Last night, only hours after posting my obituary on Sidney Lumet, I treated myself to a memorial viewing of Murder on the Orient Express, which may be my favorite of his films, certainly in my top five (along with 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe, Network, and The Verdict). It still holds up like a rock after many viewings, although I’ve had a soft spot for it since I saw it with my parents at the age of 11 when it was released. Lumet was aided immeasurably by screenwriter Paul Dehn, who had the enviable task of adapting films from works by Ian Fleming (Goldfinger, 1964) and John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965; Lumet’s The Deadly Affair, 1966) as well as Agatha Christie, and contributed to all four sequels to the original Planet of the Apes (1968).
From the first frame, Richard Rodney Bennett’s score impresses with not only its excellence, but also the skillful way Bennet and Lumet use the music, as the jarring opening chords warn us that something mysterious and deadly is afoot. Then it settles into a sophisticated piano theme suited to the lush 1930s setting as its incredible cast unspools: leading man Albert Finney; pal Martin Balsam; suspects Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bissett, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, and Michael York; and victim Richard Widmark. It crescendos as the title appears, and after the credits it shifts to uneasy strings over the eerie montage of the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping case (hear it all here).
As the film progresses, Lumet keeps it from getting too stage-bound by cross-cutting scenes in the compartments with exteriors of the Orient Express making its way through the countryside. He and Bennett complement these visuals by giving the train its own theme, which cleverly starts slowly as the locomotive builds up steam while pulling out of the station, then picks up speed to a jaunty yet majestic pace. And when Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) finally reveals the solution to the case, which requires that we see events from earlier in the film a second time, Lumet again keeps things visually interesting by shooting the same action from different angles, rather than simply repeating the exact same footage we saw before; it’s a very effective device.
Finney, Dehn, and Bennett all scored Oscar nominations, as did costume designer Tony Walton and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, yet only Bergman took home the gold for her role as a “backwards” Swedish missionary. Why her halting speeches about “little brown babies” were considered Best Supporting Actress material might be considered as big a mystery as the titular murder, but less so than why Finney didn’t win. I have so far read about two-thirds of Christie’s three-dozen-odd books about Poirot, and it’s my informed opinion that Finney, almost literally unrecognizable, embodied a literary character as few actors have, and could have stepped off the page (a feeling I also got when Ian Carmichael played Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey).
While others tried their hands at the star-studded Christie adaptation in the years to come, it was clear when Death on the Nile (1978) devolved from Lumet and Finney onto John Guillermin—fresh (?) from the travesty of the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong (1976)—and Peter Ustinov that lightning would not strike twice in the same place. At least the cast and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer kept that one afloat, as it were, and Ustinov went on to play M. Poirot five more times on screens both large and small, although he came nowhere near to inhabiting the role as Finney had done. But The Mirror Crack’d (1980), with Angela Lansbury seemingly well cast as Christie’s other main sleuth, Miss Marple, was reputedly such a fiasco that to this day I haven’t subjected myself to it.