Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Film Reviews

db43d6c7a20c1608c859b3753294cdf4Murder 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

3cc91fe2ed5497ccff9a683969714341Murder 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

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29 Responses to Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Film Reviews

  1. realthog says:

    Other front-line stars in the 1974 version (I haven’t seen the remake) are Richard Widmark and, most distinguished of all, John Gielgud.

    I know I’m a bit of a maverick here, but for me Finney’s Poirot is the definitive screen incarnation. Suchet’s is good too, but Finney’s Poirot, often formidable, often repellent, seems far truer. (I should qualify this by saying that, unlike everyone else in the known universe, I’m not a huge fan of the Poirot novels.)

    I very much enjoyed teading your account of these two movies, though, even if we do disagree about Finney! Happy New Year.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      As you can see I am not a big expert on old stars 🙂 You are so right, John Gielgud and Richard Widmark are big names indeed. The latter is a good cast there, even though with his blue eyes he does not immediately strike me as “Italian” (as to be Cassetti).
      Lets agree to disagree on Finney, and a very Happy New Year to you too!

  2. onfoot2017 says:

    Totally agree with your assessment. The Kenneth B. version was just painful. He didn’t seem to “get” any of what makes Poirot so enjoyable and Christie so brilliant. Kind of an ego trip movie for him, and that mustache and lame hinted at back story for Poirot…sheesh. Thanks for the blogs this year, I have always enjoyed your take on the films and have put a few in my to watch cue based on your recommendations.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks for agreeing! You put it very well: an ego trip all the way for Branagh in this movie. I was “swallowing” his Poirot silently all through the movie, but when his Poirot proclaimed: “I am Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the best detective in the world”, I just burst out laughing. Yes, Poirot did say that in some book – not this one, but with his Poirot being so full of himself throughout the film, that line was just going way too far!

  3. raistlin0903 says:

    I completely agree with everything you wrote here about the “upgrade”. I did not care for it much either. It had nice visuals, but otherwise I felt that most of the superb cast was totally wasted. Real shame.
    Great post, and before I might forget: best wishes for the new year!😊

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks, exactly. I also thought there were not enough shown of some interesting characters, such as Pilar and Princess Dragomiroff. But, no wonder if their screen time was probably taken by Poirot chasing down “criminals” under the bridge? lol
      A Happy New Year to you too!

  4. Jade says:

    Great review! I really enjoy watching Agatha Christie’s mysteries unfold, but haven’t had a chance to watch the new film. Seems it might be better to give the original a shot. Thanks for pointing me to it. Here’s to better AC films from here on, and of course, a fantastic year ahead for you. 😊

  5. I love the 74 version. Yes Finney is over the top in parts, but I think he does a good job. The entire cast are solid. For me this version is the best adaptation of this story out there. I haven’t seen the new one yet, but I wasn’t impressed with the trailer and I’ve heard mostly negative responses from people who’ve watched it. I might give it a watch at some point. Branagh’s bizarre moustache has also put me off too LOL.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      The 1974 version might as well be the best version of the book out there, though I have also heard of a TV series “Murder on the Orient Express” (2010) with David Suchet playing Poirot, Jessica Chastain playing Mary Debenham and Toby Jones – Samuel Ratchett. I am curious to watch it now, or maybe to re-watch it (perhaps I have seen it at some point).

      I will be interested to know what you thought of the new film if you decide to watch it. Apart from criticism above, I also thought that the new film had many “historical inconsistencies”. For one thing, the Countess there behaves totally unladylike, and it is just not believable at all.

      • The one with David Suchet is good too. I recommend that to you. Have you ever seen the long running series starring him? He is the best Poirot out there, much like Jeremy Brett was the best Holmes.

        • dbmoviesblog says:

          I have seen some Poirot series on ITV or some channel, and I agree Suchet is the best Poirot, and I agree with you re Jeremy Brett – what a Holmes he was! So charismatic. I own Brett’s take on Sherlock Holmes on DVD, and my favourite story is The Hound of the Baskervilles.

  6. Richard says:

    Fascinating review and a great way to set it out!! 🙂

    The Kenneth Branagh moustache is still giving me nightmares! Just terrible…

    Even though I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the film, I found it watchable and easy on the eye and I wouldn’t mind if Branagh continues with a film series especially if he shortens his moustache, and makes sure that Death on the Nile is a significant improvement on this rushed and underdeveloped production.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Many thanks, Richard. Kenneth Branagh and his vision of Agatha Christie books! Exaggerated grotesqueness, hehe! I am not sure I will be up to watch now Death on the Nile with him. It is curious how he is both director and the lead role, and if you think of it, he is the most likeable male character in the 2017 version. That is saying something.

  7. The 1974 film is one of my top 5 favorite films of all time (and much better than the 2017 film, as we both agree). And Suchet is the best Poirot, but I also quite liked Finney’s portrayal of the character.

  8. I have forgotten about the 1974 version which I recall is the better one. Like you I did not like the remake they always messing them up. Why don’t they do a remake of a bad movie into a great one like I said many times. Nice post.

  9. Amazing review – I really loved Christie’s work. Saw both films… preferred the 1974 one too!

  10. Oh dear – I had really high hopes for the 2017 version. I quite like the 1974 version, Albert Finny included, and I was excited for the new film. I will still see it, someday, but I won’t set my expectations too high.

    Also, I find it so disappointing when a director’s “cleverness” tries to steal the show from the plot. I find it always pulls you away from the film instead of drawing you into it – if that makes sense?

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      If you are curious, the 2017 version is still worth watching, and I like the way you put it about a director’s cleverness trying to steal the show. This is exactly what happens in the new version. Branagh nuances, whether they are about his Poirot persona or the visuals, try to overshadow the interesting story. This is not a superhero story, and yet Branagh thinks it should be. As you know, Lumet (director here of the 1974 film) previously directed 12 Angry Men, a film taking place in one room without any unnecessary embellishments, and it was still an epic film.

  11. You write with such I tricate detail which makes your reviews a delight to read and this is another example. I have been reading many Agatha Christie novels as of present during the wi ter nights which seem fitting, (notably the Hercule Poirot mysteries) and I must say I adore them alot. She really was an author ahead of her time and I love the bold and gutsy phrases that are full of excitment of the classic ‘who dunnit’ mixed with some amusing characters and I did enjoy it though some of the exaggeration I found overboard aswell. I can’t say I’m on board with the new version, I decided to give it a chance but I could not get the thrill I felt from her novel, aside from the great acting by Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. Let us comb away that mustache, pull back the hair, and voila! beneath the disguise I found he produced an excellent accent. A great post Diana.

    Sincerely Sonea

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks a lot, Sonea! I share your passion for Christie’s novels. I was virtually brought up on them, and my favourites still remain And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and, strangely, Cards on the Table. Recently, I also recently have read The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie. This was not as well-received in its time and it does not have Hercule Poirot, but I found it an enjoyable and relaxing read nonetheless, even though, as you put it, it is also full of the usual “exaggerations”.
      I agree with you re Branagh’s accent. Even though Branagh will never be for me the Poirot I admire, I also really liked his accent in the movie, more so than Finney’s in the 1974 version.

  12. Chris says:

    I didn’t know was inspired by a real incident in 1929 when a train was forced to a standstill for five days. Thanks for the bonus info. I see what you mean that Finney is a tad young for the role compared to to Branagh.

  13. vinnieh says:

    A fascinating take on the movies. I’ve only seen the 70’s version so I can’t really compare or contrast yet. But I really want to. I’m a sucker for a mystery.

  14. Looking forward to Avengers: Infinity War?

  15. Dan says:

    Not only was the remake unnecessary but Branagh isn’t qualified to direct it. Love the original. It’s one of the films I often rewatch. That’s says a lot about its qualities given it’s a whodunit. The strength of its cast and Lumet’s wonderful orchestration of the ensemble is a big reason why it’s so effective.

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