Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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By Scott Ross

An exercise in high style by the director Sidney Lumet. Based on the popular Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, this is the granddaddy of all those second-rate “all-star cast” whodunits, few of which could conjure up a players list as chic: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, and Michael York are the suspects, Richard Widmark is the victim, Martin Balsam is the Wagon Lit official assisting Poirot’s investigation, and Albert Finney is the fussy little Belgian possessor of the famed “little gray cells.” (The second-billed actors are Colin Blakely, Denis Quilley and George Coulouris, best-remembered as the guardian and nemesis of Charles Foster Kane, as the assisting physician.)

Finney, nearly unrecognizable under the ornate moustache, patent-leather hair and ageing make-up, gives a deliciously robust performance. Poirot aficionados may cry foul, but there’s surely more than one way to play the role; Peter Ustinov, for example, was a delightful, and very compassionate, Poirot, but hardly the “little man” the character is invariably described as by Christie.

Paul Dehn wrote the nifty screenplay, with an un-credited assist from Anthony Shaffer; Christie refused to allow a movie of this perennial favorite until movie censorship relaxed enough to allow her original ending to be filmed, and if you haven’t seen, or read, it, I won’t spoil her reasons for you here. The lush score is by Richard Rodney Bennett, and it drove Bernard Herrmann mad (“No!” He bellowed on hearing Bennett’s lilting waltz. “It’s the death-train!) The beautifully gauzy color cinematography is by the great Geoffrey Unsworth, and the marvelous Orient Express sets were the work of Tony Walton, who designed the staterooms and other compartments to scale and with four walls, allowing Lumet to shoot each suspect interview twice, once straight on and a second time from below, making the eerie claustrophobia even more real.

The essential elegance of the project was perfectly summed up by the late Richard Amsel in his superbly stylized poster.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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