Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
It is no wonder that Agatha Christie chose the Orient Express, once the most luxurious train in the world, as the setting for one of her fictitious crime scenes. From Paris to Istanbul, a journey of some 1,920 miles, will take passengers around 1883 (the date of its first launch) through exquisite landscapes in the total comfort of their seats and beds. “Murder on the Orient Express” was also inspired by the real incident which happened in 1929 when the train was forced to a standstill for five days due to heavy snow. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), directed by Sidney Lumet (“Twelve Angry Men” (1957)), could be said to be the first truly successful adaptation of a Christie’s novel, and the last film viewed by Agatha Christie herself, who approved it. Boasting an unbelievably starry cast, including such names as Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Vanessa Redgrave, this adaptation is both true to the novel and very-well acted, deserving high praise.
“Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) starts in the year 1930 when newspaper headlines shout about the case of Armstrong and the abduction and murder of a little girl. Five years on, in December 1935, Hercule Poirot embarks on the infamous Orient Express and his travel companions are an eccentric group of people, ranging from some Russian nobility, Princess Dragomiroff, to an Italian car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli. When a gruesome murder of one of the travellers, Mr. Ratchett, happens during the night, Hercule Poirot is called to assist to unmask the assassin. What follows is the classic whodunit tale full of surprises: red hearings, labyrinthic deceptions and astonishing confessions. The film largely follows the book, demonstrating how more and more incriminating evidence found (such as a lady’s handkerchief and a missing button) leads to a number of possible suspects in the story.
The only apparent problem in this 1974 version is the cast of Hercule Poirot. Albert Finney (“Erin Brokovich” (2000)) was too young still to play the character in 1974, requiring heavy daily make-up, and he was only the third choice to play the lead role (behind Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield) (IMDb). However, the problem is not even his looks, which are relatively accurate, but in Finney’s take on the character. Finney’s Poirot is sometimes too forceful on his entourage; shouts quite frequently; has an almost indecipherable accent; and the interview scenes with Finney’s Poirot sometimes verge on prison interrogations. David Suchet as Hercule Poirot only came later in a British TV series, but he is, arguably, the truest Poirot imaginable.
Having said that, undoubtedly, Albert Finney’s Hercule Poirot, with his passion for truth and frequent raising of the voice, is just the man to bring out the best performances of the star-lined cast. For example, Ingrid Bergman (“Spellbound” (1945) as Greta Ohlsson who has poor English, was deemed so good in the role she won an Academy Award for the Best Supporting Actress. Other cast members are also excellent. Lauren Bacall (“The Big Sleep” (1946)) as Mrs. Hubbard is great as a vivacious and flirty woman, who proves to be not as innocent as it may appear, and Sean Connery, the famous Agent 007, as Colonel Arbuthnot is the very impersonation of determination and manly protection, whose outburst: “She is not a woman…she is a lady!” is one of the most memorable, and whose romance with Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave (“Atonement” (2007)) heats up the screen. Other notable cast members are Jacqueline Bisset (“Bullitt” (1968)) as Countess Andrenyi; Wendy Hiller (“Pygmalion” (1938)) as Princess Dragomiroff; Anthony Perkins (“Psycho” (1960)) as Hector McQueen; Jean-Pierre Cassel (a classic French actor and the father of Vincent Cassel) as Pierre; Martin Balsam (“Psycho”) as Bianchi; and Michael York (“Logan’s Run” (1976)) as Count Andrenyi. In fact, it is very difficult to find much fault in the cast or the acting when such an eye-popping star ensemble is introduced to the screen. Even when the film may just hint on dullness, one look at any of the stars, be it intriguingly beautiful Bisset or charismatic Connery, will right away elevate the film again to the height of fascination and entertainment.
Benefiting from an amazing parade of A-list stars, remaining faithful to the novel by Agatha Christie, and having beautiful and detailed production (for the year 1974), “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) can apparently do no wrong as an entertaining mystery movie. The script really focuses on the mystery at hand, revealing a mind-blowing twist at the end to the amazement of the audience. The film may not be as thrilling as first assumed, but the movie’s gravest fault is to be found in the casting and in the performance of Albert Finney, who is sometimes too overbearing and enthusiastically maniacal to pass for the suave, soft-spoken and most-of-the-time-composed Belgian detective. 7/10
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
There are rumours now that Kenneth Branagh now wants to create the whole universe of Agatha Christie, and “Murder on the Orient Express” is his first film instalment (with “Death on the Nile” (2019) being currently in pre-production). This film is very much a remake of the film of 1974. As in that movie, in a train full of strangers, one person (Mr. Ratchett) is murdered in a gruesome fashion: with 12 separate wounds inflicted. The suspicion falls on the rest of the passengers, and the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is tasked with finding out who among the passengers is responsible for the crime. Despite all the visual splendour injected into this film with a top-notch cast assembled, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a problematic film, which suffers from pompousness, which, in turn, contributes to making this film quite devoid of the thrill of a mystery.
Irrelevantly and most strangely, Branagh’s picture opens with a mystery of the Wailing Wall, which Poirot solves and from which he comes out victorious. Then, there are the preparations for the Orient Express to depart, and the audience gets their first glimpses of the passengers, who are an eclectic mix of people, such as the teary-eyed Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), the elegantly beautiful Countess Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), the very image of courtesy Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), and the self-composed Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). The atmosphere of the film here is full of humour, and is at odds with the genre of this story which is thriller/crime mystery.
As the film progresses, it gets even weirder. The passengers are now onboard of the Orient Express, and the audience also get arresting views of the train as it speeds down its tracks covered in snow. However, the growing tension and nervousness in the carriage, as well as the forthcoming mystery, are not what Branagh chooses to focus on at the beginning of his movie. Instead, he starts to play with the camera, not quite knowing where to position it to capture the events on the train, and the annoying shots, as well as the over-use of close-ups, continue until the end of the film. For example, when at one point, the train is shown, the camera is outside of the train, moving alongside it, showing each of the compartments, and when the body of Mr. Ratchett is discovered, there is an overhead camera-shot, which stays like that for quite awhile. These shots are not so much creatively entertaining, as very distracting, especially since the audience needs to focus more on the mysterious circumstances of the death, rather than on the beauty or the ingenuity of each shot.
Even though this 2017 version has such stars as Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff, Johnny Depp as Mr. Ratchett, Michelle Pfeiffer (“The Age of Innocence” (1993)) as Mrs. Hubbard, Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados and Willem Dafoe (“Antichrist” (2009)) as Mr. Hardman, the ensemble is not quite on par with the unbeatable, in terms of its stars, cast of the 1974 film. This means that the production has to entice the audience into the movie by other means. Thus, to make the interviews between Poirot and the suspects “more interesting”, the film begins to show criss-crossed interviews, and even takes one interview (with Mary Debenham) outside of the train. The creativity does not stop there. Towards the end, the film loses is Agatha Christie-like subtlety and intrigue altogether and opts for scenes of pointless violence, such as when Mrs. Hubbard gets stabbed.
In “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017), Kenneth Branagh is both the director and the lead character: Hercule Poirot. Branagh showcases the peculiar behaviour and the manner of speech of Poirot believably and masterly, but the sad fact is that Branagh does not look like Poirot, as envisaged by Agatha Christie, at all. Nowhere the egg-like shape of Poirot’s head or his diminutive stature could be seen, and, with totally Scandinavian looks and unkempt moustache, Kenneth Branagh, with his right-hand man, becomes the very image of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, rather than Poirot.
The other problematic feature here is that Branagh imposes his character on the audience too forcefully. Hercule Poirot is supposed to be “these little grey cells” working shyly behind the scenes and knowing it all. However, in this film, from the very first scenes, Branagh’s Poirot comes off as almost too pompous and self-satisfied. In the prologue, he becomes the self-evident hero who solves a mystery in Jerusalem, and then he is so evidently flattered by the passengers of the Orient Express for his wit and intellect, that it becomes an almost one-man tribute show. Such heroic pompousness on the part of Poirot really stands at odds with Poirot as created by Christie, who is supposed to be an almost unnoticed omniscient presence, and who is often underestimated because of his foreignness.
Kenneth Branagh is not the only one miscast in this film. Even though Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer are very good in their respective roles, Josh Gad as Hector McQueen is all wrong, much worse than Anthony Perkins’s mother-obsessed McQueen in the 1974 version. The 2017 version makes him almost comical in his plumpness, even though Hector McQueen should be more of the image of handsomeness, intelligence and efficiency. Other cast members also include the dancer-turned-actor Sergei Polunin as Count Andrenyi, who actually have a number of big movies coming up, including Ralph Fiennes’ “The White Crow” (2018) and Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” (2018), and Olivia Colman (“The Lobster” (2015)) as Hildegarde.
Overall, “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) is quite an unnecessary visual “upgrade” on the 1974 film. Although the movie is sporadically entertaining, from the very first scenes, the movie tries every trick to divert the audiences’ attention from what is really important and intriguing here: the mystery behind the murder of Mr. Rachett. The movie does so by first showing an irrelevant mystery surrounding the Wailing Wall, then through the comic departure preparations of the train, and then by focusing too intently on Poirot’s “heroic” qualities, eccentricities and personal journey, rather than on the story or its secondary characters. This 2017 version has some admirable things in it, such as its overall décor and sound design, but it never even comes close to correcting some of the “faults” of the 1974 film, such as the vision of Hercule Poirot, and if anything, it becomes a very misleading adaptation of the novel. The only other positive thing in the movie is the mystery/twist it unveils, but for that, Agatha Christie’s novel is to be credited, and, in no way, the movie itself, which fails to make it interesting. 5/10