The praise lavished on this bloated Agatha Christie adaptation (including six Oscar nominations and one win) has always mystified me, because while Murder on the Orient Express is a handsomely made film with an intelligent script and an amazing cast, it’s still just a contrived and methodical whodunit. It appears that much of the picture’s novelty derived from the fact that it was a throwback not only to a beloved Hollywood genre, but also to a more sophisticated time in terms of diction, fashion, and manners; somewhat like the aesthetically pleasing accoutrements of the same year’s Chinatown, this film’s glamorous production values and swellegant ’30s costumes were a change of pace from the gritty realism that dominated early ’70s cinema. Furthermore, Murder on the Orient Express is that rare all-star jamboree in which each actor has something interesting to do, with several performers receiving impressive showcase scenes, and even elaborate subplots, during the course of the movie’s lumbering 128 minutes. One could never accuse Murder on the Orient Express of shortchanging the audience.
As for the story, which screenwriter Paul Dehn adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, it’s ingenious but not necessarily persuasive, and the lack of any real emotional heft means the experience of watching Murder on the Orient Express is all about luxuriating in production-design eye candy, piecing together clues, and savoring star power. Set in 1935, the movie finds Christie’s urbane detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) riding the famous train mentioned in the title. Poirot becomes enmeshed with a group of people including wealthy American Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), so when Ratchett gets stabbed to death early in the journey, Poirot and Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam), an executive with the company that owns the train, join forces to determine which passenger was responsible for the crime. The gimmick, as per the Christie formula, is that everyone in a confined space is a suspect, so the closer the investigation gets to the truth, the greater the danger becomes for everyone involved. Despite the film’s posh trappings, this is not highbrow stuff.
Worse, Murder on the Orient Express is tedious, at least from my perspective, and director Sidney Lumet’s overly respectful treatment is part of the problem. Treating Christie like Shakespeare is as absurd as, say, treating John Grisham the same way. There’s simply no reason for this empty spectacle to sprawl over such a long running time. Giving credit where it’s due, however, Murder on the Orient Express is a visual feast. The clothes, linens, and table settings make the titular train seem like a rolling four-star hotel, and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth uses his signature haze filters to make everything look painterly—to a fault, because sometimes it’s hard to distinguish details. But the biggest selling point, of course, is the high-wattage cast. Beyond those mentioned, players include Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won an unexpected late-career Oscar for her work), Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York.
Murder on the Orient Express: FUNKY