johnlink ranks MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

I bought this years ago, knowing nothing about it. I mean, I knew the title because Agatha Christie is famous enough and the box cover told me that it contained an amazing cast of stars. Really, the driving force in picking this up derived from seeing that it was  directed by A-list 70s director Sidney Lumet and starred all the people pictured below, That’s a prestigious cast (in fact Widmark said he agreed to do the film mainly for the opportunity to work with all of these folks). For whatever reason, it took me several years to finally open it up and watch it. But I did. And so, now, I’ll go ahead and tell you how it is. Because that is how blogs work.

Murder on the Orient Express Quad

I watched MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974) on 9.7.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

The iconic Orient Express is charging along the rails across the countryside and it contains a seemingly unconnected group of people who all seem affable enough, if all a little self-important. Unfortunately, one of them ends up dead. On the other hand, world famous detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) is also on the train and he is on the case. This whodunit plays out in a claustrophobic way, as all of these various egos and personalities have to fit in one little train, the least of which is Poirot’s sizable self-indulgent demeanor.

One by one they come into the special interrogation car where Poirot slowly pieces together the sizable plot which resulted in death. Everyone gives us plenty of reason to be suspicious. Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave play coy as secret lovers hoping to keep their affair quiet. Ingrid Bergman plays the Swedish Greta, who is powerfully religious yet seems to be lying as she hides behind her piety (Bergman won a supporting Oscar for this role), Lauren Bacall, looking almost identically to the way she was in the 40s and 50s, blusters her way from car to car espousing about her husbands and her needs. John Gielgud classes up the joint as a butler who is one of the last people we see with the victim.  Richard Widmark is a shady businessman with enemies. Anthony Perkins is that shady businessman’s assistant, and he surprisingly steals every single scene he is in despite being paired with amazing talent throughout. Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset are paired as an aristocratic couple with suspicious passports. Jean-Pierre Cassel is the concierge who supervises the hallway where the murder is committed. Wendy Hiller is an aged Princess, and Rachel Roberts is her forward maid. Lastly, Martin Balsam is the train’s owner who sits in on all of the interviews and hilariously declares everyone guilty as they exit.

That may all seem tedious, but the spelling out feels necessary as they all provide key pieces to the puzzle. Indeed, this is an ensemble piece which benefits from the cache of its players. Sometimes bad movies cast famous people to cover up a bad movie. In the case of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, the stars all bring all of their history with them and use it to inform the film. Connery is more dangerous for having played Bond, Bacall is suspicious in part because of the femmes fatale she has portrayed in the past, Perkins earns a snicker when he talks about his close relationship to his mother who died when he was 8. All of their past comes to play here, and that provides a true richness of character.

At just over two hours, the film runs a little long in its explanation at the conclusion. I see why Lumet felt necessary to draw out the time of the execution (as it were), but the point is driven home (pun yet again intended) long before the movie ends. In a final moment of patting these famous actors on the back, this film has as close to a blatant curtain call as you’ll ever see a movie provide, with each character toasting one another one after the other. It’s a bit blatantly self-congratulatory, but the film has earned it by that juncture.

The script is witty and quickly paced; the dialogue is another strength of the film.  The character are wonderfully colorful, and the acting is as top notch as might be expected. Finney, a few years after being aged several decades to play Scrooge, is aged from his 30s to his 50s to play Poirot. He is a perfect mix of the intelligence and audacity of Sherlock Holmes with a bit of the social ineptitude of Inspector Clouseau. He is the glue which holds this thing together, and he binds all of its parts so, so well.

Think of this the an OCEAN’s 11 of the 70s: If you know the stars, it is all the better. This isn’t a spectacular film of the 70s, but it is fulfilling, entertaining, and it has a high rewatchability factor if my first viewing is as accurate as I’d like to think it is.





~ by johnlink00 on September 8, 2013.

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