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Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express
Paramount Home Entertainment
1974 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 128 min. / Street Date September 7, 2004 / 14.99
Starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Colin Blakely, George Coulouris, Denis Quilley
Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth
Production Designer Tony Walton
Art Direction Jack Stephens
Film Editor Anne V. Coates
Original Music Richard Rodney Bennett
Written by Paul Dehn from the novel by Agatha Christie
Produced by John Brabourne, Richard B. Goodwin
Directed by Sidney Lumet

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Reviewers fell all over themselves to hail Murder on the Orient Express back in 1974, praising the performances, the art direction, the photography - when what they were were really celebrating was the suprise that it was still possible to make an old-fashioned entertainment where the movie stars on view were the entire show. There isn't much of a mystery here, and the resolution is an absurdity that celebrates the whodunnit genre without being a good whodunnit. But after several years of grittier and uglier feature films, it was a pleasure just to see so many glamorous actors doing what they do best - playing glamorous roles.


Obnoxious businessman Ratchett (Richard Widmark) is murdered on the Orient Express, which is unusually full of interesting characters travelling in the off season. But the famous detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) happens to be on board and begins an investigation while the train awaits the line ahead to be cleared of a snowdrift. The more he interviews the twelve suspects, the more intriguing the case becomes.

If you want a really clever murder mystery, there's always Dial M for Murder, an exemplar of plotting worked out like a Swiss watch. Murder on the Orient Express instead gives us the thrill of seeing a dozen great stars both young and legendary mix it up onscreen the way they used to do in all-star Hollywood extravaganzas like Grand Hotel. Everybody gets their chance to chew the scenery, show off their beautiful young (or revered old) faces and deliver a dialogue zinger or two. Lauren Bacall has the sauciest lines, Ingrid Bergman plays a repressed Swedish missionary, Sean Connery a British officer with secrets to hide, Anthony Perkins a private secretary with nervous tics ... you get the idea.

The casting is of course all-important on a show like this. Trying out a lush escapist film after a series of in-your-face New York dramas, American director Sidney Lumet used his noggin. The most glamorous faces are cast to type, especially Connery (gruff, masculine), Perkins (weak, neurotic), Gielgud (a butler! how original!) and to a lesser degree Lauren Bacall as a mouthy widow. Wendy Hiller is in for impressive spice and Ingrid Bergman gets the plum part playing against type as an introverted emotional wreck - and got an Oscar for her troubles. Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset have little to do but look attractive.

The lesser parts are by and large the better ones. Martin Balsam and George Coulouris really don't count, as they serve mechanical functions as aides to the central detective figure. But Rachel Roberts assays an impressively nuanced German ladies' companion and Jean-Pierre Cassel has his best role as a soulful train conductor. Favorite Colin Blakely (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) really has little to do, and Richard Widmark's exits before we learn much about him.

That leaves Albert Finney as the aging Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the fussy, exacting professional who conducts a series of interviews and springs forth with the right conclusion before anyone could dream he's solved the puzzle. Finney was actually in his thirties and had to undergo extensive makeup appliances, and his impersonation of this oil-haired, wax-moustached character is nigh perfect. With that center in place, the rest of the film falls into shape.

The illusion is that Murder on the Orient Express is one of those fabulous expensive old-fashioned movies, but it's really rather contained and small-scale. Most of it takes place on a train, and for most of the movie that train is sitting stationary in the middle of a snowfield: it must have excellent heating as nobody complains. The performances are compartmentalized in that there are only a couple of instances where more than four or five characters are on screen. Everybody makes their impression and then disappears while Poirot deals with them one at a time. So, once the lighting schemes and shooting arrangements for each scene are finalized, individual scenes are fairly simple to shoot. This is one movie where it would probably be advantageous to build multiple versions of sets, opened up on different sides to shoot in different directions. Not wasting time with expensive the cast had to be the important factor, and making more than one train compartment set isn't really that extravagant. Nicholas Ray built acres of detailed exterior sets for 55 Days at Peking, and we're told the camera never saw half of them.

Of course, it's not all that easy. Talent of this caliber aren't wind-up dolls and even when things are going well one needs a diplomat director to keep everyone on task. This particular bunch were all pros and there was no pre-intention of igniting sparks from competing divas as was reportedly was part of the plans of films like Night of the Iguana or What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The old-time stars here weren't troublemakers or needy psychotics but working pros eager to do well at a time when most national movie industries were crumbling. You see it in the excellent interviews in Laurent Bouzereau's docu - Michael York may look like a self-important pretty boy, but at one point he holds up the camel-hair coat he wears in the movie and says with self-abasing cheerfulness, "Here's my performance!"

Savant likens Murder on the Orient Express to Robert Altman's Gosford Park: both are genre drawing room murder mysteries that really concentrate on other concerns. In Lumet's movie the balance is almost perfect. It's elegant fluff that only glamorous movie stars can make work.

Paramount's DVD of Murder on the Orient Express looks fine, with only some dirt on the opening reel to mar what's really an ultra clean print, enhanced and well-encoded. Richard Rodney Bennett's ritzy waltzing score sets the right mood, and Paul Dehn's clever (but not show-offy clever) dialogue is clear on the DD 5.1 remastered track. The original mono is retained as well.

The extras are a set of four making-of docus that go on too long but contain very nice material and interviews with people one doesn't expect to get tapped for the honor - the composer, for one. There's also a biographical piece on Agatha Christie hosted by her grandson. A trailer wraps up the package, which, I should add, comes at a bargain price point.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Murder on the Orient Express rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Making of documentary (split into several parts)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 11, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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