The Butler did it.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974): 8 out of 10: One of the first film adaptations (there were plenty of teleplays) and easily the best of the Agatha Christie adaptations. An all-star cast anchored by a fantastic performance by Albert Finney as our Belgian sleuth protagonist Poirot the film shines as an old style Hollywood whodunit.
The Good: 84-year-old Agatha Christie attended the movie premiere in November 1974. It was the only film adaptation in her lifetime that she was completely satisfied with. In particular, she felt that Albert Finney‘s performance came closest to her idea of Poirot (though was reportedly unimpressed with her sleuth’s moustache).
One cannot overemphasise how good Albert Finney is in this role. He disappears into the character so deeply I am not sure what a 34 year old Albert Finney even looks like. He certain eclipses later Poirots such as Peter Ustinov’s Follow up in Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. He is better than Kenneth Branagh’s performance in the remake and dare I say it… I dare I dare… better than David Suchet. (I know).
Almost Finney’s equal is the delightful Martin Balsam. Balsam plays the role of the managing director of the Orient Express and Poirot’s friend and plays a dimwitted Watson to Finney’s Poirot. One of the best running gags of the film is how he declares every suspect must be guilty after Poirot interviews them. I mean, make up your mind it’s not like they all killed the murder victim.
Speaking of murder victims, Richard Widmark makes a fine one as a truly hissable victim.
Murder on the Orient Express is a character based film that is very stagy, so the story is told almost entirely through dialogue and character interactions. (No going on the rooftop of moving trains for this Poirot. The man wears a mustache guard for goodness sake.)
The cast is extremely good, and the well-known plot is well told. The newspaper clippings during the opening credits are a masterclass in efficient storytelling.
The Suspects: With twelve suspects, some of their motives are going to be weaker than others. And some performances are not going to live up to some others.
Now Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset get a pass as the Count and Countess because they are the most beautiful couple on earth. As attractive and radiant as Bisset is York is somehow even prettier. York makes one question their heterosexuality, and he manages this while sitting next to Jacqueline Bisset. That is a living God level of beautiful.
We then have Wendy Hiller as the Vampire Princess and Rachel Roberts as what I assumed was her cross-dressing maid. Hillers old age make-up fails a touch and Roberts is a dead ringer for either Eddie Izzard or Matt Damon in drag. Hiller’s obvious lies to Finney’s Poirot and his inability to call her on the lies due to her status as a Princess is one of the more intelligent undercurrents in the film.
The always solid, John Gielgud missed his calling as Alfred Pennyworth. I could see him hitting Edward Nigma in the head with a candlestick. He is much better here than he was as a failed business tycoon in Romance on the Orient Express. Gielgud should stick with being the help.
Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave are also an attractive couple. With Connery getting off some pretty funny lines and Redgrave mostly smiling and looking coquettish.
I found Lauren Bacall delightful. I always find Lauren Bacall delightful, so take that with a grain of salt.
The Pinkerton agent (Colin Blakely) gets the short shrift in both screen time and motive. This seems to be traditional as I have yet to see an adaptation that doesn’t give him the short shrift. If you didn’t need twelve people for the theme of the movie, any sane screenwriter would have dumped his character wholesale for the adaption. I love the fact that Poirot seems to solve the mystery halfway through chatting with him and hurries him out so he can have his big everyone to the dining car moment. (At least Colin Blakely doesn’t grate on my nerves and chew the scenery like Willem Dafoe did in the Branagh remake)
Anthony Perkins leans into his Norman Bates a little too much (for comic effect I assume) talking a lot about his mother and acting light a stiff breeze will blow him away on his fairy wings. This is a characterization to be found nowhere in the book nor, if I recall correctly, in any other adaptations.
Ingmar Bergman won an Oscar for her Rain Man interpretation of a dimwitted religious pilgrim out to save the little dark babies. I am assuming she won the Oscar because she was old and didn’t have one yet. It certainly wasn’t for this performance. (Though for what performance it was for is a mystery to me as I have never seen her be particularly good in anything and yes before you ask I saw Casablanca)
You know Donald Sutherland has never even been nominated for an Oscar? (I am full of Donald Sutherland facts after my recent viewing of Pride & Prejudice, The Eagle has Landed, and Don’t Look Now respectfully.)
I missing a few here: Jean-Pierre Cassel as a train conductor and Denis Quilley as a car salesman, but those are the basic suspects.
The Bad: The train opening has two problems. It has weak extras that know they are in a movie and are mugging for the camera. I also have doubts that any train line, especially The Orient Express, would allow its passengers to be assaulted at its doorstep by cheap stereotypes of foreigners.
The Venice-Simplon Orient Express didn’t start running again till 1982, so Murder on the Orient Express was filmed on the wrong train. No art deco reliefs on the wall in this film. This why a TV movie like Romance on the Orient Express has a more realistic set than this big-budget movie.
In Conclusion: The genuine mystery of Murder on the Orient Express is why anyone would remake it. (Well, besides money. Despite my misgivings of Branagh’s remake, it was a box office hit). this Murder on the Orient Express is one of the better Agatha Christie adaptations. Well shot and directed in a small space with simply the best Poirot performance to date. Yes, even better than John Malkovich, Hugh Laurie, Jason Alexander, or Orson Welles.
Well worth the watch, even if you know that Martin Balsam was right all along.