The Second Lauren Bacall Blogathon: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
This is The Second Lauren Bacall Blogathon, run by the In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood blog, and if I have to explain to you who Bacall was, you are reading the wrong blog.
But please follow the link and check out the wealth of great posts from the blogs that are participating in the blogathon, and then come back here, because we have a train to catch, and we are running late.
Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, possibly second only to And then there were none. It was published in 1934, on the first of January. Hercule Poirot was by this time a well-established character, and the public was delighted by this new adventure of the little Belgian. The critics were complimentary but did point out a few problems with the plot. It was a success anyway.
Forty years later, Hollywood brought the novel to the screen, with a script by Paul Dehn (the scriptwriter of Goldfinger, among other movies) and directed by Sidney Lumet.
The choice of Lumet is significant as he was a director that had showed his skill at directing tense dramas in a limited space, such as 12 Angry Men.
But if the source material was popular and the director a solid veteran of Hollywood thrillers, it was the cast of the movie that was granted to catch the attention of the ticket-buyers: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark and Michael York.
They don’t make movies like this anymore.
The simple casting of Hiller, Bergman, Bacall, Redgrave and Bisset put five generations of female stars on the screen.
So, what’s this story about?
It’s about Hercule Poirot, a fastidious, eccentric Belgian detective, that finds himself a second-class berth on the Orient Express, among a crowd of apparently unrelated individuals. And when the train is stuck in the snow and a killing occurs, Poirot is not only the right man in the right place to solve the case, but he is the unexpected factor, the kink in the plot that causes a complicate murder conspiracy to fail.
And I will say nothing else, not to spoil the fun of those that have so far missed this beauty – stop reading now and go watch the movie!
The background to the whole plot is an old crime, the kidnapping and killing of a small child – a case clearly based by Christie on the real life Baby Lindberg kidnapping in 1932.
It turns out the murder victim was the gangster that did the deed, and got off the hook on a technicality. Its multiple stabbing seems a much deserved retribution, or was maybe just a setting of old scores among criminals?
As the plot progresses, the passengers trapped on the Orient Express are interviewed by Poirot, as he tries to trace the movements of every individual on the train at the moment of the killing.
Excepting the intro and the flashback scenes, the movie takes place almost exclusively on the train for its whole duration, that is 131 minutes, and holds up beautifully thanks to the spectacular performances of the stellar cast.
Finney is hectic and obsessive as Poirot, and finds his foil in Harriett Belinda Hubbard, an American heiress played by Bacall with gusto. The banter between Poirot and Hubbard is one of the most effective elements of the movie.
It can be argued that Bacall is basically playing Bacall, and some have pointed out that after keeping Bogart’s Marlowe in line, a short Belgian guy was no match for her.
But Bacall’s turn in the movie is a wonder of skill, casting and script.
But the true piece de resistance is Poirot’s final unraveling the mystery – a staggering 28 minutes monologue that Lumet wanted to shoot in a single take, but the cramped conditions forced into a series of reshoots.
Poirot’s solution has the inevitability of a clockwork mechanism, and Finney’s delivery is passionate and merciless.
The film received six Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Finney, but only bagged one – an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Ingrid Bergman, that in the movie has one single scene, five minutes shot in a single take by Lumet. The scene alone is worth of an Oscar.
Bergman was also awarded a BAFTA Award, together with Sir John Gielgud, who plays the butler of the victim, and Richard Rodney Bennett for the score.
But probably the best recognition for the movie is to be found in the fact that it was made at all. Agatha Christie, that was 84 at the time of the shooting, had never been pleased with the adaptations of her stories that had been made in the ‘60s, and had to be persuaded to give her permission for the filming.
She later admitted that Albert Finney (a man of 37 playing the part of a much older man, for which Alec Guinness had been originally cast) was almost perfect in the role of Poirot.
Almost. The moustache was wrong.
Almost forty-five years on, Murder on the Orient Express is still a beautiful piece of cinema, a near-perfect murder mystery, and a tour de force for the whole cast and the director, a textbook example of how to edit a film.
It’s worth watching and re-watching.
It doesn’t get old.
And as an added bonus (because I was unable to find a video of Bergman’s scene), here is the suite from the soundtrack.