Wednesday, May 21, 2014
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
(November 1974, U.S.)
Before I discuss this great Agatha Christie film, I would ask those who are old enough and who have the memory for it to think back to the last few months of the year 1974 and consider some of the great films that were released besides this one. By Christmas of that year, you could open up the local newspaper and choose from great titles like THE GODFATHER-PART II, CHINATOWN, THE TOWERING INFERNO, THE CONVERSATION, LENNY, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and even a couple of bad disaster films like EARTHQUAKE and AIRPORT 1975.
So now, having just gotten all deep and serious with my previous blog for Steven Spielberg's MUNICH (2005), it's a small relief to discuss something lighthearted and fun. While I suppose the subject of murder can never really be considered light material, in the hands of an Agatha Christie whodunit and the great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, it's always fun. The film doesn't start off particularly fun, though. The opening sequence is a rather eerie montage depicting the kidnapping and murder of a little girl in 1930 by the name of Daisy Armstrong which is inspired very heavily by the real-life kidnapping of American aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby in 1932 (look this up!). Cut to five years later and Poirot (played by Albert Finney) finds himself on the Orient Express (look that up, too!) en route to London with an entire entourage of interesting characters. Like many Christie stories, the murder victim is a less-than-likable character and everyone has reason to be suspect. The victim here is American business tycoon, Mr. Ratchett (played by Richard Widmark). While he definitely comes off as a big hard-ass, he hardly seems evil or worthy of murder before he's actually killed. It's only after his body has been discovered poisoned and with twelve stab wounds that we learn his true identity and that he was the man behind the kidnapping and murder of baby Armstrong. Thus, in the fine tradition of the classic whodunit, our hero detective questions everybody and deduces his own conclusions. This is where you, as the film viewer, start to open your eyes and ears just a little bit more to try and see if you can catch on to the assortment of clues that are handed down before you. Interestingly, throughout the investigation process, the secrets revealed are less about murder motives of each suspect, but rather their true identity and how each of them relate to the Armstrong case. As each person's true nature and past life is revealed, we learn why each of them had a reason to personally hate Mr. Ratchett...and still, it seems that no one did it because each person appears to have an iron-clad alibi.
(but not for long!)
Like true Agatha Christie tradition, you wait with patience for the latter part of the film when the great detective will assemble all suspects together in the same room and reveal his discoveries and conclusions. He'll go step-by-step and you'll scratch your head because you totally understand it all or you're still in the dark. For this mystery, the revelation doesn't come in the form of one murderer, but ALL!
(major spoiler alert!)
That's right, you heard me! Turns out every passenger on the train is in cahoots with each other to execute the murder of Mr. Ratchett! Orchestrated by baby Armstrong's surviving grandmother Harriet Hubbard (played by Lauren Bacall), each train passenger takes a turn at stabbing the already poisoned body of Mr. Ratchett to take revenge for the murder of a little girl they each had a connection to; from the butler, to the aunt, to the nurse, to the chauffeur, it's an all-out stab fest in the name of revenge, justice and honor...and in the end, none of them will be arrested and go to jail.
Okay, so it seems I've spoken of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS with great enthusiasm, but I can hardly call the film perfect. To begin with, Albert Finney is definitely no Peter Ustinov! This is the Hercule Poirot I grew up and still the best, in my opinion! While Finney clearly has fun with the role, their are times when subtlety and charm seem to be replaced by extravagant wildness and overacting. And seriously, what is up with that shiny, greasy black hair of his?? Also, I have to take a moment to pick on Martin Balsam's character performance and his constant repetition of "He did it!" or "She did it!" for each and every suspect that Poirot interrogates. The intended comic relief element of such a character just doesn't work with me.
So having said all that, let me conclude with a shout-out to Hollywood - it's been thirty-two years since the last Agatha Christie theatrical film (EVIL UNDER THE SUN was the last one in 1982)! It's time for another one with a great all-star cast! Hell, you even have my blessing to remake MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS! Alfred Molina played Hercule Poirot in a 2001 TV movie of the same film (of which I have yet to see!), so why not recast him since he seems to fit the bill! Or, perhaps Ralph Fiennes can put on a few pounds because I think he'd be perfect in the role, too! Are you listening???
Favorite line or dialogue:
Bianchi: "You mean you saw the man? You can identify the murderer?"
Mrs. Hubbard: "I mean nothing of the kind. I mean there was a man in my compartment last night. It was pitch dark, of course, and my eyes were closed in terror."
Bianchi: "Then how did you know it was a man?"
Mrs. Hubbard: "Because I've enjoyed very warm relations with both my husbands."
Bianchi: "With your eyes closed?"
Mrs. Hubbard: "That helped."