Sidney Lumet, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)
Initially beginning as a lavish drama set in an exotic 1930s Istanbul, Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” turns out to be a pedestrian treatment of the Agatha Christie novel. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), urged by his superiors to return to London straight away after having solved a case for the British Army in Transjordan, manages to secure a last-minute place on the famed Orient Express long-distance train with the help of his friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a director of the company that owns the railway line on which the train runs. Aside from Poirot, Bianchi and a Greek doctor (George Coulouris), thirteen other passengers have also boarded the train and these include Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), an American businessman who, on hearing that Poirot is aboard, tries to secure the detective’s services as a bodyguard as he, Ratchett, has been receiving death threats. Poirot senses something distasteful about Ratchett and turns down the American’s offer of $15,000 for his services. Later in the day, Poirot and Bianchi exchange compartments and Poirot ends up sleeping not far from Ratchett’s cabin. The train is trapped in a snowdrift while travelling through Yugoslavia and during the night Poirot is awakened a number of times by noises in the corridor. The following morning, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin from numerous stab wounds. Bianchi asks Poirot to solve the case before the train is freed from the snowdrift which might allow the murderer to escape before his/her identity is discovered.
From here on, Poirot interviews the passengers and discovers the connections they all have with one another and the murder victim. Ratchett is really Lanfranco Cassetti, a gangster who, five years ago, kidnapped and murdered the infant daughter Daisy of British Army colonel Hamish Armstrong and his pregnant American wife Sonia. On learning of Daisy’s death despite handing over the ransom money, Sonia miscarried her second child and died giving birth, and her grieving widower husband committed suicide. Their maid Paulette was suspected of working with Cassetti in kidnapping Daisy; to avoid being arrested and charged, Paulette killed herself. The train passengers turn out to be either relatives, personal friends or former domestic employees of the Armstrongs or related to Paulette. Having figured out all the passengers’ connections to the Armstrongs and Paulette, Poirot describes two possible solutions to Ratchett / Cassetti’s murder: the first solution can simply be that an unknown passenger on the train killed the gangster and managed to escape; the second solution is to link all thirteen passengers in the coach to the murder. Bianchi, now knowing how depraved Cassetti was, has to choose which solution the Yugoslavian police would prefer.
The plot runs smoothly and surely to its climax (though there are significant gaps within, forcing viewers to guess what happens during those gaps) with Finney’s strident and shouty Poirot coming close to hammed-up parody with an accent hard to understand and gesticulations conforming to the worst stereotypes about excitable French-speaking people. The cast of actors, all of whom were either film legends or popular actors at the time the film was made, perform barely adequately in the tiny amounts of time they are given to shine. The stand-out performances come from Anthony Perkins as Ratchett / Cassetti’s secretary Hector McQueen and Martin Balsam as Bianchi who is given the unenviable task of playing God in a climax that side-steps away from Poirot’s existential unease at burying the truth in order for vigilante justice to be served on an evil man who ruined so many lives and left others in psychological limbo. Vanessa Redgrave is wasted in a tiny role, Lauren Bacall is all brass as Harriett Hubbard and Ingrid Bergman lays on a thick Swedish accent while camping up as mousy missionary Anna Ohlsson. Sean Connery is perhaps rather too charismatic in his role as Colonel Armstrong’s friend and John Gielgud, for all his reputation as a formidable stage actor, struggles with small details (like holding the murder weapon correctly as he stabs Ratchett / Cassetti) as Edward Beddoes, butler to the odious gangster.
The film finishes up rather too tidily and there is nothing of the unease that Poirot feels at his universe being less than orderly and logical: a universe where people act according to the law and refrain from impulsive acts of retribution no matter how repulsive or evil the target victim is. The result is that viewers may end up not having much sympathy for Poirot at all, given that his character is more likely to irritate and alienate people than to gain their support. When Poirot’s worldview is challenged by Bianchi’s decision, viewers are likely to think Bianchi did the right thing even though in a sense justice has not really been served and the sweet taste of revenge and closure may be all too brief and sour consequences take place.
There is little sense of the film’s action taking place in a confined space, with all the tension and claustrophobia that could have been generated. What we end up with is a peek into what the world might have looked like for a privileged layer of American and European society between World Wars I and II: a world of luxury and decadence that would soon be swept away forever. But this peek reveals nothing of the arrogance and decay that would be responsible for the short-lived nature of this world.