Classic Cinema: Murder on the Orient Express


DIRECTOR Sidney Lumet distinguished himself in numerous films before turning his attention to Agatha Christie’s classic.

A founding member of New York's Actors Studio, Lumet began his directorial career in off-Broadway productions, then became a highly efficient tv director.

Lumet was also known as an ‘actor's director’ having worked with the best of them during his career. Sean Connery, who acted in five of his films, considered him one of his favourite directors, and was reportedly used as the lead draw for casting agents to film.

Once agents and actors heard Connery was among the cast (he plays Col Arbuthnot), they reportedly jumped at the chance of a part. Others have been reported to have taken the part just to meet such luminaries as Sir John Gielgud, Ingrid Bergman, and Lauren Bacall.

Lumet’s other works include Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night; Serpico with Al Pacino, The Verdict with Paul Newman, and 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda.

Apart from its stellar cast – which includes Albert Finney as Poirot, Sir John Gielgud, Richard Widmark, Wendy Hiller, Ingrid Bergman (in an Oscar winning role as the nervous Swede Miss Olsen), Anthony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, Lauren Bacall, Michael York and others, the atmosphere of the film is striking.

From the start, it has an eerie pre-sequence involving the kidnap of baby Daisy Armstrong from the Armstrong house in Long Island. Like many of Christie’s novels, there’s a hint of a pre-plot.

But the film excels in the atmosphere of the train itself – both when it is at its luxurious best – and during the silence of the snowdrift in the Balkans in which the Orient Express finds itself trapped. In the still of the night, when the game is afoot, one can almost hear Poirot’s little grey cells ticking.

Poirot and the audience find themselves examining a world of communicating doors, wagon-lits compartments and red herrings, with sinister flashbacks.

Albert Finney was accused of overacting in the film by some critics – as well as being a little over-padded, but for me he excels beyond even his illustrious successor, Peter Ustinov.

As ever, the denouement scene is key – Poirot offers two solutions – and it is here that Finney is at his best – one long scene is notable for having few cuts in a long take.

The film makes effective use of lighting – a slight greased lens effect when the brightness of the snow outside permeates the carriage; and the subtle use of the blue night lights throughout the film in the carriages when the murder is being committed.

And as always in Christie films, just when you think your favourite sleuth is being a little obtuse, or has overlooked a fact, he doesn’t disappoint in the end. For us armchair sleuths, the clues were always there – just why couldn’t we see them?

David Suchet – an equally good Poirot – starred in an ITV remake of the same film not long ago which, while being worthy, was a little too over gritty and dark for my liking. While playing effectively on Poirot’s Catholic guilt at the decision he finally reaches, it lacked the atmosphere in the Finney version, or even the spirit of the 1979 remake The Lady Vanishes, with Cybil Shepherd and Elliot Gould, which, while being a workmanlike shunter compared to a sleek express, was nevertheless closer in style to Lumet’s adaptation of Murder.

ITV’s drearer version lacked the savoir faire, panache and subtlety of the 1974 movie, which, perhaps, only the touch of a master director can bring, armed, no doubt, not with just a dagger in the night, but with a killer Hollywood budget and star cast, the magnitude of which might never be seen again.

A sleeper – not this one. If you’ve not seen it, enjoy the classy ride.