Retro Review Triple Feature: Murder on the Orient Express.
Before we tackle Kenneth Branagh’s new film, we did a marathon viewing of three versions of Agatha Christie’s most famous murder mystery.
Despite being physically surrounded by copies of Agatha Christie’s novels as a child, I had never read nor seen Murder on the Orient Express. It’s quite a feat, actually, considering how often David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot graced our dining room care of the BBC and New Hampshire public television. I considered remaining blissfully ignorant before seeing Kenneth Branagh’s take on the Orient Express, but decided I’d rather have some points of comparison. I have to say that after seeing three versions of varying quality, it makes me more intrigued to see what Branagh can bring to the classic.
To a greater or lesser degree, the narrative of the films is this:
Hercule Poirot, famed detective, boards the Orient Express after wrapping up a case in Istanbul. Since he is being called to London on a sudden emergency, he is forced to pull some strings with the manager to get aboard the train, which is seemingly booked to capacity. During the course of its travel, the Orient Express becomes stopped by a rail accident on the very night a murder is committed. Instead of arriving in Calais, the train is forced to wait for rescuers…and the police. Wishing to keep things quiet, the manager persuades Poirot to solve the case while they are stranded.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
The original theatrical adaptation of Agatha Christie’s work does not wear its age gracefully. While each version is nearly identical in run-time, Sidney Lumet’s version feels positively glacial. It opens with news clippings about an unsolved kidnapping before picking up with Poirot in Istanbul five years later. From there we meet all of our suspects in laborious detail. All told it takes about 45 minutes for a dead body to appear.
Lumet (Network, Dog Day Afternoon) enjoys turning tragedy into an exploration of the absurdity of the human condition. To this end, Poirot is played as a fussy and eccentric moppet by Albert Finney. The whole proceeding feels dissonant tonally, from Finney’s performance to the juxtaposition of images, to the very music. The music feels like it was on loan from Willy Wonka rather than Alfred Hitchcock. This all adds up to a ponderously paced film with a breezy air of flippancy to the central premise. I never felt invested in the crime or in the potential criminals, despite the cast being filled with excellent talents like Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins and even Sean Connery.
Murder on the Orient Express (2001)
Dear god, is this one dreadful! I expected a step down in quality since this was a made for TV movie…but it is simply atrocious. I can’t even say that it benefits from a game effort by Alfred Molina as Hercule Poirot, since he seems to be there simply to narrate the events so that even children could follow the action. Speaking of plot, the whole thing has been streamlined and dumbed down to the point that it barely resembles a mystery.
Characters are missing and the remaining ones have their roles stripped to the barest necessities. Instead of shaking up a familiar whodunit, it seems like the script writer was intent on making the trail of clues impossible to miss. Even this fails because so many stepping stones are missing, Poirot’s deductions appear to us more like blind leaps than logical steps.
CBS chose to update Murder on the Orient to modern day, doing damage to many of the surviving characters and the atmosphere of the original. They likewise grafted on a silly love interest for Poirot that makes him look like a sad sack instead of an aloof genius. The whole affair resembles dinner theater more than a film. I can’t fathom why they decided to yank a classic movie out of its setting, axe most of the characters, strip away all of the complex detective elements, and then have the gall to threaten to make more of these “updated” Poirot movies. It seems like an exercise in how much violence can be done to an established story before it ceases to pass for the original.
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
I’d imagine most people who have seen a version of Murder on the Orient have seen this version. David Suchet owned the role of Hercule Poirot so definitively that it seems almost like sacrilege to see anyone else play him. Despite being a made for television production like the 2001 version, the studio seemed to spare no expense. The cast is surprisingly deep, including gifted performers like Jessica Chastain, Barbara Hershey and Toby Jones. The cinematography feels the most like a proper mystery film, filled with shadows and flickering candles to accentuate the atmosphere of the regal old train. Except for some long-shots that feel like they were cribbed from The Polar Express, this version is the best looking of the three.
This adaptation not only looks the part of a murder mystery, it feels the part. All three start with Hercule solving a crime, but the inciting incidents are much more potent here. A young officer commits suicide right in front of Poirot after having his sins revealed, and then Poirot witnesses a young woman become the victim of an honor killing in Istanbul. We see right off the bat that this film has teeth and will bite if you leave yourself vulnerable. The stakes finally feel appropriate to the scenario instead of silly or satirical. The train even becomes a frigid tomb when it becomes stalled in a storm, accentuating the dire nature of this drama.
The story does not stray from the familiar story, but it does recast the consequences by making the plight of Poirot the main focus. The detective is left with making not just a legal judgement, but a moral one as well, and it eats at him. David Suchet brings Poirot to life with such energy that you become invested with the outcome, not just for the sake of finding out who did it, but in order to find out what toll that knowledge will exact upon our hero.
…And Then There was One.
After having watched 5 hours of Murder on the Orient Express, I can say two things with certainty: the 2010 version of the story is far and away the best, and to keep a mystery viable after you already know the outcome you need to really invest in the craft of your film. The actors have to not only be at their best, but they have to be directed and scripted in such a way that they become more important than their actions. The pace and the atmosphere of the drama is also critical. The 2010 adaptations success is instructive – despite being the last to the party, it is the best version because it creates an investment from the audience that transcends a simple mystery.
For this reason I’m hopeful for Kenneth Branagh’s production of Murder on the Orient Express. If there is one guy in Hollywood who understands that the importance of a film rests on the vision and passion of the people making it, its Branagh. He’s already proven he can breathe life into familiar tales. I’ve known how Hamlet ends for thirty years, but I’m still mesmerized when I watch Branagh put his stamp on Shakespeare’s tale. I hope I have the same feeling walking out of his version of Murder on the Orient Express.