Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

In the early 1930s, an assorted group of wealthy passengers are travelling west from Istanbul to Paris on the luxury train the Orient Express. A late addition to the passengers is the world-renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney). Poirot is accompanied by his friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a director of Wagon Lits, the company that runs the Orient Express train.

As the train travels through Yugoslavia it runs into heavy snow, and is eventually halted completely by a snow drift. More dramatically, at the same time a shocking murder takes place, of a mysterious American “businessman”, Mr Ratchett (Richard Widmark), who previously told Poirot that he had made enemies and was in fear for his life.

With the train halted by the snow, Bianchi asks Poirot to investigate the murder before the local police arrive. Poirot is furnished with a range of suspects, including Ratchett's nervy secretary (Anthony Perkins), an imperious Russian princess (Wendy Hiller), a simple Swedish nanny and missionary (Ingrid Bergman), a loquacious American widow (Lauren Bacall), Ratchett's stuffy butler (John Gielgud), and a sturdy British Colonel (Sean Connery) and the young Englishwoman he is pretending not to be having an affair with (Vanessa Redgrave).

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot
The fastidious Finney as the pernickety Poirot

Poirot discovers that Ratchett was responsible for the kidnap and murder of the young daughter of the wealthy Armstrong family in Long Island five years before, something illustrated in the film's creepy and atmospheric opening sequence. On questioning the passengers it seems that several of them were connected in some way to the Armstrongs, providing Poirot with a number of murder suspects. He also finds the uniform of a Wagon Lits conductor hidden in a suitcase, and several other clues suggesting that the murderer was disguised as a conductor and then fled from the train after committing the murder. But did the murderer really flee or is the criminal still on board the train, hidden among the passengers?

All-star films have been in existence for a long time, as far back as Grand Hotel in 1932. But the 1960s and 1970s saw them peak in popularity. With production costs rising and fewer films being made, a roster of star names could be a relatively cost-effective way of guaranteeing an audience. Because of the time period when they appeared, these films could also employ eclectic casts stretching from the Hollywood of the 1930s up to the emerging stars of the 1960s and '70s, mixing actors you might not expect to see together. All-star casts were pressed into service in war films (The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, Battle of Britain) and disaster movies (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno), but Murder on the Orient Express had something else in mind; why not make the stars the suspects in a murder case?

Murder on the Orient Express is a little clunky and in places oddly cast (arguably miscast), but it very successfully captures the glamour and romance of the golden age of travel, or at least our idealised version of it. The film is based on Agatha Christie's 1934 novel, one that had a real life inspiration. The back story of the kidnap and murder of the child of the wealthy Armstrong family was inspired by a similar case involving the young son of American aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1932. Christie also drew on her own experiences travelling on the Orient Express in the 1920s.

Murder on the Orient Express cast
The unusual suspects: Connery (behind curtain), Roberts, Quilley,
Bacall, Blakely, Bergman, Redgrave and Perkins

The film version was scripted by Paul Dehn, who worked on Goldfinger (1964) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), with uncredited input from the playwright Anthony Schaffer, the author of the play and film Sleuth (1972), and no stranger to this genre. The film was produced by John Brabourne (later Lord Brabourne) and Richard Goodwin, with a largely British crew, but an imported American director, crime specialist Sidney Lumet.

The casting of the film is a bit hit and miss, with Albert Finney an unexpected choice to play the fastidious Poirot. In Finney's hands, Poirot is a vain and slightly absurd figure, with his exaggerated accent and curious nocturnal habits, including sleeping while wearing a moustache guard and hairnet. But Finney also delights in portraying the intelligence and agile mind of Poirot, showing him to be a formidable foe, particularly in the scenes where he interviews each suspect in turn. It's in the final scenes though, where Poirot reveals the solution to the crime, that Finney's enthusiastic performance tips over into ripe over-acting, with little of the scenery left unchewed during his lengthy monologue.

The highlight of the film, of course, is the all-star ensemble and it's a pretty terrific selection, ranging from studio era stars like Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall, to post-war bad guys Richard Widmark and Anthony Perkins, and newer stars of the 1960s (Sean Connery, in the 4th of his 5 films for Sidney Lumet) and 1970s (Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York), with always watchable character actors like Colin Blakely and Martin Balsam and the odd stage legend like John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller thrown in. As with any starry cast, it's tempting to try and pick out which actors come off best, but nobody here is really on top form or stretching themselves (except Finney, and then not altogether successfully), but they are all practised and professional.

Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman) boarding the Orient Express
Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman) boards the Orient Express at Istanbul

The pacing is sometimes a bit plodding and Lumet doesn't work quite as well with the restricted setting as he did in his earlier film Twelve Angry Men (1957). The structure of the film is also a little awkward, with Poirot having to question each suspect in turn to advance the plot and give each star their due. The running joke here is that Martin Balsam's character seems to think that every suspect is the murderer in turn, immediately changing his mind after each interview. Poirot often gives mischievously enigmatic and ambiguous responses to those he questions, as if he knows more than he is letting on, and is signalling in a subtle way that he doesn't believe what they have just told him.

But the film centres on a mystery which is not in itself massively puzzling and, although it has an unusual resolution, it's one that can't help but feel a little deflating. It does, however, raise some interesting moral questions about extra-judicial killing and the ethics of murdering a bad man who has escaped justice.

The technical aspects are good, especially the sumptuous settings and costumes designed by Tony Walton. Lumet seems to have decided that the period trimmings and atmosphere will have more appeal to a 1970s audience than the relatively flimsy mystery (he was probably right), and so these aspects are emphasised.

Also notable is the evocative score by Richard Rodney Bennett. In the early scenes, Bennett uses subtle but ominous music to suggest the arrival of dark deeds into this rarified world, before evoking the glamour of 1930s transcontinental travel with an elegant waltz theme. The scene where the train first departs from Istanbul, set to Bennett's upbeat music, is one of the film's highlights.

To answer a question that does occasionally come up, no the film wasn't really filmed on the Orient Express or on a railway train. The carriage interiors were built at Elstree Studios in England, using elements of real rolling stock. According to John Huntley in Railways on the Screen, some original Wagon Lits carriages were tracked down in Belgium and some of the equipment and fittings shipped to Elstree. This included cutlery and marquetry panels from the restaurant cars and a set of original glassware to be used by the cast.

Locations were scouted in Turkey, but they were considered to be too modern and built up, so a freight line in the Jura mountains in France was used for the exterior scenes of the train, with the assistance of the French railway operator SNCF. The real location of the Istanbul railway station was actually a decidedly less glamorous French freight depot.

Murder on the Orient Express cast
Poirot reveals the identity of the murderer

Murder on the Orient Express may seem like an odd film to have been a big success in the 1970s, but the all-star cast helped and nostalgia of all kinds was in vogue. The film was a substantial hit and, unusually, Agatha Christie seems to have been relatively happy with it too.

An oft-quoted fact about the film online is that it was the most commercially successful British film made up to that time. This, though, derives from a claim made by Nat Cohen of EMI Films, and is a simplification of his version, which was that it was the most successful to be made with all-British finance. This claim should be treated with caution anyway, since Cohen was obviously eager to talk up the film's success. Even if he was right, the record revenues were partly due to inflation, which by 1975 was running at almost 25% a year in Britain.

The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, for writing, cinematography, costumes, music, best actor (Albert Finney) and supporting actress (Ingrid Bergman), although only Bergman won. Why the Academy singled out Bergman is a bit of a mystery, especially as she was already a double Oscar winner as best actress for Gaslight (1944) and Anastasia (1956). Possibly it helped that her big scene with Poirot was filmed in one long take of five minutes. Bergman had originally been sought for the Princess Dragamiroff role which was eventually played by Wendy Hiller. The film was also nominated for ten BAFTAs including best film, and won three, for best music and for John Gielgud and Ingrid Bergman as best supporting actor and actress.

The producers, John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin, followed up with three more Agatha Christie adaptations, beginning with the almost equally starry Death on the Nile (1978), with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. This was followed by The Mirror Crack'd (1980), a disappointing effort with Angela Lansbury playing Miss Marple, and Evil Under the Sun (1982), with Ustinov returning as Poirot. Among the Orient Express cast, both Colin Blakely and Dennis Quilley returned to the fold with more prominent roles in Evil Under the Sun.

After their run of Agatha Christie films came to an end, Brabourne and Goodwin produced David Lean's last film, A Passage to India in 1984, and Christine Edzard's Charles Dickens adaptation Little Dorrit (1987). 

Cinema mostly lost interest in Agatha Christie in the 1980s, but her stories became increasingly popular on television, with both the BBC Miss Marple series and ITV's Poirot beginning in that decade. Murder on the Orient Express has been remade a few times since, in 2001 in a poorly regarded TV movie with Alfred Molina as Poirot, as a feature length episode of the ITV series Poirot in 2010 with David Suchet, and in another starry feature film version in 2017, with Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as Poirot.

Despite an awkward structure, a slightly deflating denouement, and some hammy acting from Finney, the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express is an agreeable and entertaining all-star extravaganza. It's not so much the mystery element that appeals as the strong cast, good production values and excellent period atmosphere. It makes travelling on the Orient Express seem like the height of elegance and sophistication, with only the occasional murder to disturb the equilibrium. The golden age of travel almost certainly wasn't as elegant or as glamorous as it's depicted here, but if it wasn't then maybe it should have been.

Murder on the Orient Express
Year: 1974
Genre: Murder Mystery / Period Drama
Country: UK
Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast  Albert Finney (Hercule Poirot), Lauren Bacall (Mrs Hubbard), Martin Balsam (Bianchi), Ingrid Bergman (Greta Ohlsson), Jacqueline Bisset (Countess Andrenyi), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Pierre Paul Michel), Sean Connery (Colonel Arbuthnott), John Gielgud (Beddoes), Wendy Hiller (Princess Dragomiroff), Anthony Perkins (Hector McQueen), Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Debenham), Rachel Roberts (Hildegarde Schmidt), Richard Widmark (Ratchett), Michael York (Count Andrenyi), Colin Blakely (Hardman), George Coulouris (Dr Constantine), Denis Quilley (Gino Foscarelli), Vernon Dobtcheff (Concierge), Jeremy Lloyd (ADC), John Moffatt (chief attendant), George Silver (chef)

Screenplay Paul Dehn, Anthony Shaffer (uncredited), based on the novel by Agatha Christie  Producers John Brabourne, Richard Goodwin  Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth  Production Designer Tony Walton  Art director Jack Stephens  Editor Anne V. Coates  Music Richard Rodney Bennett  Costume Designer Tony Walton  Montage sequences and titles Richard Williams Studio

Running time 131 mins  Colour Technicolor  Widescreen Panavision

Production company G.W. Films  Distributors EMI Film Distributors (UK), Paramount Pictures (US)

See also:
Death on the Nile (1978)
Evil Under the Sun (1982)


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