The nineteen seventies were a pretty harsh time for Britain. What with coal strikes, Edward Heath and the twin horrors of rampant inflation and Dick Emery, the country seemed on the brink of collapse for much of the time. It's no surprise therefore, on reflection, that one of the most popular British films of the era was Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express, a cunning and beautifully wrought mixture of period nostalgia, outrageous snobbery and even more outrageous overacting. Without even the vestige of relevance to contemporary Britain, it's not so much a film as a comforting panacea, harking back to the golden days when "every Cabinet minister had a thriller by his bedside, and all the detectives were titled". This quotation from Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth is particularly apt since he was hired to write the screenplay for the second Christie film, a star-studded adaptation of Death On The Nile. The result is hugely enjoyable for fans of camp but less satisfying for anyone who might have wanted to watch a detective thriller.
A heavily padded Albert Finney plays the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, making his way home from Istanbul aboard the legendary Orient Express. This being 1931, or thereabouts, the only people who can afford to travel so luxuriously are international reprobates, pseudo / vague royalty, gangsters, the nouveaux riche, the better class of the military and anyone else who has the wherewithall during one of the biggest worldwide depressions of the 20th Century. Luckily for us, this means that lots of big star names were coaxed into playing this rich array of suspects and thus distract us from the increasingly obvious fact that this is a film with one set and an awful lot of talking. A murder is committed in the sleeping car in the middle of the night and only Poirot, assisted by his ‘little grey cells’ and a hell of a lot of moustache wax, can find the culprit or culprits.
Fans of Seventies American cinema will be amused to note that this is the movie which Sidney Lumet made between Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and it does, at first sight, seem a rather odd choice for this great New York filmmaker. But given that this is, to all intents and purposes, a courtroom drama in which the script and the acting are pivotal, it looks less surprising that it should have attracted the director of Twelve Angry Men and The Verdict. Indeed, his work with the actors is as marvellous as you would expect. He allows each of his big, starry cast a chance to assert themselves with a nice little introduction and a showy interrogation scene and even finds amusing touches for the minor characters, such as those played by Denis Quilley and Colin Blakeley (who are, appropriately, both minor stars in this company).
As is the way in this sort of thing, the actors battle for control of the scenes and it is greatly to Albert Finney’s credit that he makes Poirot such a strong character. Fussy and vain, but also intensely intelligent, Finney’s Poirot is far from the extended foreign joke that he would become in later films at the hands of Peter Ustinov. His eyes are watchful, his movements slight but precise. This is a great performance from a much underrated actor. Poirot is in every scene and he remains the fixed centre around which the supporting cast can disport themselves. The acting laurels go to John Gielgud as the perfect butler for whom a single sniff indicates detestation of his American employer. He also gets the best line - as Gielgud lies in bed, reading, his Italian roomate asks him what he’s reading and says “Is it about sex ?”. Without a flicker, Gielgud replies, “No, it’s about 10.30 Mr Foscarelli.” It’s all about timing and delivery. Alongside the great acting knight, Ingrid Bergman, making a much publicised return after several years out of films, also deserves a bow for her very funny self-parody as an apparently timid Swedish missionary. Anthony Perkins is good too, as a secretary so full of tics as to make Norman Bates look like Clint Eastwood, and it’s always fun to see Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave doing what they do so elegantly (at least on this occasion, Connery is actually meant to be a middle aged Scot). As the particularly nasty victim of the murder, Richard Widmark does what he can with a one-note role, and the wonderful Dame Wendy Hiller is ill-served by tons of make-up and a costume consisting largely of a black shroud. Several of the other actors, notably a very loud Lauren Bacall and an outrageously accented Martin Balsam, camp it up with a little too much relish. The only extenuation that can be offered is that at least they are lively, which is more than you can say for the incredibly wooden presences of Michael York and Jacqueline Bissett.
The film looks fantastic, thanks to Tony Walton’s detailed, stylish sets and Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography - the scene where the train departs, all steam and whistles, to the sound of Richard Rodney Bennett’s romantic music, is a love letter to the elusive magic of old fashioned steam engines and is almost enough to get anyone out on the platform in an anorak at 8.30 on a Saturday morning with a flask and a notebook. Indeed, elegance is the watchword throughout - perhaps a little too much elegance at times, since the pace of the film is less that of a jazzy international thriller and more that of a saunter around the Victoria and Albert on a wet Bank Holiday. If you like mysteries, Hollywood stars and period recreation then this will not trouble you in the slightest - I have to say that I can watch this film over and over again with undiminished pleasure - but it does suggest that Lumet was saving his best pacing for his more typical work with Al Pacino. The solution, incidentally, is reasonably fair, if a little obvious, but is most famous for infuriating Raymond Chandler, who thought it was cheating.
Studiocanal's release of Murder on the Orient Express is currently only available as part of the three disc Poirot Collection along with Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.
The first thing to say is that this Blu-Ray transfer doesn't come from the best of sources. The original film elements clearly need a bit of work as they look a little faded and there is occasional damage in evidence. Bearing this in mind however, the film looks fairly pleasing. The detail varies from scene to scene but is generally fairly good and the definition in the interior scenes is generally good. The snowbound exteriors are, on the other hand, quite delightfully crisp. Colours are muted and, once again, a bit faded but the accuracy is acceptable. The level of film grain is pleasant and there is a general film-like appearance. I'd like to see a full restoration of this visually striking film but this will do for now. The film is framed at 1.85:1.
Not much to say about the audio but the chance to hear Richard Rodney Bennett's score in lossless audio is not to be missed. The all-important dialogue is crystal clear. The lack of subtitles is annoying but not a new problem for Studiocanal.
There are no extras so fans of the film should hang on to the Paramount Region 1 DVD from a few years ago which had an exceptional retrospective documentary.