The Watchers

The Watchers

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

Last week, the first trailer for the new version of Murder On The Orient Express was released. Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot, the cast also includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, and Johnny Depp. 

However, it is not the first film adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel. There was a version released in 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet, which was the first of the all-star Christie adaptations of the 1970s and 1980s.

December 1935. The famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is travelling from Istanbul to England aboard the Orient Express. He is berthed in the Calais coach and is approached by an American businessman, Samuel Ratchett, to provide protection for him; Ratchett has been receiving death threats. Poirot turns the offer down. Later that night, the train is stuck in a snowdrift whilst travelling through Yugoslavia. The following morning, Ratchett is found dead, stabbed to death multiple times during the night.

But who did it? Was it the American widow? The Swedish missionary? Could it have been the Russian princess, or her faithful ladies' maid? How about Ratchett's secretary, or the English teacher? The Scottish soldier or the French conductor? The American businessman or the Italian car salesman? Maybe it was the Hungarian count or his wife? Or- in the best traditions of crime novels- did the butler do it? 

With so many suspects and only a short amount of time before the Yugoslav authorities arrive, Poirot must follow the clues, interview the suspects, exercise his little grey cells and find out who the killer is...

The suspects - but whodunnit?
Christie's novel was originally published in 1934 and is one of her most famous, as much for the solution to the murder as the story itself. It makes the most of its enclosed setting, has some interesting red herrings and is a masterpiece of plotting. Paul Dehn's screenplay (with uncredited work by Anthony Shaffer) maintains this intricacy.

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot
Albert Finney plays Poirot here, the first and (so far) only time he's played the role. His performance is very different from that of Peter Ustinov or David Suchet; Finney seems to play up the bon vivant side to Poirot's nature and there seems very little of the moral dilemma which Poirot finds himself in at the end of the story (although that could be a scripting issue). Considering Finney wasn't the first choice to play Poirot- the role was originally offered first to Alec Guinness and then to Paul Scofield, both of whom were unavailable- he gives a strong performance throughout, especially during the summation where he reveals the identity of the murderer. Finney was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role, although lost to Art Carney for Harry And Tonto.

Lauren Bacall as Mrs Hubbard
The rest of the cast are superb, with particular stand-out performances by Lauren Bacall as the garrulous widow Mrs Hubbard, John Gielgud who puts in a stiff upper lip as Ratchett's valet Beddoes, and Anthony Perkins as the nervous secretary Hector McQueen. There's a lovely turn by Vanessa Redgrave as teacher Mary Debenham, who coolly responds to Poirot's questioning, and Sean Connery is strong as the taciturn Colonel Arbuthnot. Ingrid Bergman gives a nice performance as the slightly scatty missionary Greta Ohlsson, while Wendy Hiller and Rachel Roberts make a formidable duo as the Princess Dragomiroff and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt. Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset round off the main cast nicely as the fiery Count Andrenyi and the quiet Countess, whilst Richard Widmark gives an air of oily charm as the doomed Ratchett.

Murder On The Orient Express was nominated for six Oscars (including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Original Score), winning one: Best Supporting Actress for Ingrid Bergman. Bergman also won the Best Supporting Actress BAFTA for her role, whilst John Gielgud won the Best Supporting Actor BAFTA.

Ingrid Bergman with her Best Supporting Actress Oscar
Agatha Christie had been reportedly unimpressed by previous attempts to adapt her novels- there had been a few adaptations of And Then There Were None, the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films, and The Alphabet Murders with Tony Randall as Poirot- and she had initially refused to sell the film rights to any more of her novels. She was persuaded by Nat Coleman (chairman of EMI) and Lord Louis Mountbatten (father-in-law of producer John Brabourne) to allow them to film Murder On The Orient Express.

Christie attended the premiere in November 1974 (on what would be her final public appearance before her death in January 1976) and it was the only film adaptation released in her lifetime that she was completely satisfied with. She particularly liked Finney's performance as Poirot, saying it came closest to her idea of the Belgian detective- although she did say that she was a little disappointed with the moustache! (I wonder what she'd make of Branagh's comedy walrus moustache in this new version!)

Dame Agatha Christie meets Queen Elizabeth II at the Murder On The Orient Express premiere
So if you need a recommendation to see this film, you can do worse than the author's own seal of approval. It's a classy, elegant adaptation of a superb novel and expertly acted by a stellar cast. Branagh's got some way to go to match the excellence of this film.


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