Murder On the Orient Express (1974)

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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.

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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.]

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.]

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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.

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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

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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.”

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Day 2: ACTORS Week of the 31 DAYS OF OSCAR BLOGATHON

Times may change, but some things stay the same. The Oscars has remained essentially a grand celebration to honor the best of the best in the film industry. TCM marks this tradition every February via the popular ’31 Days of Oscar’ and your humble co-hosts Aurora, Paula and I once again bring you the 31 DAYS OF OSCAR BLOGATHON.

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As we kick-off our second day of the ACTORS week for the 31 DAYS OF OSCAR BLOGATHON, I am happily overwhelmed by the creative array of talented bloggers’ contributions thus far from day one. But hang on to your hats, film fans, the follow-up today is a hum-dinger of a line-up too! Let’s get this party started…

First up, @CineMava of CineMaven’s ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH gets grooving with the 1976 classic, NETWORK. Theresa focuses on the stand-out acting performances of this acidic view on changing media.

Then, Rhonda aka @Rhonda0731 of SMITTEN KITTEN VILLAGE  embarks upon her first blogathon with a look at the queen of Oscar noms and of bitchiness, BETTE DAVIS. Love the video clip!

Next up @CaftanWoman of the CAFTAN WOMAN blog gives great insight on PAUL LUKAS, BEST ACTOR of 1944. She scribes how this studio-hopping actor brought a masterfully subtle performance to Oscar winner, even when competing against heavy-hitters like Bogart in Casablanca.

THE MOVIE GOURMET aka @themoviegourmet details the stand-out acting of the female prison flick that remains the classic and set the standard for all the others… CAGED: Eleanor Parker and Hope Emerson in the prototype for Orange Is The New Black.

Daniel aka @BarnesOnFilm of E STREET FILM SOCIETY paints a vivid picture of the layered performance of a mother in conflict as ELLEN BURSTYN in “ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE.” as he parallels the recent horror film “Babadook.”

Not to be outdone by his first entry yesterday, @WolffianClassic of the WOLFFIAN CLASSIC MOVIE DIGEST scribes on a ‘jewel of an actress,’ INGRID BERGMAN, An OSCAR WINNING DAME.   Check out the beautiful gallery of video clips and photos!

Debbie @DebbieVee of MOON IN GEMINI blog outlines a study on the CHILD ACTOR NOMINEES/WINNERS. So much talent in such pint-sized portions!

Virginie at THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA flies in with her perspective on the Oscar winning skills of the “first lady of theater” HELEN HAYES as Ada Quonsett, AIRPORT’S Best Performance. (Be sure to check this blog during SNUBS week too!)

Co-host Aurora aka @citizenscreen of ONCE UPON A SCREEN submits a sensuous feast for the eyes and ears with the passionately, Oscar-winning performance of F. Murray Abraham in AMADEUS (1984).  

Le of CRITICA RETRO destroys myths of the first-ever winner of Best Actor Oscar of 1929, A PROFILE OF EMIL JANNINGS.

@NicNewtonPlater of MOVIE CRITICAL takes us on a comprehensive journey, IN THEIR SHOES: OSCAR WINNING PERFORMANCES of HISTORICAL FIGURES 

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More to come, so check back in throughout today and the rest of the ACTORS week. Along with my co-hosts Aurora @citizenscreen of ONCE UPON A SCREEN and Paula @Paula_Guthat of PAULA’s CINEMA CLUB, we welcome you to read (and give flattering feedback!) all of these fabulous posts all month long…

ACTORS WEEK – Feb 2 & 3 – Kellee hosts on OUTSPOKEN & FRECKLED

SNUBS WEEK – Feb 9 & 10 – Aurora hosts on ONCE UPON A SCREEN

CRAFTS WEEK – Feb 16 & 17 – Kellee hosts on OUTSPOKEN & FRECKLED

PICTURES & DIRECTORS WEEK – Feb 23 & 24 – Paula hosts on PAULA’S CINEMA CLUB 

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