MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (Sidney Lumet, 1974)

The key to reading an Agatha Christie mystery with a minimum of frustration, surely, is not to bother with figuring out “who dun it.” Christie rarely devises a “through line” of logic matching perpetrator to crime; in her mysteries, the solution to the crime is a possibility, not a probability—much less, an inevitability. Anyone might have “dun it,” and indeed the “surprise ending” she is so fond of manufacturing relies on this arbitrariness and contrivance. It was only a matter of time before she wrote something that pushed this approach to its most extreme form: a mystery in which everyone “dun it.” This came in 1934, with the novel Murder on the Orient Express, by whose terms, it turns out, there is a conspiracy in which each one of the large number of murder suspects participated. This monstrous solution has a moralistic basis; it is suited to the enormity of the crime that the conspiratorial murder is meant to avenge: the kidnapping and murder of a child. But Christie may have lost a few points in heaven for the opportunistic nature of her “back story,” which was drawn from the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping two years earlier.

One of the most richly upholstered entertainments of the 1970s, Sidney Lumet’s film version of the book was written by Paul Dehn, with uncredited assistance by Anthony Shaffer. The film’s eerie prologue details the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong from her posh Long Island estate and the news coverage that accompanied the event and its aftermath: a ransom demand; the murder. A gangster named Cassetti engineered the dastardly crime. In his reincarnation as businessman Ratchett, he becomes the victim of the 1935 group murder on the Orient Express, with Hercule Poirot, Christie’s idiosyncratic Belgian sleuth (and a pain, if you ask me), conveniently onboard to figure out what’s what. “What’s what” is that nearly all the other passengers, and even a member of the staff, is as much incognito as Cassetti. They are all persons who were somehow powerfully and personally affected by Daisy’s ordeal and death—a crime that led to parental suicides and the suicide of a household staff member wrongly accused by the police of complicity in the crime.

Lumet is a good director of actors and little else, but on this occasion one isn’t inclined to ask for more. Geoffrey Unsworth’s evocative color cinematography disposes of the visual requirements (Lumet doesn’t think much in terms of mise-en-scène), and there are costuming and makeup splashes to provide glamorous and not-so-glamorous distraction. The actors, then, take center-stage—or center-car, perhaps I should say.

Albert Finney, barely recognizable, is a hoot as Poirot—if not the best Poirot ever, certainly the funniest. The index of Finney’s resourcefulness is that one doesn’t tire of his Poirot’s tiresomeness. Martin Balsam and George Coulouris are both adequate as the owner of the Orient Express and a doctor; but this is the Coulouris once of Citizen Kane (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943) and None But the Lonely Heart (1944), and one wants more from him. The other actors come with tricks, since the characters they play are all putting on an act. For me, the one glorious member of the cast is Wendy Hiller, ostensibly playing old Princess Dragomiroff, who, when Poirot notes that she never smiles, imperiously explains, “My doctor has advised me against it.” Hiller won the Evening Standard British Film Award as best actress, with Finney winning as best actor. These are two wonderful actors.

Two others also excel: John Gielgud (best supporting actor, British film academy) as Beddoes, Ratchett’s servant, and Jean-Pierre Cassel as the train steward. Lauren Bacall, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset and Rachel Roberts are among the other cast members. Richard Widmark plays Cassetti/Ratchett. Widmark doesn’t seem all that evil, but his performance is accomplished.

Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar, this time in the supporting category, and won the identical accolade from BAFTA, as Greta Ohlsson, who, “born backward,” has worked as a Christian missionary in India to help “brown babies” who are “more backward” than she. (Dear Greta misidentifies India as Africa.) It’s fun to watch Bergman parodying her radiant portrayal of Gladys Aylward, real-life missionary in China, in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (Mark Robson, 1958), and she and Lumet score two palpable hits by suggesting both the inferiority feelings which propel religious commitment and the implicit racism in the feelings of superiority that compensate for these inferiority feelings in Christian missionary work in impoverished quarters. Bergman does a good, clever, very funny job, but some who are knowledgeable about the ways of Oscar have said that this sentimental Oscar cost her, four years hence, the Oscar Bergman should have won for her tremendous performance in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978).

Her acceptance speech, though, remains memorable. Bergman began by saying, “Of course, it’s always nice to win an Oscar,” and proceeded to suggest that fellow nominee and friend Valentina Cortese should have won for her work in Day for Night (La nuit américaine, François Truffaut, 1973). Bergman’s two best actress Oscars were for Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) and Anastasia (Anatole Litvak, 1956). I have named Bergman best actress thrice, for Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1953), for two more Rossellini films, Fear and Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954), and for Autumn Sonata. I doubt not that Bergman is acting up a storm in Paradise.

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