blocked by a snow drift. Snow outside, murder within, makes for a cozy feeling.
The famed detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is returning from Turkey to London on board the Orient Express. Unusually for the time of year, the entire train is filled up with passengers – eccentric passengers from all classes and ages. There is the Princess Dragomiroff, a British Colonel, a governess, used car salesman, a middle-aged and middle class American who won’t stop talking, a missionary, a Hungarian ambassador and his wife, etc., and a malevolent and very wealthy man named Ratchett, who tries to hire Poirot to protect him from whoever is writing him anonymous death threats.
Poirot refuses to take the case – he doesn’t take many cases anymore and he doesn’t like Mr. Ratchett – but that night Ratchett is murdered in his bed. The train is blocked by a snowdrift and the man who runs the train doesn’t want trouble when they get into Yugoslavia and he begs Poirot to investigate the murder so that they can simply present the solution to the authorities when the train gets unblocked. Poirot agrees and the investigation begins.
One, important aspect that comes out (this is a plot spoiler, though not an identity-of-the-murderer spoiler) is that the man Ratchett was involved, several years earlier, in the kidnapping and death of the daughter of Daisy Armstrong. The event (reminiscent of what happened to Charles Lindberg) was big news and the man responsible was never caught. After the child died, her mother went into premature labor and both she and the baby died. There was a servant wrongly suspected who committed suicide, and Daisy’s father also committed suicide after his wife and child died. Poirot remarks that Ratchett was responsible for five murders, essentially. And he is wondering who, on this train, was connected to the devastated Armstrong family. There might be more than one would suppose.
Murder On the Orient Express, published in 1934, is probably Agatha Christie’s most famous work, though I read somewhere that And Then There Were None is actually her best selling novel of all time. Christie is also one of the premier mystery writers of all time and her Hercule Poirot appeared in 33 of her novels, as well as many short stories. Unlike Conan Doyle – who is more about the process of Holmes’ detections than about trying to be tricky with his mysteries, Christie is truly one of the best writers at genuinely puzzling the reader. It’s like a game: “Who committed the murder? It was him No, wait…it’s was her.” No one is better than her at providing a dazzling display of suspects, backstories and motivations. My sister was commenting about how reading a Christie novel is to constantly be revising your understanding of what is going on; we are always finding out something new that is changing the complexion of the case.
The main reason I wanted to see the movie again – apart from the fact that it is generally a well-done movie and I love mysteries and trains – was because it contains an astonishing array of stars, stars I was only dimly aware of when last I saw the movie and who I have now seen when they were much younger. There is Lauren Bacall (I have now seen in her movies with Humphrey Bogart, like The Big Sleep), Ingrid Bergman (of course, Casablanca) and Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion and I Know Where I’m Going!), though Hiller made very few movies and stayed mostly on the stage. Bacall is the chatty, vulgar American, Bergman plays a Swedish missionary to Africa and Wendy Hiller is an imperious Russian princess. Bergman won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal.
Albert Finney is not my favorite Poirot. David Suchet will always be the best (though I didn’t care as much for his less faithful version of Murder On the Orient Express from 2010), but Finney is adequate, if a little hard to understand. He does not speak at all clearly. Agatha Christie managed to actually not dislike this adaptation of one of her books (she disliked many other, previous ones), but she found Finney’s mustache a little underwhelming. Poirot in the book is supposed to have a perfectly extraordinary one.
The rest of the cast reads like a hall of fame line-up, if there were such a thing: Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Martin Balsam, Richard Widmark, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Anthony Perkins, Michael York. They are all excellent in their roles. It truly is an ensemble cast, with everyone getting equal screen time as the suspects, though Bacall is slightly preeminent among them all in her role.
If you like mysteries, trains, classic movies, Agatha Christie, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, are looking for a rare Wendy Hiller in a movie sighting, etc….this is your movie. One of my favorite adaptations of one of Christie’s books.