Monday, October 19, 2015

A Double Case of Murder on the Orient Express

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot.
The 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie's controversial mystery Murder on the Orient Express spawned a string of theatrical and made-for-TV films based on her works. I recently revisited Orient Express and, for comparison purposes, also watched the 2010 version starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. It was an interesting exercise in which each film boasted certain strengths. In the end, though, it came down to which Poirot was the best and, for me, the choice between Suchet and Albert Finney is a no-contest.

The plots of each version closely mirror Christie's 1934 novel. While aboard the Orient Express en route back to England, Poirot is approached by a wealthy, distasteful man named Ratchett, who fears for his life. Ratchett tries to hire Poirot to protect him, but the Belgian detective refuses. Two nights later, Ratchett's bloody corpse--which features, significantly, twelve knife wounds--is found in his compartment. The obvious solution is that the murderer disposed of Ratchett, then departed the train. However, Poirot quickly makes a connection to the kidnapping and subsequent death of young Daisy Armstrong, which occurred five years earlier (an obvious nod to the real-life Lindbergh case).

The snowbound train.
The 1974 Murder on the Orient Express boasts a running time of 128 minutes, which surprisingly works to the plot's advantage. First, it allows director Sidney Lumet to open the film with a well-constructed montage that encapsulates the Armstrong kidnapping and its aftermath. This sequence not only piques the viewer's interest from the beginning, but its eliminates the need for lengthy flashbacks later or incorporation into Poirot's explanation. The second advantage of the long running time is it affords Poirot time to reveal the mystery's solution in detail (indeed, the "reveal" scene lasts almost 25 minutes).

Wendy Hiller.
The casting of big-name stars as the suspects may be entertaining, but it actually adds little to the mystery. I suppose one could argue that it's easier to tell the suspects apart, because they're played by performers such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman, and others. However, with the exception of Wendy Hiller as the elusive and deathly pale Princess Dragomiroff, no one has enough screen time to add any depth to their character.

Ingrid Bergman.
Albert Finney, as Poirot, dominates Murder on the Orient Express and that's unfortunate because he's a poor choice to portray Christie's sleuth. Finney may have mastered Poirot's manners, but there's no passion in his interpretation. I also have no idea what accent he was using--it certainly didn't sound French. Apparently, I hold a minority opinion of Finney's portrayal; he received both Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Actor. (Incidentally, Ingrid Bergman won those two awards for supporting actress, though I think it was more for her career than for her performance in this picture.)

Eileen Atkins as Princess Dragomiroff.
The 2010 Murder on the Orient Express, made by Britain's ITV network, lacks the grand scale of the 1974 version. Still, it looks expensive for a made-for-TV movie. In lieu of an all-star cast, many of the suspects are played by actors familiar to fans of British drama: Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Eileen Atkins (Doc Martin), and Toby Stephens (Midsomer Murders). Perhaps, the most recognizable face for U.S. audiences is Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), who was still relatively unknown in 2010.

At a zippy 89 minutes, this adaptation moves almost too quickly, making it difficult for viewers to differentiate among the large number of suspects. In lieu of the 1974 film's opening montage, Poirot explains the connection to the Daisy Armstrong case as part of his climatic "reveal." It's a lot of information to absorb at one time and I wonder if individuals unfamiliar with Christie's plot will be able to fully follow Poirot's explanation.

David Suchet as Poirot.
Despite these minor misgivings, I probably prefer this version for one reason alone. David Suchet is--as always--superb as Hercule Poirot. One of Suchet's great gifts was being able to find the humor in the Poirot character, while never mocking the detective nor making him intentionally funny. Thus, we may smile when Suchet's Poirot measures his eggs to ensure they're the same size, but we never laugh at him. (In contrast, when Finney races down a train car to question a suspect, he looks like Charlie Chaplin).

The 2010 version also ends on a stronger note with the religious Poirot pondering the impacts of a personal moral dilemma. Interestingly, the same theme is explored at the conclusion of Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, the excellent 2014 film that marked the last of Suchet's 70 appearances as Hercule Poirot.


This review is part of the Trains, Planes, and Automobiles Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click here to view the complete schedule of first-rate film reviews.

31 comments:

  1. The thoughtful ending of the TV version really stays with you. The feature film has the memorable Tony Walton designs and the Richard Rodney Bennett score. Imagine ... just imagine if we had Suchet in the Lumet film. Bliss.

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    1. CW, I agree that the 1974 version would have been perfect with Suchet as Poirot. I would have liked it better, too, with Peter Ustinov in the lead.

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  2. Hi Rick. I confess, I am a sucker for those 1970s all-star extravaganzas. However, I agree 100% with you about Finney vs. Suchet. Albert Finney is one of my favorite actors, but he is much too much for the character of Poirot. Excellent post!

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    1. I'm a big fan of the all-star casts, too. DEATH ON THE NILE and especially EVIL UNDER THE SUN are both highly entertaining. Peter Ustinov isn't as good as David Suchet as Poirot, but he's a fine substitute--less manic than Finney and with just the right touch of humor.

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  3. I would have probably shunned the 2010 version if I hadn't read this post. I quite like the older version and normally wouldn't care to see a later one, but you've changed my mind (read: broadened my horizons). Thanks for that!

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    1. It took me much too long to watch the POIROT TV series with David Suchet. But once I did, it wasn't long before I decided that he was definitive Hercule Poirot (though I'm still fond of Ustinov).

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  4. David Suchet will probably always be Poirot to me, so it is kind of weird to see anyone else in that role. That said, I haven't seen the 2010 version of Murder on the Orient Express and I'm not sure I want to. From what I understand, some serious liberties were taken with the book. I'm particularly perturbed by the religious overtones that were added. It seems like a lot of the fun of Suchet's earlier Poirot stories was lost towards the end of his run as that character. Albert Finney might not have been the best Poirot, but his movie was pretty good regardless.

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    1. It's true that some of the later Poirot mysteries are more grim. I think Hastings and Miss Lemon lightened the mood on the earlier ones. Still, this is a good adaptation--just not as memorable as it should have been.

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  5. Great Review. My favorite of the all-star Christie films is Death on the Nile, but I've always enjoyed Murder on the Orient Express despite the fact that Albert Finney isn't all that good as Poirot.

    Suchet is perfection as always in the TV version, but I did thinks it was kind of an odd adaptation of the story.

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    1. My favorite of the theatrical films is EVIL UNDER THE SUN, with DEATH ON THE NILE right behind it.

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  6. Like most others, my preference is for the 1974 film version - if only David Suchet had been cast as Poirot! I have seen various actors attempt that role, but he owns it. I may have first become aware of Wendy Hiller when she portrayed Princess Dragomiroff in this film. Mesmerizing in a very particular sort of role. I don't know if she was Oscar-nominated for her performance, but she deserved to be.

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    1. Wendy Hiller would have been a better choice for a Supporting Oscar nominee than sentimental favorite Ingrid Bergman, who actually won.

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  7. Terrific post. I ADORE Suchet, but, I have a great love and fondness for the 1974 film. If ITV had allowed two hours, I might have enjoyed the Suchet version a tad more. What has puzzled me about the Suchet, never having read the Christie novel, this sudden appearence of his faith. In all the years of Poirot, this moral compass never once showed up. It stuck out as something odd to me. In any case, terrific post!

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  8. There are religious overtones in several of the TV series episodes, most notably CURTAIN and PERIL AT END HOUSE. Agatha stated that Poirot was a Catholic, though she doesn't explore that in the novels. The US version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS was trimmed from the British one, probably to fit the running time for MYSTERY.

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  9. Since nobody mentioned it ...

    In 2001, CBS aired their own version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.
    Alfred Molina was (mis)cast as Poirot, apparently with an eye on a series or specials (or something).
    Some of the rest of the cast: Meredith Baxter, Peter Strauss, Leslie Caron, some others I can't remember since I looked this up at IMDb about five minutes ago.
    The producers decided to update this to the present day; they presumably had their reasons.
    The director was a Swiss guy named Carl Schenkel, who died either just before or just after this aired (probably just coincidence ...).
    Given that the Suchet series was in full mode at this time, I'd guess that CBS presumed that "Who watches educational TV anyhow?"
    I believe that this is available on DVD; you may proceed to check this out at your own risk.

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    1. Quick follow-up to the above:

      I checked on Amazon and Alibris about the DVD of this version of ...ORIENT EXPRESS.
      It is indeed available - but at insanely inflated prices for an out-of-print DVD.
      I like to have complete sets of things, but ...
      ... the rest of you, don't bother ...

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    2. Follow-up to the follow-up:

      - It turns out that Carl Schenkel died in 2003, two years after he made CBS's MotOE.
      But the movie in question was apparently his final work as a director (see what I said above about 'coincidence'...).

      - Also, the Molina 'Poirot' is available on YouTube, for those of you who can't spare between $60 and $100+ for a DVD.
      Just so you know ...

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    3. Mike, thanks for mentioning this version. I have only seen a clip, but thought that the usually reliable Molina was a terrible Poirot.

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  10. I am not a big fan of the 1974 film, surprising since I generally like every film Sidney Lumet has made. It's not that I did not like it, just the kind o film I watched once and will not revisit. Have not seen the 2010 version, but will give it a look given the opportunity. Always a pleasure to read to post.

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    1. should read "pleasure to read your post.

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    2. John, until I watched it recently, it had been many years since my last viewing of the '74 version. Finney was a big distraction this time, perhaps because I had become a Suchet fan.

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  11. Fantastic commentary on both films, Rick and this is one close to my heart. Or, the 1974 version is. I came from Cuba with my family in late 1974 and moved to a Northern neighborhood in Manhattan where a small, local theater would play films for months after their release. Oftentimes they'd play double bills of "older" movies all summer. Anyway - I went to see Murder on the Orient Express at that theater with my mom in the spring of 1975 - luckily they also played movies with Spanish subtitles so we went there often. SO, "Murder" was actually one of the first-ever movie screenings for me. I fell in love with it and quickly looked up the stars in the local library, which would subsequently play a huge role in my falling in love with all things classic Hollywood. :)

    Anyway - I love Sidney Lumet and the 1974 film for those fond memories, but I also love the movie for its own merit. However, I haven't seen the 2010 version and you've certainly piqued my interest to watch it soon. I like Finney's portrayal in the movie, but you make a great case as to why it doesn't work for you. I do agree - as Bergman did - that she didn't deserve Oscar for this one.

    Thanks for choosing this movie.

    Aurora

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    1. Aurora, thanks sharing your personal story regarding the '74 version. Loved it,

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  12. "Murder on the Orient Express" is such a fun mystery. Wendy Hiller is especially good in the 1974 version and most of the cast works well for me except for Albert Finney, who would seem better cast in a spoof on this classic. It is pretty awesome that we do have a version with the masterful David Suchet. How I love seeing him exercise the little grey cells!

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    1. I'm with you, Toto. Subtract Finney, add Suchet, and I'd be a big fan of the '74 version!

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  13. I guess I'm in the minority but I loved Finney in the '74 version and adore every minute of that film. All the performances, the costume and set design and the direction. I thought the remake was a stinking pile that seemed like a sketch of the story, it had many fine performers but none equaled the originals and Suchet never did anything for me as Poirot.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Joel. Differing opinions are always welcomed.

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  14. Thanks for making these critical comparisons Rick. I've seen both although its been a long time since I've seen the older version. Although I've watched several of the Suchet Poirot episodes on TV, I've never warmed up to him. I find his mannerisms too fussy. Since I've never read the books I don't know if these are misplaced or accurate characterizations. Anyway, now I know that Finney was less than ideal as well.

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    1. Christian, Agatha Christie purists and even her relatives generally agree that Suchet's interpretation is the definitive one. He is fussy at times, but that's Poirot.

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  15. I loved Suchet as Poirot, and totally agree that Finney was just too funny (sorry, I couldn't help it). He sounded weird, as you said, and just didn't look right either. I haven't seen the Suchet version in such a long time ... would like to see it again.

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  16. I much preferred the 1974 version, largely because of Lumet's direction, which made the 128 minutes go considerably faster (and less confusing) than the Suchet version. Tooo much exposition at the end of it. Also, from what I've read the religioso objections at the end weren't Poirot's, they were Suchet's, who mandated them. Totally out of character for Poirot. And Finney's accent was Belgian, not French.

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