Murder On The Orient Express Review

Murder on the Orient Express was the first of the popular adaptations of Agatha Christie's novels from the Brabourne/Goodwin stable. The producers had previously found success with Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet and Tales of Beatrix Potter and considered that the Christie films would be in the same respectable family entertainment mould. Dame Agatha, generally unhappy with screen treatments of Poirot, was sceptical but professed a certain satisfaction with the finished product - the blend of stars and snobbery being particularly appealing.

This first film features a heavily padded Albert Finney as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, making his way home from Istanbul aboard the legendary Orient Express. This being 1931, or thereabouts, the only people who can afford to travel so luxuriously are international reprobates, pseudo / vague royalty, gangsters, the nouveaux riche, the better class of the military and anyone else who has the wherewithall during one of the biggest worldwide depressions of the 20th Century. Luckily for us, this means that lots of big star names were coaxed into playing this rich array of suspects and thus distract us from the increasingly obvious fact that this is a film with one set and an awful lot of talking. A murder is committed in the sleeping car in the middle of the night and only Poirot, assisted by his ‘little grey cells’ and a hell of a lot of moustache wax, can find the culprit or culprits.

Fans of Seventies American cinema will be amused to note that this is the movie which Sidney Lumet made between Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and it does, at first sight, seem a rather odd choice for this great New York filmmaker. But given that this is, to all intents and purposes, a courtroom drama in which the script and the acting are pivotal, it looks less surprising that it should have attracted the director of Twelve Angry Men and The Verdict. Indeed, his work with the actors is as marvellous as you would expect. He allows each of his big, starry cast a chance to assert themselves with a nice little introduction and a showy interrogation scene and even finds amusing touches for the minor characters, such as those played by Denis Quilley and Colin Blakeley (who are, appropriately, both minor stars in this company).

As is the way in this sort of thing, the actors battle for control of the scenes and it is greatly to Albert Finney’s credit that he makes Poirot such a strong character.

Fussy and vain, but also intensely intelligent, Finney’s Poirot is far from the extended foreign joke that he would become in later films at the hands of Peter Ustinov. His eyes are watchful, his movements slight but precise. This is a great performance from a much underrated actor. Poirot is in every scene and he remains the fixed centre around which the supporting cast can disport themselves. The acting laurels go to John Gielgud as the perfect butler for whom a single sniff indicates detestation of his American employer. He also gets the best line - as Gielgud lies in bed, reading, his Italian roomate asks him what he’s reading and says “Is it about sex ?”. Without a flicker, Gielgud replies, “No, it’s about 10.30 Mr Foscarelli.” It’s all about timing and delivery. Alongside the great acting knight, Ingrid Bergman, making a much publicised return after several years out of films, also deserves a bow for her very funny self-parody as an apparently timid Swedish missionary. Anthony Perkins is good too, as a secretary so full of tics as to make Norman Bates look like Clint Eastwood, and it’s always fun to see Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave doing what they do so elegantly (at least on this occasion, Connery is actually meant to be a middle aged Scot). As the particularly nasty victim of the murder, Richard Widmark does what he can with a one-note role, and the wonderful Dame Wendy Hiller is ill-served by tons of make-up and a costume consisting largely of a black shroud. Several of the other actors, notably a very loud Lauren Bacall and an outrageously accented Martin Balsam, camp it up with a little too much relish. The only extenuation that can be offered is that at least they are lively, which is more than you can say for the incredibly wooden presences of Michael York and Jacqueline Bissett.

The film looks fantastic, thanks to Tony Walton’s detailed, stylish sets and Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography - the scene where the train departs, all steam and whistles, to the sound of Richard Rodney Bennett’s romantic music, is a love letter to the elusive magic of old fashioned steam engines and is almost enough to get anyone out on the platform in an anorak at 8.30 on a Saturday morning with a flask and a notebook. Indeed, elegance is the watchword throughout - perhaps a little too much elegance at times, since the pace of the film is less that of a jazzy international thriller and more that of a saunter around the Victoria and Albert on a wet Bank Holiday. Only the prologue suggests something more sinister with its jagged editing and ominous music. If you like mysteries, Hollywood stars and period recreation then this will not trouble you in the slightest - I have to say that I can watch this film over and over again with undiminished pleasure - but it does suggest that Lumet was saving his best pacing for his more typical work with Al Pacino. The solution, incidentally, is reasonably fair, if a little obvious, but is most famous for infuriating Raymond Chandler, who thought it was cheating.

The Disc

This new DVD of Murder on The Orient Express, only available as part of the Agatha Christie Collection, doesn't represent a notable advance on the previous R2 edition from Warner Brothers. The film is now anamorphically enhanced, framed at 1.85:1 rather than 1.66:1. This seems entirely correct to me given that this is how it was projected in cinemas. The print is also an improvement with less print damage - although popping and scratches are sometimes visible. Overall, there is a certain unsatisfactory softness, particularly in the close-ups. I am reliably informed that the R1 disc from Paramount is rather better in the visual department. The mono soundtrack is more than acceptable however with Richard Rodney Bennett's music score sounding quite wonderful.

There are no extras at all, not even a trailer. This contrasts with the R1 disc which has a lengthy making-of featurette. Nor are there any subtitles, a shameful oversight on the part of Optimum which is reflected on the other discs in this collection. All in all, in fact, this is a wasted opportunity and we know that Optimum can, when they put their minds to it, do a lot better.

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