Murder on the Orient Express (1974 film)

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Murder on the Orient Express
Murder on the Orient Express - UK poster.png
Original British quad format film poster
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Produced by John Brabourne
Richard B. Goodwin
Screenplay by Paul Dehn
Anthony Shaffer[1] (uncred.)
Based on Murder on the Orient Express 
by Agatha Christie
Starring Albert Finney
Music by Richard Rodney Bennett
Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth
Edited by Anne V. Coates
Production
  company
G.W. Films Limited
Distributed by EMI Films (UK)
Release date(s)
  • 24 November 1974 (1974-11-24) (UK)
Running time 131 min.[2]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget ₤1.5 million[3]
Box office ₤19 million[4]

Murder on the Orient Express is a 1974 British mystery film directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, and based on the 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

Overview[edit]

The film (and book) features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Albert Finney stars as Poirot, who is asked by his friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a train company director, to investigate the murder of an American business tycoon, Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark), aboard the Orient Express train. The suspects are portrayed by an all-star cast, including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (delivering an Oscar-winning performance), Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Perkins. The screenplay is by Paul Dehn.

The film's tagline is: "The greatest cast of suspicious characters ever involved in murder."

Richard Rodney Bennett's Orient Express theme has been reworked into an orchestral suite and performed and recorded several times. It was performed on the original soundtrack album by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden under Marcus Dods. The piano soloist was the composer himself.

Plot[edit]

The murder[edit]

Detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is returning to England aboard the Orient Express. During the journey, Poirot encounters his friend Monsieur Bianchi - Monsieur Bouc in the novel - (Martin Balsam), a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which owns the line. The train is unusually crowded for the time of year: every first-class berth has been booked. The morning after the train's departure from Istanbul, a wealthy American businessman, Ratchett (Richard Widmark), tries to secure Poirot's services for $15,000 since he has received many death threats, but Poirot finds the case of little interest and turns it down. That night the train is caught in heavy snows in the Balkans. The next morning Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his cabin.

Poirot and Bianchi work together to solve the case. They enlist the help of Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris), a Greek medical doctor who was travelling in another coach with Bianchi as the only other passenger and thus is not a suspect. Pierre Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the middle-aged French conductor of the car, also assists the investigation, as well as being a suspect. Poirot soon discovers that Ratchett was not who he claimed to be and his secret past indicates a clear motive for his murder.

Clues[edit]

Dr. Constantine's examination reveals that Ratchett was stabbed 12 times. Some wounds were slight, but at least three of them could have resulted in death. The stopped watch in the victim's pocket, as well as Poirot's reconstructed timeline of passenger activities the night before, indicate that Ratchett was murdered at about 1:15 a.m. The train had stopped, surrounded by fresh snow, before that time. There are no tracks in the snow and the doors to the other cars were locked, so the murderer is almost certainly still among the passengers in the coach.

Poirot discovers that Ratchett's real name was Cassetti, a mafia gangster who five years before planned and carried out the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong, infant daughter of a wealthy British Army Colonel who had settled in America with his American wife. The kidnappers demanded a ransom; but after it was delivered, instead of returning the girl, they murdered the child. Overcome with grief, the then-pregnant Mrs. Armstrong went into labor early and died while giving birth to a stillborn baby. A maidservant named Paulette (Suzanne in the novel), who was wrongly suspected of being involved in the kidnapping, committed suicide, only to be found innocent after she took her life. Colonel Armstrong, consumed by these tragedies, later killed himself as well. Cassetti betrayed his partner, leaving him to be executed while he fled the country with the ransom, as he was only revealed to be the leader of the kidnapping plot on the eve of the execution.

Poirot, Dr. Constantine and Bianchi summon the other passengers one by one and proceed to interrogate them.

(The fictitious Armstrong case was inspired by the real-life kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's child.)

Suspects[edit]

The 13 suspects are:

  • Pierre-Paul Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the French conductor of the sleeping car;
  • Hector McQueen (Anthony Perkins), a tall young American man, the victim's secretary and translator;
  • Edward Henry Beddoes (Sir John Gielgud), the victim's English valet;
  • Mrs. Harriet Belinda Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), an older, fussy, very talkative, American, multiply widowed socialite;
  • Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), a middle-aged Swedish missionary returning to Europe on a fund-raising trip for her mission in Africa;
  • Count Rudolf Andrenyi (Michael York), an aristocratic Hungarian diplomat;
  • Countess Elena Andrenyi (Jacqueline Bisset), née Grünwald, his beautiful young wife;
  • Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Dame Wendy Hiller), an elderly Russian royal;
  • Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts), a middle-aged German woman, the Princess' personal maid;
  • Colonel Arbuthnott (Sean Connery), a British officer in the British Indian Army returning to England on leave;
  • Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), a young Englishwoman, returning home to England after working as a teacher in Baghdad;
  • Antonio (Gino) Foscarelli (Denis Quilley), an exuberant Italian American car salesman from Chicago;
  • Cyrus B. "Dick" Hardman (Colin Blakely), a Pinkerton's detective masquerading as a talent agent.

Motive[edit]

After concluding his investigation, Poirot gathers all the suspects in the dining car to present his solution of the crime. He has formulated two possible scenarios to explain the murder. The first, which he calls the simple solution, is based on several clues which suggest that the murder of Ratchett/Cassetti was the result of a mafia feud. Poirot deduces that these clues have been planted by the suspects to mislead the investigation. Then Poirot analyzes his second solution — referring to it as the more complex of the two — according to which every passenger of the Calais coach, including the conductor Michel, were linked to the Armstrong case, thus having sufficient motive for the murder:

  • Michel was Paulette's father;
  • McQueen was the son of the District Attorney who prosecuted the case and was very fond of Mrs. Armstrong;
  • Beddoes was Colonel Armstrong's army batman and the family butler;
  • Mrs Hubbard was Mrs Armstrong's mother;
  • Miss Ohlsson was Daisy's nursemaid;
  • Count Andrenyi was Mrs Armstrong's brother-in-law;
  • Countess Andrenyi was Mrs Armstrong's sister;
  • Princess Dragomiroff was Sonia Armstrong's godmother;
  • Miss Schmidt was the Armstrongs' cook;
  • Col. Arbuthnott was an army friend of Col. Armstrong;
  • Miss Debenham was Mrs Armstrong's secretary;
  • Foscarelli was the Armstrongs' chauffeur;
  • Hardman was, at the time, a policeman in love with Paulette.

Ratchett was sedated by Beddoes and McQueen. Each of the passengers then stabbed him in turn.

When Poirot finishes his explanation, everyone in the car is dumbfounded. Poirot suggests that Bianchi should choose which explanation they should present to the police: the simple or the complex one. Bianchi decides that this "simple" solution will be more than enough for the local police and that Ratchett deserved everything he got. A cover-up is therefore instigated. Poirot agrees with the decision, and he departs to present his report to the police, even though he admits he will struggle with his conscience. The train becomes free of the snow and starts on its way as everyone toasts the outcome.

Cast[edit]

Production and reception[edit]

The entire budget was provided by EMI. The cost of the case came to ₤554,100.[3]

Cast members eagerly accepted upon first being approached. Lumet went to Sean Connery first, saying that if you get the biggest star, the rest will come along.

Exterior shooting was mostly done in France in 1973, with a railroad workshop near Paris standing in for Istanbul station. The scenes of the train proceeding through central Europe were filmed in the Jura Mountains on the then-recently closed railway line from Pontarlier to Gilley, with the scenes of the train stuck in snow being filmed in a cutting near Montbenoît.[5] Coincidentally, this area (part of Yugoslavia in the story) is part of the micronation of Saugeais. There were concerns about a lack of snow in the weeks preceding the scheduled shooting of the snowbound train, and plans were made to truck in large quantities of snow at considerable expense. However, heavy snowfall the night before the shooting made the extra snow unnecessary — just as well, as the snow-laden backup trucks had themselves become stuck in the snow.[6]

Christie's opinion[edit]

Agatha Christie had been quite displeased with some film adaptations of her works made in the 1960s, and accordingly was unwilling to sell any more film rights. When Nat Cohen, chairman of EMI Films, and producer John Brabourne attempted to get her approval for this film, they felt it necessary to have Lord Mountbatten of Burma (of the British Royal Family and also Brabourne's father-in-law) help them broach the subject.

In the end, according to Christie's husband Max Mallowan, "Agatha herself has always been allergic to the adaptation of her books by the cinema, but was persuaded to give a rather grudging appreciation to this one." Christie's biographer Gwen Robyns quoted her as saying, "It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn't in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn't he?"[7]

Reception and reputation[edit]

The film was a success at the box office, given its tight budget of $1.4 million,[8] earning $36 million in North America,[9][8] making it the 11th highest grossing film of 1974.

Nat Cohen claimed it was the first film completely financed by a British company to make the top of the weekly US box office charts in Variety.[10]

The film received positive reviews upon release and holds a 100% "Fresh" rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 7.4/10.[11]

Roger Ebert wrote that the film "provides a good time, high style, a loving salute to an earlier period of filmmaking".[12] The New York Times gave the film 4 stars out of 5.

Academy Awards and nominations[edit]

Other films[edit]

It was the first of a number of "all star" adaptations of Agatha Christie novels in the 1970s and early 1980s. Similar films included Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, and Appointment with Death featuring Hercule Poirot, as well as The Mirror Crack'd featuring amateur sleuth Miss Marple. Peter Ustinov portrayed the detective Poirot in these subsequent films.

References[edit]

  1. ^ NY Times, Nov 12, 2001: Anthony Shaffer, 75, Author Of Long-Running 'Sleuth,' Dies Re-linked 2014-08-24
  2. ^ BBFC: Murder on the Orient Express Linked 2014-08-24
  3. ^ a b Can film-makers Carry On? Bell, Brian. The Observer (1901- 2003) [London (UK)] 11 Aug 1974: 11.
  4. ^ Boost for studios The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 09 July 1975: 5.
  5. ^ Trains Oubliés Vol.2: Le PLM by José Banaudo, p. 54 (French). Editions du Cabri, Menton, France
  6. ^ DVD documentary "Making Murder on the Orient Express: The Ride"
  7. ^ The Agatha Christie Companion: The Complete Guide to Agatha Christie's Life and Work, by Dennis Sanders and Len Lovallo (1984), pgs. 438–441
  8. ^ a b Alexander Walker, National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties, Harrap, 1985 p. 130
  9. ^ "Murder on the Orient Express, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved 5 January 2012. 
  10. ^ "Murder on the Orient Express' tops US charts". The Times (London). 11 February 1975. p. 7. 
  11. ^ Movie Reviews for Murder on the Orient Express. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 23 September 2012.
  12. ^ Roger Ebert reviews Murder on the Orient Express. Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 23 September 2012.

External links[edit]