' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Friday, January 24, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is notable for its frequent exterior shots of the eponymous long-distance passenger train rattling along its scenic railway and of the introductory moments where everyone boards said train, the camera tracking down the walkway to revel in the locomotive and the impressive set design surrounding it. By far, though, the most striking practical effect in “Murder on the Orient Express” is not the Orient Express itself but one of its passengers – that is, Hercule Poroit (Albert Finney), In the books Christie described this “detective of international fame and distinction” as “egg-shaped” and, by God, as played by Finney and costumed by Tony Walton, he really does look like an ovoidal person, like if he accidentally fell on his side in the cramped train quarters he would go rolling down the aisle. And yet, that natural appearance is juxtaposed against a peculiarly vain man, his hair drowned in so much Brilliantine that despite the 1974 aesthetic it still stands out like modern-day high-definition and a moustache so finely honed he slips on a moustache guard at night to keep it in place. Finney, meanwhile, merely plays up this preening nature to the hilt, delightfully eschewing any need to be traditionally likable.

His one-of-a-kind nature comes through when an American businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), complaining of threats against his life, tries to avail himself of Poirot’s services as a bodyguard for a hefty sum and the detective churlishly declines. As Christie would have it, though, Ratchett winds up dead overnight, apparently not long after taking the sleeping draught brought to him by a valet (Sir John Gielgud), the same valet who finds him the ensuing morning, dead. Upon finding the bloody corpse, the valet expresses understandable shock, dropping his tray, falling back, though the previous evening, just after dropping off the draught, the camera lingers in close-up on the valet’s face, an expression decidedly communicating that Something Bad Is About To Happen. Lumet repeats this device later when passengers undergo Poirot’s interrogations, after the train becomes stranded due to an avalanche, to get to the bottom of things, like the Count (Michael York) and Countess (Jacqueline Bisset), who in answering the detective’s queries exchange looks throughout of two people having just memorized lines for a play and each one trying to mentally guide the other. Lumet, in other words, is not trying to feign the characters’ innocence but finger every one of them, which isn’t just subterfuge to distract us, the viewers, but ultimately the point.

Then again, much of the point is just watching Poirot’s interrogations which is why Lumet assembled an all-star cast, from Bisset and York to Anthony Perkins, whose guilt seems embodied simply in his endlessly twitching forehead, and Lauren Bacall as the American widow Mrs. Hubbard. In Cinema Romantico’s 2018 overview of cinematic gum-chewing we regretfully failed to include Ms. Bacall, who in one scene snaps at gum with a patented Bacall-esque fury, not only bringing the Stupid American stereotype to comic life but embodying her entire turn. If everyone else is trying to play it cool, she’s all up in Poirot’s face, walking right up with him the murder weapon when she happens upon it and playing her character’s ultimate reveal with all kinds of “Yeah, so?” pizazz. Her train passenger, Ingrid Bergman, won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar but I’d like to retroactively nominate Lauren Bacall for 1974 Achievement in Attitude.

The resolution to the stabbing, given the conspicuous 12 stab wounds and the number of passengers might well be foregone, though that did not bother me as much as the resolution’s shift in tone. That tonal shift doesn’t come out of nowhere, set up by the eerie prologue, a prologue correlates directly to the resolution. It’s dark, this resolution, though it’s also something more than dark, something like vengefully emphatic, even empathetic, in its way, an empathy that Poirot is forced to consider. The Whodunit becomes more about Whytheydidit and the Whytheydidit winds up playing at an emotional level the Whodunit can’t fulfill.

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