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Murder On the Orient Express (1974)

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-1974“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.th1J7428RX

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.

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Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot

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.

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Poirot confronts the suspects

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.

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Jacqueline Bisset and Lauren Bacall

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.

 

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Ingrid Bergman, Wendy Hiller, Rachel Roberts, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2014 in Detective Movies, Mystery

 

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The Big Sleep, 1945 and 1946 – How I Was Bamboozled and the Nature of Expectations

220px-Bigsleep2[1]Several months ago I wrote about both the book and the movie versions of The Big Sleep. I noted that there was a 1945 version that was shown to the troops overseas and that certain scenes were deleted and some added later to up the romantic ante between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and then released in 1946. The 1945 version was seen by very few people, but was added as a bonus feature on the The Big Sleep DVD.

And it is universally accepted that the 1946 version is superior. It makes less sense, but who cares with such marvelous chemistry and atmosphere, and of course my sister and I totally agreed with the universe, nodding our heads wisely and saying “yes, so true,” as if we really knew what we were talking about.

Only to discover that we had no idea what we were talking about. Somehow, all these years, we had been watching the 1945 version, the inferior version, and emphatically agreeing with everyone that the chemistry was sizzling, the plot convoluted and obscure and the previous movie must have been more straightforward, but also with less sexual tension.

My first clue that something was wrong  was when I heard there even were two versions. There was mention of a famous scene added in 1946, that takes places in a nightclub and where they talk about race horses in a conversation bursting with innuendo. I thought there must have been something wrong with my ability to detect innuendo, because I didn’t recall any such scene and asked my sister if she recalled any such scene. She said she didn’t. That should have tipped me off, and I was suspicious, but the DVD cover assured me that the copy we had was the standard 1946 version. It seemed mysterious, but I was not sufficiently curious to pursue the matter.

It was not until I got the DVD from the library that supposedly contained the bonus 1945 movie that everything became clear. We watched practically the whole bonus ’45 movie before we admitted that we had not seen anything new. There is also a documentary on the DVD that discusses the differences, so we watched that and realized that somebody had made a mistake. Somehow, all along, we had owned the 1945 version and had never seen the one everyone celebrated so much.

Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall

The DVD we owned is TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Murder Mysteries, which contains The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Dial M For Murder (1954), The Big Sleep (1946….supposedly), and The Maltese Falcon (1941). What my sister and I want to know is if there are other people happily watching their The Big Sleep and not realizing that they have the wrong one, too.

So now that we’d deceived ourselves into liking the inferior one, we had to watch the newer one and my expectations were high. If I liked the ’45 version so much, surely the ’46 version, with it’s added scenes between Bogart and Bacall, must be amazing.

But I was doomed to disappointment. My mind had the rhythms of the old version too well ingrained in my head. The added scenes were nice, but seemed tossed in randomly for romantic effect, and I missed the other scenes that provided explanation. The new version felt herky-jerky because I knew what scenes were missing and so it had a cut and paste feel, which is not a feeling I would have had if I’d simply watched it first. Also, I felt that the added scenes changed the dynamic of the relationship between Bacall and Bogart.

Lauren Bacall’s character is much more mysterious in the older version, her motivations more ambiguous. It may be less overtly sexy, but heightens the game the two of them are playing, trying to outwit each other instead of the newer one where the point seems to be more about seeing how much witty repartee and sexual innuendo they can toss back and forth.

There is a scene when they are in the car together, which in the original one is a great romantic moment, when they first kiss and she reveals a vulnerability that was not there before. But the scene in the car is thrown away in the newer one because of the two added romantic scenes that come before. Suddenly the scene in the car feels like it was just another scene instead of the culmination of something.

I suppose if I’d seen the newer version first, I wouldn’t care for the older version. It’s all about expectations. When we are used to something and like it, we are disappointed when our expectations are not met. I have a theory that if we’d all been watching the original version of The Big Sleep we would be disappointed if we watched the newer one, despite the critic Roger Ebert’s opinion that Howard Hawks took out one bad scene and added one good scene and made a good picture a great picture. I’m going to disagree with him. He was probably used to the new one and was always disappointed when his favorite scene with the race horse conversation was absent.

Bogart and Bacall

Bogart and Bacall

The reason the movie was changed was at the instigation of Lauren Bacall’s agent. According to the documentary on the DVD about the differences between the two versions, the movie – after being shown to troops overseas – was shelved while the studios rushed to finish other war related movies that wouldn’t wear well when the war was over. While the movie sat, Lauren Bacall’s agent got to work. She had made two movies, so far: her spectacular debut in To Have and Have Not and a bomb with Charles Boyer called Confidential Agent. Her agent was concerned that another flop would finish her before she had even gotten started and he felt that if The Big Sleep was released as it was, it would ruin her career.

So he called the producer and they got the director and cast back together and shot some new scenes, favorable to Bacall. She got better lighting, better camera angles, more dialogue, more scenes and they diminished the role played by Martha Vickers as Bacall’s sister, which I think hurts the film. The movie certainly did its job; it was a great hit for Bacall and, according to the documentary, probably saved her career.

But if I had to chose which version to watch again, it would probably still be the older one. There was nothing glaringly wrong with Bacall’s role in that film as it is. There’s still the great chemistry and it’s a far more well balanced film for all the characters, without the two random romantic scenes that didn’t really do anything for me. It’s a better story, the stakes are higher, the ambiguity of character more intriguing.

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2014 in Film Noir

 

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The Big Sleep – Movie and Book

220px-Bigsleep2[1]It is practically axiomatic that The Big Sleep does not make sense. When director Howard Hawks asked author Raymond Chandler who had killed the chauffeur, Chandler wired back that he had no idea. Somehow, that lack of clarity has only enhanced the mystique of the story…especially the movie.

The reasons for the confusion in the film are three-fold: the book never made that much sense anyway, the studio wanted a romance between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which came at the cost of clarity, and the Hays Code was in effect, which meant that there were many things that could be written about which could not be shown on screen.

I read the book, therefore, in the hope that it would elucidate certain aspects of the film, which it mostly did.

The Big Sleep (1939), by Raymond Chandler

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What Roger Eberts writes of the movie could also be written of the book, that it is “about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.” Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired to look into the blackmailing of General Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen, but everyone – including his other daughter, Vivien – assume that he was hired to look into the disappearance of Vivien’s husband, Rusty Regan.

There are two parts to the book. The first half deals with the death of Carmen’s blackmailer, as well as other sundry murders and sordid affairs. The second half deals with Marlowe’s search for Regan, which involves a lot of the same characters who were involved in the death of the blackmailer, like the casino owner whose wife supposedly ran off with Rusty Regan and seems to have something on Vivien.

There were obviously quite a few aspects of the book that were not allowed in the movie. It’s not so much that the movie changed things (though it did change things), but that it let certain details drop out of the picture. The result was a general lack of understandable motivation for certain characters. Why did this one young man randomly show up and shoot this other man? Oh, the blackmailer was his lover, but he shoots the wrong man because the real murderer was the chauffeur who died (nobody knows how). And what does it mean to be running “a racket?” Oh, that’s a pornographic shop. That makes sense.

Another, significant, difference is that there is no romance in the book. A romance would be too hopeful for a hardboiled detective novel, where women are wild and licentious and men are cynical and cold.

th1V1FJYF7The Big Sleep (1946) Starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall – Directed by Howard Hawks – Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman

I’m not sure if Chandler was pleased with the movie adaptation of his book, but he did feel that the actress playing Carmen (Martha Vickers) completely outshone Lauren Bacall as Vivien in the early release of the film. He felt that when the script was rewritten to increase Bacall’s part and decrease Vicker’s, it further confused the plot.

Bogart and Bacall were currently an item. They had met and fallen in love in the very successful 1944 film To Have and Have Not. During the filming of The Big Sleep, Bogart was going through a divorce so he could marry Lauren Bacall. There had been an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the chemistry between the two in the film and the studio wanted to capitalize on that.

They made one version of the movie and released it in 1945 to the troops overseas. However, Bacall’s agent was concerned that she was being overshadowed and since she had just starred in a dud film with Charles Boyer, her agent was concerned about her career and persuaded the studio to shoot some more scenes and cut out a few others. The result was a delightful combination detective/noir/romance – not a usual combination. Most noirs end in tears…or at the very least death, misery or despair for all.

The book ends on a sour note. Spoiler! Rusty Regan was killed by Carmen because he rebuffed her advances and Vivien was trying to hide the fact. End Spoiler! Marlowe notes how he has now become part of the general nastiness of the characters, but that at least he can spare the general any part in it. It’s not an upbeat ending. But the movie is far less nasty (nastiness still occurs, but is not so tainting).

img14[1]In fact, Marlowe, in the movie, is a genuine hero, unlike his Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1941). Sam Spade has no particular morals or convictions (apart from not letting people get away with shooting his partner – even if he didn’t like the man, but it’s the principle that counts), but Bogart’s Philip Marlowe does, if not have morals, at least have a code, as he’s striving to do right, catch the criminals, spare his client and help the woman he loves out of the jam she’s in.

Note: for a witty and spot-on article about The Big Sleep film, The Man on The Flying Trapeze writes in the chivalric vein of the many ways that he loves the film. He calls the film a “screwball noir” and Marlowe “Sir Galahad in a 1938 Plymouth coupe who saves the honor of the Sternwood family while falling in love with one of the princesses.” This article is what inspired me to watch the movie, and also to read the book.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2014 in Books, Movies

 

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