Watching Murder on the Orient Express (1974) before the remake: Will make you an Agatha Christie fan
We watch the popular 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express before Kenneth Branagh’s.hollywood Updated: Nov 23, 2017 17:59 IST
Before the Scandinavians took over, detective fiction was ruled by the king and queen of the genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. My introduction to Doyle - and his detective with the deerstalker hat - happened at the age of 14 when I received the entire collection as a birthday gift. Our neighbourhood suffered through a particularly bad spell of load shedding that season, which meant no TV . I turned to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, not to give it up for an entire summer.
My introduction to Christie, however, wasn’t ideal. Her book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was a part of my popular fiction paper in college and I could not get myself to care about it after having turned in my assignments. I never went back to her for years, until last night.
The latest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express by Kenneth Branagh (and a bit of Jay Z in the trailer) persuaded me to watch the 1974 version, what even Christie agreed was the closest an adaptation could come to her work, even though she wasn’t too happy about Albert Finney’s not-so-grand moustache. Lucky for me, as I don’t really care about men’s ability to grow hair on their faces, I was left throughly impressed by the film.
The film boasted of more than a dozen Hollywood heavyweights like Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins and Sean Connery. However, even with all the stars, the film never drowns in their light to lose focus from what was of utmost importance: delivering a murder mystery that hooks you to your seat.
Made in 1974, the film goes back 40 years to the 1930’s and tells the story of a group of strangers and a murder on a train. A rude American millionaire is murdered in the dead of the night right next to detective Hercule Poirot’s cabin and it falls on him to find out who the killer is. The train is trapped in snow and Poirot has less than a day to decode the mystery before they reach the next station.
Director Sidney Lumet manages to give distinct, rememberable personalities to all his characters, most of who do not even get a second scene in the film. Bacall’s Mrs Hubbard is the motor mouth, Bergman’s Greta Ohlsson is the nervous social worker, Perkins’ Hector McQueen is the annoyed assistant, Jacqueline Bisset’s Countess Andrenyi is the beauty with a hidden past, Connery’s Colonel Arbuthnott is the British officer hoping for a better life with Vanessa Redgrave’s lovelorn Mary Debenham. There is also an elderly Russian princess who refuses to smile, her fearsome German maid, an English Butler who got the funniest line in the film and a helpful French conductor.
Poirot has to sort through this huge pile of suspects and an even bigger pile of red herrings to find out what really happened. Sitting on our couches, we do the same but of course, without as much clarity as him.
Finney’s portrayal may not be widely considered the best on-screen representation of the Belgian detective. However, even though the thick, heavily made-up accent, his slick, sticky hair patted on his head and his neck drowned in a tonne of fabric, he still establishes himself as a genius to not be taken as a joke. He embodies Poirot as he slides through narrow corridors and waxes his moustache. His tone changed every time he interrogated a new suspect, he moved around them as if setting a trap and the softness of his demeanour lets them believe they escaped him unhurt. The final scene, at almost half-an-hour long, began with him asking everyone to shut up as he narrated his theories on what really happened on the night of murder. It is the most intriguing scene of the film where everyone merely watches him speak.
To establish them as real human characters and the story like it belonged in the 1930’s took some effort from the music department as well. A stellar orchestra, as if straight from the Silly Symphony, accompanied the dead body’s reveal and the wheels spinning in Poirot’s head. A sombre tune played for a majestic train trapped in snow and a jolly one when it teared through small hamlets, pumping steam. The music was essential in the film’s success as a believable story from an age quite different to the 1970’s it was made in.
What is most impressive for me was how the film managed to keep me hooked even though I already knew the identity of the killer. Even then, the complexity of the plot and the way Christie was able to weave all the strangers together and then again to a real-life incident is something worthy of applause.
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