There’s a principle in entertainment called “the 40-year rule,” championed by writer Adam Gopnik, which posits that people in every era are fascinated by the culture of the era that came 40 years before them. It’s easy to think of examples both for and against this notion, but a strong bit of evidence in its favor is Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film of a 1934 Agatha Christie story, Murder on the Orient Express. Another 40 years and change have passed since the film and the 1975 Oscar ceremony where it received 6 nominations, so it’s high time to give it another look.
Christie wrote the novel in Istanbul, the junction of West and East, at the grand Pera Palace Hotel where European travelers holidayed before taking the Orient Express back to the major cities of Europe. Her famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, is on the final leg of a multi-book trip around the world and staying in Istanbul as well when the story begins.
People of all types meet in Istanbul, the eastern terminus of the Orient Express
Four decades later, luxury train travel wasn’t what it had been. The original Orient Express no longer existed. A more southerly line, which was in fact the one featured in Christie’s book, did continue to run, but it now operated under the decidedly pragmatic name “Direct Orient Express.” In the 1970s the purpose of trains was not to go in comfort and style, but to get there quickly. The memory of the old way became nostalgia, right on Gopnik’s schedule, and the classic novel by the now-elderly Christie was finally ripe for a film treatment.
Murder on the Orient Express could have been adapted in the 1930s or 40s – certainly audiences were always drawn to elegance, not least during the austere years of depression and war – but few filmmakers at that time could have understood how much of the story’s power lay in its soon-to-be-antiquated physical setting: the dining cars, sleeping compartments, and smoking rooms of the world’s most famous train. By the 1970s, even the contents of characters’ pockets and luggage seemed thrillingly retro: pipes and pipe-cleaners, hat boxes and mustache wax, conductor uniforms and swanky silk nightgowns. These were not simply clues in a mystery or markers of a character’s station in life, as they were to Christie and her readers; they were charming mementos of an idealized past.
Finney as Poirot in a humorous private moment
Director Sidney Lumet was not himself a relic, but he had a good eye for them. The plot of his first film, 12 Angry Men, hinged on such apparent trivialities as parts of eyeglasses and the make of pocketknives. In that spartan film objects mostly appear off-screen, but in Murder on the Orient Express Lumet’s camera is on the hunt for them. We peer over characters’ shoulders, their heads bent and their hands busy with ornate tea cups and creased photographs. Careful attention is paid to Poirot (Albert Finney)’s application of a bedtime face-mask to protect his signature mustache – it’s a moment of levity that accompanies the tension of an impending murder, and it introduces the element of vanity to Poirot’s persona, but at least half the humor is in the mere existence of such a specialized, archaic device.
The English Finney is a chameleonic actor in body and voice, and he scrunches himself into Poirot until the keen-eyed, baritone Belgian is all that there is. On the Orient Express Poirot faces a slate of twelve suspects – the same number of principles that Lumet had wrangled seventeen years earlier in his courtroom drama. Since the film does not run long, each suspect has only a few minutes of screentime in which to convey their personality traits and create ambiguity by being at once sympathetic and suspicious. This requires something other than the subtle methodological talent that Finney brings to the starring role: it requires big, known stars for whom audiences have ready-made associations.
Connery faces Poirot in a moustachioed face-off
Sean Connery was the first to sign on. Murder on the Orient Express was not his first ensemble film, a genre in which he would routinely excel, nor the first film in which he sported the mustache that accessorized him throughout the second half of his career, but it was his first major release after retiring from the James Bond franchise. He plays a British officer of the colonial Indian Army, the paramour of a wealthy lady played by Venessa Redgrave. Redgrave had previously played Anne Boleyn, Guinevere, and Mary Queen of Scots, so she was adept at communicating the needed blend of nobility and coquetry.
Some youngsters (like Michael York, two years off of Cabaret) and supporting players (like TV and film actor Martin Balsam) were required, but Lumet’s next big additions to the cast were established actresses even more legendary than the Orient Express itself. Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman, savvy show-stealers from an era of filmmaking when detective stories were de rigueur, came on board to create two very different kinds of suspicious women. Bacall’s character, the American socialite Mrs. Hubbard, exhibits the most range, pivoting between fast-talking flirtation and sad-eyed contemplation. But Bergman’s heavily-accented Swedish missionary character shows more depth of emotion, and her anguished, slyly comic, perfectly-timed one-take dialogue with Finney midway through the film secured her her third acting Oscar.
Two titled thespians of the English stage, Dame Wendy Hiller and Sir John Gielgud, brought their seemingly-effortless talents to the oldest suspects in the mystery. Hiller’s Russian dowager is skeletally pale, but with a lively wit. Maggie Smith’s beloved Downton Abbey persona owes much to the example. Gielgud plays a testy valet with private passions, a template for Anthony Hopkins’s butler in The Remains of the Day(1993).
Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Anthony Perkins stand out in any crowd
Rounding out the main cast is Anthony Perkins, the slasher from Psycho(1960), whose secretary character is interesting in terms of the film’s navigation of cultural mores. In 1974, Paul Dehn’s adapted screenplay could simply have stated or showed that Perkins’ character, Hector McQueen, was a homosexual. Instead, Dehn uses coded language the way he had in his script for Goldfinger (1964) with its not-so-secretly lesbian Bond Girl. The adjective “boyish,” applied to a man well into middle-age; the name McQueen, taken from the novel; the close attachment to a mother figure. The casting of Perkins did the rest – he imports wholesale the sunken, squirrelly bearing of his Psycho character. While hardly a progressive characterization, audiences understood the implication, and Dehn’s script remained suitably old-fashioned rather than anachronistic in its expression of character traits.
If anything about the film belongs clearly to the 1970s rather than to the 1930s, it is the sound design. Finney’s Poirot speaks either in a mutter or a bellow, with his head frequently turned away from the camera. His words are less articulate expressions than atmospheric sounds. Richard Bennett’s score is quietly supportive, but the real soundtrack is the clatter of the train, the clink of utensils, the hush that settles on the snowbound cars. These are the products of a clear auteur vision, a rarity under the erstwhile studio system. They also stem from Lumet's four-decade removal from the subject matter, and his realization that the arcane setting of Christie's story is a bigger draw to contemporary audiences than the actual mystery.
Finney was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Art Carney
Yet the mystery did resonate, without substantial alteration, for viewers in 1974. Christie’s novel involves the kidnapping of a child, a plot inspired by the infamous Lindbergh Baby case of 1932. Purely by accident, Lumet's movie came out just months after the next most famous kidnapping of the century, that of Patty Hearst.
History need not have repeated itself quite so closely for the 40-year rule to make Murder on the Orient Express a box office and Oscar success. The movie made its budget back tenfold and remains highly acclaimed among critics. Flickcharters like it too, giving it a spot in the global top 1000. Don’t wait for its next 40-year anniversary: check it out now and revel in one of the best ensemble films, and best novel adaptations, ever made.
The cast of CLUE: Tim Curry, Lesley Ann Warren, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Martin Mull, Michael McKean, and Eileen Brennan
Film programmer Stephen Jannise has observed that Murder on the Orient Express is a template for Clue, the 1985 ensemble spoof of Christie-style parlor-room mysteries. Viewing the films back-to-back reveals a surprising number of similarities, not only in the tropes of the genre, but in details like the art-deco fonts of the opening credits. The comedy of Clue is broad, often corny, but the particulars of plot are treated as meticulously as they would be in a straight murder mystery. If you prefer to invert the mix, Murder on the Orient Express is a top-shelf mystery with a satisfying smattering of dry comedy. For me it emerges on top.
Winner: Murder on the Orient Express
A gathering of literary detectives in MURDER BY DEATH
Before Clue, there was an even more overt Christie spoof, 1976’s Murder by Death. As with Murder on the Orient Express, a selling point of Murder by Death is its all-star cast, headlined by Alec Guinness, David Niven, Truman Capote, Peter Sellers, and Maggie Smith. Its storytelling conceit is the presence of several fictional detectives in the same creepy house. There is Poirot, of course, and also Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Miss Marple, and others. Fans of Clue should consider this one a must-watch. Yet, as before, the foundational work takes the match.
Winner: Murder on the Orient Express
Flickchart stats for Murder on the Orient Express:
David has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He loves foreign films, westerns, war flicks, and has read nearly every word J.R.R. Tolkien ever wrote. David lived in Japan for three years and is always eager to talk about it. Follow him on Twitter at @davidaconrad or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.