MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: I Have a Professional Interest in Crime, Madame

Murder on the Orient Express (1974) – Based on the novel by Agatha Christie; Directed by Sidney Lumet – Starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Colin Blakely, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, George Coulouris, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Dennis Quilley, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, and Michael York.

I will not spoil the ending to this movie in this reaction, which is maybe rather silly seeing as I’m writing about a 26-year old movie that adapted a 66-year old novel. The reason I won’t do that is because it had remained a mystery to me all these years, Christie’s story in all its forms somehow slipping through the entertainment cracks, and if you haven’t seen the movie, get it and watch it. Sidney Lumet’s film isn’t even a must-watch because of the mystery, but because it is one of the all-time great all-star casted movies.

Watching it, I was sort of embarrassed that I hadn’t seen it before, and a bit self-critical that what got me to rent it hadn’t been an urge to overcome my lack of ever seeing it, or a desire to go on a Lumet kick, as much as I’d watched Bullitt last week and wanted to ogle the historical Jacqueline Bisset a bit more.

You know, so long as the movie was good.

It’s good. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is an amazingly enjoyable movie, full of great stars delivering small but showcase performances. Lumet masterfully works in star cameo after cameo to play against Albert Finney’s Hercule Poirot. It’s the kind of movie I want to watch when I want to shut out the world and enjoy a contemporary slice of Old Hollywood. As much as there’s a mystery at play here, ORIENT EXPRESS doesn’t really invite you to attempt to solve the mystery; instead, it treats you very much like an audience (or passenger on a train), inviting you to board the Express and sit in on Poirot’s investigation.

In fact, I’d recommend ORIENT EXPRESS to someone who loves Ocean’s 11 more than I’d recommend it to someone who loves Momento.

Albert Finney’s performance as Poirot is completely engrossing. Finney almost entirely disappears inside the character (the nuances, the accent, the costume), which lends to a sense of watching Poirot interrogating Ingrid Bergman or Sean Connery instead of Finney and Connery competing against one another. It’s important that Finney has to be subsumed by his character, while almost everyone else is enhanced by theirs, because it grounds the mystery aspect of the film.

ORIENT EXPRESS is just such a professional movie from start-to-finish that it’s a total joy to watch. It’s written well, acted well, directed well, shot well, scored well …

Man, Richard Rodney Bennett’s score is just so beautiful to listen to you’ll be humming it long after the movie is finished. There’s an anecdote in the special features section relayed by Nicholas Meyer (the guy who directed Star Trek II: Kirk and Khan Yell at Each Other On the Phone) about how the great Bernard Herrmann was infuriated by Bennett’s scoring of the Orient Express leaving the station because instead of using the music to underscore that this was a “train of death,” Bennett went the other way and gave us a remarkably beautiful and catchy waltz.

It’s a perfect – absolutely perfect – accompaniment to an all-star movie.

The secondary performances all work, and other than Martin Balsam (a director of the train company) and George Coulouris (the train’s doctor) who assist Poirot, most of the cast gets one big scene – their interview with Poirot. The best performances beyond Finney’s are delivered by Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, and Richard Widmark, and Anthony Perkins delivers a very underrated performance playing Widmark’s nervous assistant.

Finney’s “Here’s What Happened” moment goes on for almost a half-hour and it’s a pure joy to watch him go through the explanation of the murder. If nothing else, it’s worth watching for that final act, but really, it’s worth watching from fade-in to fade-out.