Two weeks ago I reviewed Sidney Lumet’s first feature film 12 Angry Men, a dramatic tour de force characterized by outstanding ensemble acting. Lumet went on to direct many more excellent films, including The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, Equus, and The Verdict. His last movie, released in 2007, was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a gripping little drama that starred Philip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney. Lumet died in 2011 at the age of 86.
Around 1973, British producer Richard Goodwin noticed his daughter’s utter enthralment with Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Intrigued, he read the novel again himself and decided it would make a fine movie. Unfortunately, Christie was not in the habit of granting film rights for her books and her agent told the producers that there wasn’t a hope in hell of the film being made. But the distinguished and wildly popular author had seen Goodwin’s The Tales of Beatrix Potter and liked his faithfulness to Potter’s stories, and she gave permission for the rights to Murder to be sold. Lumet was hired as director.
“I’ve always been worried about the fact that I could never do a movie that was gay in spirit, that was lively, that needed to be….a soufflé! Every time I’d tried it in the past it turned into a—what we say in Yiddish is a—latke, a flat pancake. When I first read the script and read that ending…I was absolutely bowled over by the cleverness of her plot. So between a wonderful plot, lovely dialogue by Paul Dehn, and the fact that it met a real need for me in my own work in terms of where I was going with the work, it was the perfect movie for that time.”
In agreeing to direct Murder, Lumet insisted that the film be “glamorous,” a kind of homage to the glory days of filmmaking in the 1930s rather than “a small little realistic British mystery movie.” In order to achieve this glamour, he wanted to have a cast of the biggest stars of the day and in this he succeeded in a very big way, snagging Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Lauren Bacall, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins, and Martin Balsam. For the lead role of the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Lumet wanted “a brilliant actor”; Alec Guinness was his first choice, but Guinness was unavailable, as was his second choice, Paul Scofield. He finally settled on another great talent, albeit one who was much too young and had to be heavily made up for the role: Albert Finney.
The movie begins in 1930 with an intriguing re-enactment of the “Armstrong case” in which the young child of a famous couple is kidnapped, held for ransom, and murdered after the ransom is paid. This crime is meant to recall in the mind of the viewer the Lindbergh case, in which the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped and murdered. The perpetrator was caught, tried, and executed. In the film, he has an accomplice, actually the mastermind of the crime, who manages to avoid arrest and flee the country.
We cut to 1935 and a ferry on the Asian side of Istanbul, in which we meet Poirot, who has just successfully solved a case for the British Army and is planning to journey to London via the Orient Express. We are soon introduced to Poriot’s fellow passengers, including a British colonel in the Indian army, a wealthy American and his secretary and butler, a princess from Central Europe, with her two dogs and her German maid, a Hungarian diplomat and his German wife, a loquacious American widow, a Swedish missionary. The passengers are elegant, the appointments of the train are elegant, the food is elegant (all thanks to wonderful production and costume designer Tony Walton). But before long the elegance is marred by trouble on the Orient Express: on the second morning of the journey the wealthy American is found murdered in his bed. It is soon discovered that he was the fugitive in the Armstrong case.
Naturally, Poirot is called upon to solve the murder, which he does while the train is stuck behind a snowdrift and awaiting rescue in the mountains of Yugoslavia. Once he has reached his conclusion he calls all the passengers to the dining car and presents to them an ingenious denouement, which of course I will not reveal here.
As Poirot, Finney is indeed sublime. The abundant eccentricities, the elegant, accented English, the biting wit, and the enigmatically brilliant mind are combined to create a character that is interesting and charming enough to remain slightly beyond caricature. The speech he delivers in the dining car, which lasts for several minutes, is unforgettable.
The other members of the cast are deliciously—and glamorously—over the top but in the melodrama of the mystery utterly compelling and believable.
Once again, director Lumet has set his drama mostly in the confines of a small enclosed area—in this case the dining and sleeping cars of a train from the 1930s—overcoming the challenges that creating this deliberately claustrophobic atmosphere presents. Lumet’s skill as an actor’s director, his mastery of the technical craft of filmmaking, his ability to assemble the best of crews, and his unfailing sense of style have come together here to whip up the tastiest of cinematic bonbons.
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