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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Alan Arkin in CATCH-22 (1970)

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Do you ever feel like you must be going insane because it seems like you’re the only sane one in a messed up world of lunatics? I know modern-day politics drives me to this point many times over. Mike Nichol’s CATCH-22 (1970) takes on this premise in the darkest of comedies. At the core of this film, Alan Arkin as Captain John Yossarian is perfection as the sympathetic fool trying to hang on to sanity in the very epicenter of madness… war.

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Alan Arkin is the featured star of the day highlighting a full day of his film work for this day, Friday August 21st, for Turner Classic Movie network’s Summer Under The Stars’ month-long tribute to the major stars of classic film. Arkin was a crowd-pleasing favorite at the 2014 TCM Film Festival where he was interviewed by the godfather of TCM, Robert Osborne, to an enthralled audience. You can catch this interview twice today, at 8am EDT and again at 7pm EDT.

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While CATCH-22 is not included in his #SUTS line-up, to me it’s his most memorable and talent-revealing roles. (Honorable mention not to be missed that IS included in today’s schedule, Arkin plays a transformative and ruthless villain, hunting a blind Audrey Hepburn in WAIT UNTIL DARK, 1pm EDT.)

Now back to the loony bin…

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CATCH-22 is based on Joseph Heller’s novel and adapted into a screenplay by the supremely talented dry wit of Buck Henry. Not an easy novel, nor an easy topic to tackle, so many didn’t believe Nichols and Henry could pull off making this into a film, let alone one audiences would go see. Yet with visually stunning cinematography by David Watkin and a stellar cast of supporting roles, Nichols succeeds in managing the mayhem of this controversial issue and turned it into an award-winning, important film.

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This film is an editing nightmare or masterpiece, depending upon how you choose to look at it, as the timeline is a constant ebb and flow of flashbacks and flash forwards. The film begins close where it ends for Captain Yossarian. He’s a bombardier in World War II’s European campaign off the coast of Italy on a remote air field. Planes are landing in the background at a frenetic pace and the aviation noise and wind are nearly deafening. So overpowering that when we see a faceless attacker brutally stab Yossarian with a knife then sneak away as he falls to the ground, other officers look on casually completely unaware. A shocking yet telling beginning.

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From here, Yossarian spends the rest of his time trapped in an ‘Alice In Wonderland’ like hell of distorted reality and madness. Everyone thinks he’s crazy because he wants to be grounded because he knows the enemy wants to kill him- so why should he continue to fly missions? They call him crazy yet they refuse to ground him because he’s just sane enough (possibly the ONLY one) to fully see the absurdity of it all. Following me so far? Thus is the paradox of war. A catch-22.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: “Sure. Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat isn’t really crazy, so I can’t ground him.” 

Yossarian: “Ok, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.” 

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: “You got it, that’s Catch-22.”

Yossarian: “Whoo… That’s some catch, that Catch-22.” 

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: “It’s the best there is.”

Irony floods every scene in this ebony parody. Filmed in 1970, the timing was ripe to take on a satirical and political view of the evils of war and the military industrial complex. Catch-22 spares no one. Every character is stripped down bare in reflecting their flaws. Not literally of course, except for Yossarian. Ironically. Although Yossarian himself attempts this naked tactic later on, he’s still considered too rational to ground.

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If you enjoy truly pitch-dark humor, mixed with thumbing noses at the bureaucracy of war, this is one of the funniest parodies tackling the rarely criticized subject of WWII that you’ll likely see. Arkin is sublime as the bomber pilot with every character interaction in this story that reinforces his fears. Alan Arkin throughout his career has possessed that rare instinct which excels in displaying understated sarcasm. He masters at humor and drama equally and this role required an actor that rides that juncture of both seamlessly. He plays the straight deftly as the sheer nonsensical madness reaches dizzying heights of absurdity and occupies every inch of space around him. In other words, he was the perfect actor for this role.

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And in case you’re wondering… no, I don’t think they could remake this film today with anywhere near the same caliber of talent found here…

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Alan ArkinCaptain Yossarian
Martin BalsamColonel Cathcart
Richard BenjaminMajor Danby
Art GarfunkelCaptain Nately
Jack GilfordDoc Daneeka
Buck HenryLieutenant Colonel Korn
Bob NewhartMajor Major
Anthony PerkinsChaplain Tappman
Paula PrentissNurse Duckett
Martin SheenLieutenant Dobbs
Jon VoightMilo Minderbinder
Orson WellesGeneral Dreedle
Seth AllenHungry Joe
Bob BalabanCaptain Orr
Susanne BentonGeneral Dreedle’s WAC
Peter BonerzCaptain McWatt
Norman FellSergeant Towser
Charles GrodinAarfy Aardvark
Superb Writing:

1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder: “Look, I saw this great opportunity to corner the market in Egyptian cotton. How was I supposed to know there was going to be a glut? I’ve got a hundred warehouses stacked with the stuff all over the European theater. I can’t get rid of a penny’s worth. People eat cotton candy, don’t they? Well this stuff is better – it’s made out of real cotton.” 

Yossarian: “Milo, people can’t eat cotton!”

1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder: “They’ve got to – it’s for the Syndicate!” 

Yossarian: “It will make them sick! – why don’t you try it yourself if you don’t believe me?”

1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder: “I did – and it made me sick.”

——-

1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder: “We’re gonna come out of this war rich!” 

Yossarian: “You’re gonna come out rich. We’re gonna come out dead.”

——–

Yossarian: “He was very old.” 

Luciana: “But he was a boy.” 

Yossarian: “Well, he died. You don’t get any older than that.”

——-
1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder: “What’s good for M & M Enterprises will be good for the country.”
——-

General Dreedle: “Who is this man?”

Colonel Cathcart: “Major Danby, Sir.”

Lt. Col. Korn, XO: “Danby… D-A-N-B-Y…”

General Dreedle: “Take him out and shoot him.” 

Colonel Cathcart: “Sir?”

——-

This tribute to Alan Arkin via his performance in CATCH-22 is my contribution to the SUMMER UNDER THE STARS BLOGATHON, hosted by Kristen of “Journeys In Classic Film” Follow her site to see all the contributing bloggers to each day’s stars during August!

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