Murder on the Orient Express: A Grand Tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood

Maneesh Krishnan writes about Sidney Lumet’s classic.

8 min read

Murder on the Orient Express (1974), based on Agatha Christie’s famous novel, is a glossy, star-studded murder mystery directed by Sidney Lumet, produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin. Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren and Bacall show up, along with an enjoyable performance by Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot.

When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios (MGM)—which once boasted it had “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven”—unveiled its super-production Grand Hotel in 1932, it became a trendsetter, and continues to influence moviemaking even today. The film’s concept was very simple: the studio gathered together all its topmost stars—each playing characters from different professions, nationalities, and backgrounds, having their own set of problems—in an exotic location, and then let the drama play out. The film would eventually end with every character somehow resolving their problems and leaving the place on a happy note. For Grand Hotel, MGM assembled Garbo, Joan Crawford, The Barrymores, Wallace Beery, among others. The film was a smash hit, it won the Oscar for Best Picture, and spawned several remakes. Its concept has since been repeated in several films. The formula had a huge resurgence in the 1960s and 70s, when it was applied to films of all genres: romantic dramas, comedies, disaster films, war films, westerns (think of The V.I.P.s, How the West was Won, The Longest Day, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Airport, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, The Poseidon Adventure), and finally, with the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, to murder mysteries. Here, the luxurious Orient Express travelling from Istanbul to Calais is the Grand Hotel surrogate, populated by stars across generations and nationalities. Murder on the Orient Express, is what one would call a classy, A-list production. The film is designed to invoke the glamour and nostalgia of the golden days of Hollywood’s studio-filmmaking, particularly in its lavish, outlandish production and costume design, both done by the eminent Tony Walton, in its glossy colour photography, thanks to cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, and in its excellent orchestral score, created by British composer Richard Rodney Bennett. The film was adapted for the screen by writer Paul Dehn, with some (uncredited) help from playwright Anthony Shaffer.

The filmmakers chose to cast the picture with either stars from Hollywood’s golden age or the more contemporary (and classy) British stage and screen actors, completely eschewing the modern, (American) method actors of the time. The film itself is designed to be less a thriller, more a glossy, whimsical drama, like The Thin Man film series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) also comes to mind, where the pleasure is in watching the funny, insolent interplay between the characters/stars during the process of criminal investigation, rather than the actual solving of the mystery. Aboard the Orient Express, we have Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall, two stars from the golden age, both associated with Hollywood’s ultimate detective Humphrey Bogart—Bergman was his on-screen lover in Casablanca, and Bacall was Bogart’s great reel- and real-life love. The British contingent is led by Sean Connery, then one of the biggest stars in the world, thanks to his success as the British super spy James Bond. But the truly inspired choice of casting was British stage and screen stalwart Albert Finney, as Detective Hercule Poirot.

Director Lumet, who came from theatre and who had previously directed ensemble dramas like 12 Angry Men, seems like the perfect choice to bring this novel to screen. But he was always a gritty, minimalist filmmaker, who never indulged in flashy spectacles, be it setting, production values, or the presentation of stars. It is also interesting to note that he made this film between two of his most down and dirty, New Hollywood, New York-based crime dramas: Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, both starring Al Pacino. So Murder on the Orient Express might have been quite a stretch for Lumet, even though it was a tightly budgeted film. As the film takes place in 1935, Lumet designed it to look like a film from the 1930s and 40s. He pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, the ultimate master of glossy suspense/mystery dramas; especially The Lady Vanishes, which was a film set entirely in a train.

One of the most unique aspects of Murder on the Orient Express is that it starts out with a montage of newspaper clippings and newsreel footage of the kidnapping of three year-old Daisy Armstrong in 1930. A girl from a wealthy Anglo-American family, Daisy’s kidnapping would end up playing a major role in revealing the true identities of the victim and suspects in the film. This is a device borrowed from Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane, where newsreel footage was used to establish Kane, so as to hint at the mystery that the investigators in the film were trying to solve. Coming back to the Orient Express, the film then jumps to Istanbul in 1935, where famed Belgian-born detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), is about to journey back to England via the Simplon Orient Express. Despite the unusually heavy booking of the train’s Calais coach, Poirot manages to secure a berth thanks to an old friend, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam). Bianchi happens to be a director at the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, owner of the Orient Express. On the train, several members of the coach, who all seem to be admirers of the famous detective, try to make Poirot’s acquaintance. Poirot appears to be tired after solving an important case in Europe, and is in no mood to engage in any friendly talk. He quotes Garbo’s famous line from Grand Hotel: “Garbo wants to be alone,” and excuses himself.

But one fellow traveler turns out to be particularly persistent—a mysterious American art collector named Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), who informs Poirot that someone has been sending him threatening notes. He is scared for his life and offers ten thousand dollars to the detective to become his bodyguard. Due to Poirot’s instinctive dislike of Ratchett, he refuses to help. Ratchett seems to vanish into thin air; this is the first hint of something mysterious going on. Soon, the train finds itself snowbound in Yugoslavia during its second night. While other passengers are fast asleep, Ratchett is stabbed to death. The next day, Ratchett’s body is found, with stab wounds of varying depth and clues pointing to almost every passenger in the coach. Signor Bianchi requests Poirot to find out who the murderer is before the snow clears, and before the Yugoslavian police take over. The rest of the film deals with Poirot investigating the case, thoroughly interrogating all the passengers of the Calais coach, searching for evidence, and finally, solving the mystery.

Obviously, two thirds of the film is devoted to Poirot’s criminal investigation, and it could have very easily turned bland and pedestrian, if not for the star power on display. One of my favorite performances in the film is a cameo by Jeremy Lloyd, portraying an obsequious British Army officer who serves as Poirot’s escort during the crossing of the Bosphorus Strait. The interplay between Finney and Lloyd is the funniest moment in the film.

When Agatha Christie created the character of the Belgian detective, she would have never imagined that it would lead to one of the most wildly enjoyable, over the top performances in movie history. It is such an outrageous, courageous performance; it might have been eternal, or simply an eternal laughing stock. It is to Finney’s credit that it turned out to be the former. This performance called for a complete overhaul of his style, both physically and vocally. He put on a quivering French mustache and a thick Belgian accent, he wore a bodysuit to convey the massive girth, his hair was slicked down to a shine. But beyond these embellishments, it’s the bravado he brought to the role that made it legendary. His performance is like a mixture of opera and Kabuki, it keeps us thoroughly entertained. Being a whodunit with a tame ending, the film needed the oomph that Finney’s performance provides here. His flashy act is a way to extract information from the suspects, as well as a means to distract us, his other audience, from knowing what he is deducing.

Take the scene where Poirot is confronted by Ratchett, with the latter asking for protection. When Ratchett shows him his gun, Poirot is not only unimpressed, but he seems sure that Ratchett is a sinister character. He conveys this with an amused expression. His line reading when he tells Ratchett “My interest in your case is dwindling” is noteworthy. Finney keeps the interrogations interesting by changing his body language and dialogue delivery for each of the suspects. He puts up an exaggerated theatrical performance to extract the truth from each one of them and tops it off with an extended monologue at the end, when he deconstructs the crime. It is a performance that has wit, sarcasm, sensitivity, pride, and arrogance; he is overjoyed at having solved the case, yet moved by the emotions of the people. Finney essayed a wide range of characters on stage and screen through the course of his illustrious career, the most famous of which is the star-making title role in Tom Jones. It’s another delightful turn, mixing comedy and drama (most evident in the famous dining sequence that involves food and sex); it seems to have been good preparation for his performance in this film.

This exaggerated, baroque theatricality is again part of Sidney Lumet’s design for the film. Every character in the film puts on a theatrical performance, to come across as someone they are not. In the beginning, the Istanbul railway station becomes a sort of proscenium, with each actor making their entrance, one by one. Then they get on the train and give a performance. When the ‘play’ is over, we get a curtain call. Each actor steps out, one at a time, for his or her bow. This ties into the film’s overall ambitions—to replicate movies from a certain era and pay tribute to stars, the craft of acting, all of which came together to create that movie culture.

Agatha Christie published her first novel (and introduced Poirot) in 1920. She created her first masterpiece in 1928 with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Although she was finding Poirot “insufferable,” Christie trudged on, writing Murder on the Orient Express in a hotel room in Istanbul in 1934, inspired both by her journey on the Orient Express as well as the recent tragedy of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and murder. Agatha Christie didn’t find Poirot insufferable enough to stop writing about him, turning out excellent fiction until she died in 1976, with more than 30 novels and 55 short stories dedicated to the idiosyncratic Belgian with the fine mustache. Although her work was frequently being adapted for film and stage, this Sidney Lumet adaptation is the only one that had her approval, maybe because it was a straight re-telling of the novel. She also found Albert Finney’s portrayal closest to her original vision, though she felt the mustache was wrong. The film came to be a box office success, earning $36 million domestically on a budget of $1.4 million. It received six Oscar nominations, with Bergman winning for Supporting Actress. Bergman was initially offered the role of Princess Dragomiroff, but requested to play Greta Ohlsson, a much smaller role. Her entire Oscar-winning performance can be witnessed in an unbroken five minute sequence, in which she talks uninterruptedly, going through a gamut of emotions. The film’s London premiere was attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Agatha Christie, who at 84 was making her last public appearance. Christie passed away 15 months later. She was married to a famous archaeologist at the time and she had this to say about her marriage: “It’s wonderful. The older I get, the more he loves me.” A typical Christie quote, which Hercule Poirot would have approved of.

The success of Murder on the Orient Express spawned several star-studded Christie adaptations like Death on the Nile and The Mirror Crack’d, but none as successful as this one. Finney never returned to play Poirot; it was left to actors like Peter Ustinov to portray the detective in the subsequent adaptations. Murder on the Orient Express was recently remade by Kenneth Branagh, who also played Poirot in the film. But I didn’t like it at all. I continue to prefer the original version that came out in 1974. It is hard to replicate the alchemy that was achieved in that film, made possible by that group of stars, a great director, and a truly memorable lead performance.

About the author

Manesh Krishnan is an IT professional, movie geek, Amitabh Bachchan fanatic, Clint Eastwood devotee. Check out his blog or find him on Twitter.

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