Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Film: Murder on the Orient Express
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m pretty sure that I’d seen Murder on the Orient Express in the past; I have some vague recollections of it even if I didn’t remember a lot of the specifics. I didn’t remember many of the details, but once we got to the ending, I did remember that, and I’m pretty sure that this is one of the Agatha Christie stories that I haven’t actually read, despite having a small fondness for the mysteries involving Hercule Poirot. Make no mistake: this is an Agatha Christie mystery, which means we’ll get a death, interrogation scenes, and a summing up of the detective implicating everyone in the mystery before pointing the finger.

Before I jump into the specifics, I’ll say this—that brief listing of what the movie will entail, sadly, covers the bulk of Murder on the Orient Express. We get a body straight away, a little bit of investigation and a few starting clues, and then it’s a series of interrogation sequences. Hercule Poirot (played here by a nominated Albert Finney) calls for everyone to be assembled for the summing up before he’s finished his investigations.

Before the film starts, we are treated to a series of newspaper headlines about the kidnapping of a young child named Daisy Armstrong. The plot of this story—told exclusively through headlines and faded photographs—follows roughly the story of the Lindbergh kidnapping, including the paying of the ransom and the discovery of the child dead. Flash forward five years and we’re in 1935 and in Europe.

Detective Poirot finds himself returning to England on the eponymous Orient Express. He finds himself suddenly in the company of Bianchi (Martin Balsam), the director of the line, who tells him that despite the train’s overcrowding, he will find him a proper berth. The train pulls out, and as tends to be the case in something like this, we are given a motley assortment of passengers. Among them is a man named Ratchett (Richard Widmark), who discovers Poirot’s identity and offers him $15,000 to act as his bodyguard since he has been receiving threatening notes. Poirot refuses, and suffers a small pang of guilt when Ratchett turns up dead of a dozen knife wounds of varying depth and severity. Hey, I promised a corpse straight away, did I not?

Poirot, assisted by Bianchi and a Doctor Constantine (George Coulouris) investigate the death and, through a little wizardry from Poirot, discover that it is connected to the Daisy Armstrong case. The three then begin interrogating all of the other passengers and staff on the train. As I said, this is a motley crew. To save time, I’ll put it this way, and if you’ve any experience with Agatha Christie stories, none of this will be a shock: everyone on that part of the train with the exception of Poirot, the doctor, and Bianchi, had a motive to kill the dead man. Ah, but which one of them did it?

Murder on the Orient Express is a film that gets its power from the cast, and it’s quite a cast. Signing up for a berth on the train are Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who actually won a Supporting Actress Oscar for this role), Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, and Jean-Pierre Cassel. This is exactly the sort of movie that has a poster with a large central image and then a row of boxes along the bottom showing a picture of each of the many different well-known stars who make an appearance.

It’s all fun and games, except that it’s really a movie that doesn’t go that far below the surface. After the body shows up and there’s a little investigation, it is almost literally a series of question and answer sessions between Poirot and the passengers. A few more clues pop up now and then, and we get to a final answer just as it seems that the film is really getting ready to start. As befits the sort of crime that takes place in a story like this one, the actual summing up takes a pretty good amount of time. In fact, it’s pretty much the entire third act.

As such, Murder on the Orient Express feels thin. I’ve been saying recently that a lot of the movies I’ve been watching have been too long for the stories they tell. Murder on the Orient Express is the opposite—since everything happens so quickly, it doesn’t feel long enough, or like it gives the audience enough of a chance to really get to the correct solution. We get very little of Poirot’s thinking, which makes his conclusion not that easy to follow and seem like a number of lucky guesses.

Albert Finney is certainly having a grand time with it, and I like his depiction of Poirot. He is certainly the most memorable part of the film, although I think I prefer Peter Ustinov’s take on the character in Death on the Nile a bit more. While the rest of the cast is good, most of them are on screen so little as to be nothing more than one-dimensional characters easily forgotten, save for the fact that almost all of them are immediately recognizable actors.

Murder on the Orient Express isn’t bad, but it’s a bit disappointing. I strapped in for what I thought I remembered as a good mystery and instead found something that was almost straight procedural without much in the way of offering a path to a correct solution by anyone not actually in the film. I’ve read enough Christie to know that I probably wouldn’t guess the murder from the novel either, but I think I’d at least have a better chance, and that’s really what I’m looking to see in a film of this genre.

Why to watch Murder on the Orient Express: The guts of a pretty good mystery.
Why not to watch: The entire film is a crime, a series of interrogations, and a conclusion.


  1. I'll start right off by saying I love this film while also saying that I think the actual mystery is incidental to the enjoyment of the picture. Lumet keeps the story firmly in hand and moving but the main attraction of the picture is the cast and the look of the film.

    Any question of that I think is dispensed with as the characters board the train and we are treated to what could be a runway walk of Jacqueline Bissett, in that amazing white ensemble, and Michael York, all duded out in a pristine suit. While they have the most elaborate wardrobe the attention to detail in all the costuming is impressive in its character specificity.

    None of the roles require much in the way of stretching for any actor. Ingrid's probably the most which is why she was singled out, though an Oscar was a bit much...as even she felt more or less giving her award to Valentina Cortese from the stage, but I think Betty Bacall is more vivid in her ugly American boorishness. I also love Vanessa Redgrave's loose sassiness, something she didn't always get to show during her peak years. Ustinov is my preferred Poirot too because he seems so at home in the part but Finney's take on the role is well observed and great fun. While no great histrionics are required of any of them no one phones it in each giving sprightly performances, they all seem to be enjoying themselves which translates to the audience. The production design is a marvel and the zippy musical score, used sparingly throughout, helps give a sense of movement that keeps it from feeling too set bound.

    Sometimes it's nice to watch something that doesn't demand too much of you and can be watched at the level of pure entertainment with a group of familiar faces guiding the way.

    1. This is one we'll disagree on then. With this cast and potential, I expected quite a bit more than what I got.

      I agree on the staging, though--it is a beautiful film to look at and the costuming and set design are pretty tremendous. I just wanted a little more than I actually got here, and that's always going to be a little disappointing.

  2. I don't know what it is about this movie because, objectively, I could list a bunch of negatives mostly about how formulaic it is, but I love this movie! I've been sucked into watching it a bunch of times, probably twice in the last year or two. And I almost watched it again when I saw that it was about to start on MOVIES! again just a week or so ago.

    I feel the same about Murder by Death and Death on the Nile.

    1. I love Murder by Death, and given a choice of the three, it's the one I'd pick.

      I'm frequently surprised at the stuff shown on the Movies! channel. I've made it a habit to check their schedule about once a week.

    2. They had a bunch of baseball movies on Monday, including the 1951 comedy Rhubarb about a cat that owns a baseball team! Ray Milland, Gene Lockhart, William Frawley. In small roles, this movie also has Strother Martin and Leonard Nimoy!

      I liked it. Normally I wouldn't recommend it because it's totally crazy but not really that funny. But my nephew - who's immediately suspicious of any movie made before 1990 - put down his phone and watched the whole thing. And my brother - who likes a select number of classic films if they have Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake and a few others but is frequently rather dismissive of some of the more obscure movies I turn up - also started watching it and ended up liking it a lot.

      I about had a heart attack!

      Murder on the Orient Express is not a movie I would ever list in my Top Ten, but if somebody bought it for me for my birthday, I'd probably watch it twice a year.

  3. I saw this way back in the 1970s in the afternoon on one of the local stations that was filling time. I remember nothing about it other than A. I've seen it; and B. who did the killing (the wounds).

    1. That was where I was with it before I just watched it (I remembered the killer once we got to the wounds) and maybe a detail here or there. I'm guessing that in a year it's where I'll be with it again.

  4. Ugh, you're killing me! While I can't deny any of your specific complaints, I do love this film. I think the opening sequence is eerie as all hell, and I actually kinda like the stripped-down, all-business procedural approach to the bulk of the film (I've read enough Christie to sense that the casual "slice of life" moments are where she flounders).

    I'm curious of what you would have liked to see more of in this film to give it more substance. Poirot was never an action hero, so any kind of chase/fight wouldn't do... Perhaps more deliberation? Chasing down a red herring? A good "thinking hard now" montage?

    1. Completely fair questions. I guess my main complaint is that everything simply seems to be handed to Poirot as a gift. Something that would allow for the audience to better track the case and the mystery, I guess. This really feels like it could be 20 minutes longer and those 20 minutes would help.