Trapped in the winter snows of 1934’s Yugoslavia, the famed Orient Express becomes the setting for a brutal murder and cluster of suspicious characters. Eccentric French detective Hercule Poirot is at the centre, discerning the secret pasts of every traveller to unravel the criminal aboard the train.
With that premise, Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel was born to be a classic, and so it was. Murder on the Orient Express has been adapted for television, film and radio multiple times, with a new star-studded version due this winter.
However, the 1974 adaptation is commonly recognised as one of the best screen Christies of all time, nominated for six Academy Awards and boasting a cast of screen royalty surrounding Albert Finney in the timeless character of Hercule Poirot.
Despite not having the bombastic, ranging landscapes of modern blockbuster films, director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network) sticks to the style that would define many of his films – creating a claustrophobic set and populating it with fantastic actors ready to do exceptional work. It’s an intimate experience, as if watching the tightly knitted plot unfold on a stage just feet away, and it ramps the drama up to a gripping tension.
It’s difficult not to be struck by seeing all these actors in one room either. As a fan of mid 20th century film, it was great to see actresses like Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman continue their fantastic work as established stars. Bacall particularly stands out as the passionate Mary Debenham, but it was Bergman who received the film’s only Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Her part is much smaller than you’d expect, and the opposite of glamorous or showy, but as an international star it must have felt like a marked change for audiences of the time.
The women definitely dominate the cast around Finney, who is still as fun as can be expected in such a gift of a part, while actors like Sean Connery get left in the dust. In fact, the prominence and skill of the actresses comes as a reminder of how, in many ways, film opportunities for women were broadly better during the 1970s than now. These female roles are more complex and independent, rather than used as plot devices. It’s wonderful to see but an unfavourable reflection on today’s industry.
Finally, the film deals with the final choice Poirot presents in a way that is visually skilful. We flashback over the events around the murder, and the camera reflects carefully on each subject. However, much of the credit must go to Christie in the theme of the story itself. Poirot’s ultimate decision gives us a fantastic moral dilemma around punishment and judgement. Can someone’s past crimes excuse present actions? It’s a fictional choice that has understandably remained in the public consciousness ever since the novel’s publication.
Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express is a perfect match in style and source. Lumet preferred to let the story and characters lead over visual spectacle, letting Christie’s classic tale shine through in vivid cinematic life. It’s no wonder that through all the adaptations of the writer’s work, this is one of the few that has really preserved critical acclaim in the following decades.
A remastered version of the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express will be released on DVD, Blu-Ray and download on 23rd October 2017. Available for pre-order now.