In a startling intro, we hear eery, jagged chords as shocking headlines of a baby kidnapping starkly flash onto the screen. Headlines of names (baby Daisy Armstrong and her famous parents) that are unmistakably a mirroring of a real event, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Cut to five years later to the introduction of the eccentric and colorful cast of characters on board the Orient Express, most notably of the famous detective with a penchant for fine details, Hercule Poirot.
Sidney Lumet’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974) is a star-studded masterpiece of one of Agatha Christie’s most popular murder mysteries. It’s no coincidence that the release of this film in 1974 when I was a mere eight years old coincided with the beginnings of my obsessive fascination of murder mysteries by masters like Agatha Christie (and Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock). In other words, this film made a memorable impact on me.
[Please note: I will not highlight every character, nor every plot detail in this review. It is a ‘who-dunnit’ after all and I’d hate to spoil it for the handful of you who have somehow managed to not read the novel nor seen this film.]
Richard Widmark as Ratchett requests the famous Hercule Poirot to take his case for a substantial $15k fee. He’s been receiving threatening letters. Poirot is resistant and bored with his request, then moves on. Overnight, as the deep snow traps the train on the tracks in Yugoslavia, Poirot is awoken by strange noises and of a neighboring cabin occupant complaining to the steward. By early morning, Widmark’s room is locked with no response. After forcing their way in as it’s chained from the inside, Ratchett’s body is discovered to be murdered in his bed. As examined and confirmed by the doctor on board, he was stabbed a total of twelve times.
And so the process of interrogations begins, with each individual interview at a time. With George Coulouris as the doctor and Martin Balsam as Bianchi, the director of the rail line and personal friend to Poirot, at Poirot’s side, each suspect appears guilty after each inquiry.
As a personal preference, I enjoy that Finney was physically very transformative as this Hercule Poirot. When you consider what Finney looks like otherwise or even in some of his other well-known roles such as the bald, gregarious Warbucks in ANNIE, he’s practically unrecognizable here. But of the many actors who have adeptly played this distinct Belgie sleuth, my favorite Poirot remains Peter Ustinov.
Anthony Perkins as Mr. McQueen is disappointing as an over-acting, nervous yet campy play on his Bates character. “Motherless boy” who smiles wryly at the thought of incriminating himself as a murder suspect.
John Gielgud as Beddoes is reliable as the well polished, well-mannered man-servant. Like similar characters in his filmography, Gielgud as Beddoes insults with refined culture. In example, a cabin mate Pierre pesters him while he quietly attempts to read a book. He what it’s about. Beddoes acerbically responds in a quick, dry tone, “it’s about 10:30.”
Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Hubbard is terrific as the non-stop-talking chatter box who infuses some reference to one of her two dead husbands into every conversation. Everyone tries to avoid her despite her pursuit. But she plays a key role. It’s her voice that woke up Poirot the night of the murder, complaining of a man entering her room. It’s her room that appears to be the access point for the murderer into the locked Ratchett’s cabin. She adds more clues to the mix as the mystery unraveling proceeds.
Greta is a very interesting character with a fascinating performance by Ingrid Bergman, later in her acting career. I chose to review this film to celebrate what would have been her centennial birthday today and as my contribution to the WONDERFUL INGRID BERGMAN BLOGATHON, hosted by Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema. As one of the greatest award-winning actresses and celebrated beauties of all time, one usually thinks of so many of her most famous roles (CASABLANCA, STROMBOLI, NOTORIOUS, SPELLBOUND…) for this immensely talented actress. Yet I chose this smaller, not as expected role because not only is this a great film with an outstanding cast, it’s one of the more unique roles for Bergman.
Although not a starring role with few lines, while in constant competition with such a large cast, Bergman makes the most of her screen time by displaying the depth of her full acting range here. A completely different character than I’d seen her play prior, she is an odd Swedish woman with quirky behaviors and nervous mannerisms. Greta is fundamentally religious, racist and meek. “I was born backwards,” she professes to Poirot. “That is why I work in missionary. Teaching brown babies more backwards than myself.”
When you watch her face as she’s being interviewed by Poirot, it’s exquisite. She’s so natural. Her facial gestures can light up, ponder, dance, engage deeply, and evoke a myriad of non-verbal communication from the most subtle to the deeply emotional expressions. Ultimately, she’s one of the most authentic actresses I’ve ever seen. It’s gratifying to watch her perform in the mature years of her career knowing she never lost her craft. She worked in TV and film until 1982, the year she died. Had she lived longer, one can only imagine even more amazing performances she could have gifted to us. [Assuming Hollywood can figure out a way to get better availability of mature women roles, worthy of their talents. But that’s a deeper conversation for another time.]
Director Lumet and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth do a marvelous job of setting up romantic imagery of this mysterious journey in picturesque illumination of snowy landscapes and with billowy plumes of steam emitting from the engine, whenever performance scenes are not required. The finer details of such a luxurious rail experience is also handled well- from the high-end props and costumes, to the lighting against the rich mahogany cabin walls and soft glowing white as contrast.
The entire cast is superb (see below) and the plot is well paced and keeps you riveted, thanks to screenwriter Paul Dehn and greatly to Agatha Christie herself.
Albert Finney- Hercule Poirot
Lauren Bacall- Mrs. Hubbard
Martin Balsam- Bianchi
Ingrid Bergman- Greta
Jacqueline Bisset- Countess Andrenyi
Jean-Pierre Cassel- Pierre
Sean Connery- Col. Arbuthnot
John Gielgud- Beddoes
Wendy Hiller- Princess Dragomiroff
Anthony Perkins- McQueen
Vanessa Redgrave- Mary Debenham
Rachel Roberts- Hildegarde
Richard Widmark- Ratchett
Michael York- Count Andrenyi
In the end, the murder mystery is brilliantly solved by Poirot and the audience is left to ponder- is premeditated murder ever justified? Poirot does not offer a solution to that darker question, only brings to light the facts and delights us with his clever methods of deduction.
“Only by interrogating the other passengers could I hope to see the light, but when I began to question them, the light, as Macbeth would have said, thickened.”