While reading a book by Sidney Lumet (Making Movies) I genuinely got hooked about this film for the first time. I heard whispers of its beauty here and there but never really felt like watching it. In his book Lumet extensively explains a few sequences both in the technical aspect as well as in terms of art which really captured my imagination. I also came to know for the first time that this movie was a Hercule Poirot adventure. Poirot is one of the few detective characters whose screen incarnations I hadn’t seen before. So watching this film became imperative for me. Over the next few weeks I fell into a marvelously romantic tryst with Agatha Christie’s characters and story that really engulfed me into a world of seductive beauty, fantasy and whodunit thrillers that I have been watching and re-watching. In the course of my next few reviews I will talk about all the major Poirot films made for the silver screen starting with this review.
As the name would suggest, Murder On The Orient Express is a film about a murder that takes place on the Orient Express. The deceased is quickly discovered to be a kidnapper who had very wrongly abducted a small girl and subsequently killed her even after getting the due ransom. This act of his resulted in not less than five deaths and made him a perpetual killer for all these deaths. While traveling from Istanbul through the snow covered landscapes, Poirot is brought into investigate the case and bring out the murderer hidden slyly among the traveling passengers. The passengers vary between royalty, straightforward, troubled, honest, retarded and even the military types. Poirot has just hours to solve the mystery before the train lands up in the hands of the Yugoslavs and his friend who is a director of the railroads lands up in a great bit of inconvenience.
I would start by saying that that I knew the whole plot of the film from Lumet’s book and still found the film to be riveting. The buildup is slow and the characters are introduced in the most elaborate fashion and yet somehow you never get bored of it. Once the train starts on it journey, the film quickly moves from one plot point to another. After the crime is committed, the investigation is mostly about a series of interviews with the 12 suspects and each of the interviews ends with Poirot’s compatriot being convinced that the man/woman who was just interviewed is the killer. This works as a somewhat sarcastic take on the film’s narrative which I leave out for you all to enjoy if you haven’t already. For those who have seen the film know exactly what I mean.
Apart from the story which is well known and highly acclaimed, the film scores heavily in the acting department and the superb technicalities. Let’s start with the performances. Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot is spellbinding. I couldn’t take my eyes off him everytime he was on screen. He has a very literary take on the character and tries to remain faithful to the man in terms of the way he was envisioned by Christie. He is particularly charming in the interrogations wherein he can seen using different argumentative techniques to find out the truth. Lauren Bacall is terrific as the talkative Mrs. Hubbard who makes people leave places where she is present and gives others headaches. Ingrid Bergman plays Greta and won an Oscar for her act. She plays an almost retarded women who is heavily dependent on the existence of the almighty and his teachings. Her interrogation is one of the most striking ones. Jean-Pierre Cassel plays a very toned down and yet layered character of that of the train’s conductor.
I watched this film over half a dozen times and picked up the subtle little things that Lumet left here and there as references to what happens on the train. To start with the introduction of each of the character in itself gives you a clear idea about the murderer. If one looks closely at the way the conductor deals with each and everyone of them, one can see subtle indications to the plots and mutual feelings of the characters. This was truly a great thing to notice on substituent viewings and only added to the fun of watching the film. The film starts with a collage of the kidnapping that the deceased carried out but without any mention of the man. And then we move forward in time five years detaching from the kidnapping episode completely. Thus when the kidnapping is referenced yet again after the murder is committed, it has a greater effect as we are already aware of its gravity from the initial collage. It also lets us connect the dots related to the motive or motives of the killer or killers.
Murder On The Orient Express is a beautifully mounted and lavishly shot piece of art. The lighting is oh! So beautiful. I have to admit that the book by Lumet and what he wrote about the technical aspects of the film drew my attention to certain points but their beauty cannot be ignored even though I noticed them on being prodded. The editing is crisp. The transitions and the atmospheric metaphors are used perfectly to highlight the mood and reach of the narrative. I would like to prove my point by bringing to your notice a motif that Lumet uses extensively. Ice. When the train starts on its journey, the weather and sky is clear just like the conscience and slate of each of the characters. Gradually the topography gets its share of ice and now you see the narrative getting on dicy-er territories. When the train finally gets stuck in the snowfall the murder is committed and the substituent investigation is on the way. Here the train getting stuck and the investigator getting stuck with the murder is displayed in the same context.
Towards the end in the big exposition sequence as Poirot goes on pulling off layer after layer from the mystery, we see an ice breaker at work breaking through the ice and clearing the path of the train. This sequence is cut in tandem with the exposition sequence giving clear indications in a metaphorical term which is also interestingly easy enough for even a layman to understand. It is extremely difficult for a thriller to retain its value after the perpetrator is known but in this film, I found myself watching it over and over again even after I knew the whole story. That is the power of Lumet’s direction and Paul Dehn clever yet absorbing screenplay.
Murder On The Orient Express is easily one of the classic thrillers of the 1970s and I had a great time watching and re-watching this film. I recommend this film for anyone and everyone who is willing to let a smart and engrossing narrative over take his/her senses but at its own speed. The beautiful cinematography, the crisp editing and the terrific performances make this film a must watch and an enduring classic.