Film review, by Jason Day, of the whodunnit starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, who must solve the murder of a pushy, rich American businessman during a voyage on the Orient Express. Richard Widmark plays the victim.
Fresh from solving a mystery in Turkey, ‘detective of international renown’ Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) returns to London, settling down to relax on the luxurious Orient Express. But the train is strangely packed to the rafters with an odd mix of people, including mouthy American Mrs Harriet Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), simple Swedish Missionary Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman) and xenophobic Scottish soldier Colonel Arbuthnot (Sean Connery). All goes well until one of them, rich businessman Mr Ratchett (Richard Widmark) winds up stabbed to death, possibly by more than one of the other passengers. It’s up to Poirot to apply his little grey cells to sort this out.
There is an exchange in Murder on the Orient Express that has always tickled me as one of the funniest snippets of dialogue in movie history, between objectionable, original desperate housewife Bacall and the Italian Director of the Orient Express Balsam:
Hubbard: There was a man in my compartment. It was pitch dark of course and my eyes were closed in terror.
Bianchi: Then how did you know it was a man?
Hubbard: Because I’ve enjoyed very warm relations with both my husbands.
Bianchi: With your eyes closed?
Hubbard: That helped.
If I’m just easily pleased with dialogue then forgive me, there is plenty else to treasure in this marvellous and completely entertaining picture.
Despite some of the cast clearly trying to out-ham each other without a thought of the consequences (silly Hiller, too-strident Roberts, Quilley who should probably be in a Godfather send-up by Michael Winner) there are treasurable performances.
Finney is almost unrecognisable, with ghostly pale pallor, hair greased down, a slightly hunchback and difficult walk, accent and mannerisms just on the right side of parody. He revels in making this difficult Belgian’s fastidiousness all the more aggravating, the hair net and moustache band to make sure he looks neat even during sleep, the hand cream and night-time gloves and the use of terms such as ‘whoop whoop’ for vomiting. Poirot is a genius and a social retard at the same time.
It is a rich and precious, almost avant grade and highly stylised turn and he thoroughly deserved his Best Actor Oscar nomination. He is ably assisted by the gloriously accented Balsam and Coulouris as the Greek doctor.
Bacall has a laugh riot as the loud, objectionable yank who interrupts and complains at every opportunity. A broad stereotype, but then most of the characters in this film are.
Bergman won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (her third Oscar but her only supporting award) as the backwards religious girl with a large vocabulary in a small turn that was filmed by Lumet in one intense take. She proves again, if proof by now were needed, how convincing and subtle an actress she can be, even when given the tiniest of roles to work with.
Director Lumet, interviewed for a biography of Bergman by Charlotte Chandler noted: “She ran the gamut of emotions. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Poirot, during his extravagant summing up of the case, describes the “panache, delicate intonations and consummate verve” of a fictional, fading actress, but could easily be reminiscing about Bergman’s back catalogue of luminous performances.
Widmark’s victim Ratchett could easily be mispronounced Rat-Shit, no accident given that he plays him like the most charmless of arseholes. There are further telling supporting acts in Perkins as a shy mummy’s boy not too far removed from Norman Bates and a sexy double act in Connery and Redgrave as covert lovers.
Oh the irony therefore of York, that most British of actors, being cast as a ‘hoot blooded Hungarian’, the Count Andrenyi.
The production values are truly sumptuous and all the more remarkable considering the total budget was only $1.4m. The settings are a visual treat with the most beautiful of trains, all teak panels and art deco lighting. Bennett’s impish, leaping, gazelle like music is impossibly, ridiculously pretty. Perfectly setting the tone for this most ornate of journeys it is almost a suspect itself.
Lumet may have seemed a strange choice to helm this most prissy and uptight of studio products noted as he was for his hard-hitting social realism, but he was also a ‘humanist’ director (film critic Roger Ebert) who was interested in themes of justice and an excellent handler of actors, so it is also clear to see why he may have gravitated toward something that allowed him to explore these themes and have a little fun at the same time.
The film has a great sense of humour and Lumet’s pacing is spot-on, bouncing the camera elegantly off his cast in cleverly arranged 5-7 minute segments. He also harks back to film-making techniques of classic Hollywood, by using editing’flips’ to literally flip over from one scene to the next and bathing the action in glowing soft-focus photography. There is also some deft staging, with the excellent setting up of the main players seeing Poirot for the first time, eyeing him with suspicion as he walks to his berth.
Of the many films that followed, most starring the late and much missed Peter Ustinov, Death on the Nile (1978) is the best, but the mould was made and broken with this film.
Cast & Crew
Director: Sidney Lumet. 131 mins. Paramount/EMI/G.W. Films (PG).
Producer: John Brabourne, Richard B. Goodwin.
Writer: Paul Dehn.
Camera: Geoffrey Unsworth.
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett.
Sets: Tony Walton.
Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bissett, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Colin Blakely, George Coulouris, Denis Quilley.