Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Murder on the Orient Express

We watched the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express last night.  A very classy production with a wonderful cast.  Albert Finney plays Hercule Poirot - with a limp, for some reason - and he presents the character as always in charge, always at work on the information given to him, and quite able to pick up clues from what people do and don't say.  And even to manipulate the occasional character if it suits his purpose.  

Ingrid Bergman got an Oscar and a Bafta for Best Supporting Actress, though her performance comes across now as a performance.  We never quite believe all that stuff about her vocation as a missionary and her call to the little African children.  It's a bit too acted, for my liking.  Various other members of the cast won awards of different sorts, including Finney and Gielgud, although the latter is doing no more than playing Gielgud, pretty much as he always did.  That's what great stars do, when all is said and done.  Anthony Perkins is the same in the role he plays: he's not quite being Norman Bates, but that character isn't far away.  Great stars bring such a particular personality to their roles that there's almost no need for them to create the character

Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam are good in parts that they could do standing on their heads, but Vanessa Redgrave and Sean Connery are woefully under-done as the secretive lovers.  Connery looks as though he's longing to get into something with a bit more pizzazz to it; Redgrave has almost nothing to get her teeth into either.  The married couple, Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset ,also suffer from underwritten parts, and quite honestly we're suspicious of their Hungarian status from early in the piece.  Wendy Hiller is all hammer and tongs in her role as a Russian princess, her face like a permanent mask - her doctor advised against her ever smiling, says the character.  Jean-Pierre Cassell makes a great steward, always there, seemingly innocent of anything and honest as the day is long.  Rachel Roberts is perhaps a bit too Germanic, as the cook turned maid, and Richard Widmark doesn't get to do much except be nasty before he's dispatched early in the piece.  

But with such a crew on board the picture could hardly go wrong.  Sydney Lumet obviously enjoys himself as the director, and there are some delightful jokes in the script, for example:

Mrs. Hubbard: [to Bianchi] Don't you agree the man must've entered my compartment to gain access to Mr. Ratchett? 
Princess Dragomiroff: [dismissively] I can think of no other reason, madame! 

or

Foscarelli: Hey, what are you reading, Mister Beddoes? 
Beddoes: I am reading "Love's Captive," by Mrs. Arabella Richardson. 
Foscarelli: Is it about sex? 
Beddoes: No, it's about 10:30, Mister Foscarelli. [He's already sardonically told Poirot that Foscarelli speaks a kind of English: "I think he learnt it in a place called Chicago."]

or

Mrs. Hubbard: What's the matter with him? Train-sick or something? 
Hercule Poirot: Some of us, in the words of the divine Greta Garbo, want to be alone. 

or

Dr. Constantine: [referring to Pierre] He had the means to do it. The passkey to Ratchett's room. 
Hercule Poirot: And a knife borrowed from the chef. 
Bianchi: With whom he was in league. 
Hercule Poirot: Which he plunged, repeatedly and without motive, into the body of his suitably astonished victim. 

or

Hercule Poirot: If all these people are not implicated in the crime, then why have they all told me, under interrogation, stupid and often unnecessary lies? Why? Why? Why? Why? 
Dr. Constantine: Doubtless, Monsieur Poirot, because they did not expect you to be on the train. They had no time to concert their cover story. 
Hercule Poirot: I was hoping someone other than myself would say that. 

The solution to the puzzle is perhaps signalled rather more obviously in the movie than it would be in Agatha Christie's original book, where she tends to flit past clues by not highlighting them.  Anyone paying attention to the movie will have picked up a number of them by the time Poirot gets round to explaining the whole thing.  And the opening sequence, in which a wealthy couple's child is kidnapped, is repeated in snatches throughout, adding to our understanding of what's going on.  

For all that, the piece is entertaining, and has stood the test of time - as long as you're prepared to take it as it is, a fun vehicle for a bunch of stars who obviously had a ball with it.  





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