A Movie A Day: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974) Has it occurred to you that there are too many clues in this room?
Published at: Nov. 12, 2008, 9:02 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
To illustrate just how much Albert Finney disappears into the role of Hercule Poirot let me just say that the movie was halfway through before the nagging “I know that guy from somewhere…” locked into place and I realized who the fuck it was playing the famous Belgian crime-solver.
The cast, on the surface, is the star of the film, but Sidney Lumet’s direction creeps up on you when you least expect it, like his awesome long, long, long train shot that tracks along the side of the Orient Express before it departs, passing by the windows on the platform side until we get a nice, epic shot of the front of the train. But the shot doesn’t end there. It holds, then slowely moves in on the front lamp, which sparks to life at just the right moment, accompanied by a little razzle-dazzle on the soundtrack, compliments of composer Richard Rodney Bennett.
If the train had been a spaceship, it would have been worthy of STAR WARS.
Let’s go over some of the huge cast of this movie. You have Finney as Poirot trying to solve the mystery of a murdered man (played by Richard Widmark) while on a headed across South-Eastern Europe towards Paris. The other occupants of the first class cabins include Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York and Anthony Perkins.
What’s really impressive about this film is how they develop all these characters and don’t seem to really short-change any of them (with the possible exception of Sean Connery’s Col. Arbuthnot, who is surprisingly absent for most of the movie). And even more impressive is just how entertaining everybody is.
But Albert Finney is the hands-down MVP of the movie, his Poirot walking the fine line between cartoon character and believable person. He definitely leans closer to cartoon character as I can’t believe a character as smart, smarmy and hilarious can exist on this Earth, but he fits right into this world, which is both elegant and almost fantasy-like in execution.
Lumet films the whole thing very foggy, giving an otherworldy look to the film, which is essentially a bunch of people talking for 2 plus hours. It’s a great idea to keep it from feeling locked down, play-like on a stage.
I won’t go into great detail on the plot because there really isn’t much that isn’t a big spoiler outside of what I already told you, but I will say that I love the set-up.
I love that the murderer/murderers/murderess had this planned and just by a stroke of bad luck Poirot ended up on the train, along side his good friend, the owner of the railroad, played by Martin Balsam. Hell, Poirot doesn’t even want to try to solve the murder when it happens, but Balsam eggs him on.
Balsam is hilarious in this, sitting in as Poirot interviews everybody on the train one by one and after every interrogation Balsam proclaims “He did it!” or “She did it!” just as sure he’s right after every bit of back story we uncover.
It’s funny because that’s just how these things work. Red herrings and misleading characters always have you guessing and re-guessing with every bit of new info.
The more we come to find out about the dead man, the more it sounds like he got what he deserved, which leads to a genuinely awesome ending and revelation from Poirot. It’s a great twist on the conventional formula and one that feels wholly earned.
Jacqueline Bisset is amazingly hot in the movie as a Countess, Anthony Perkins is at his stammering best as Widmark’s assistant, Gielgud is his Gielgudy self as Widmark’s butler, Ingrid Berman is old, but still gorgeous (I must admit harboring a huge crush on her from her CASABLANCA and GASLIGHT days – She won the Oscar for Supporting Actress for this role, by the way), Bacall is cold and upper-crust (a perfect combination for her), Connery is mean and loud and Widmark is dickish, as to be expected.
Final Thoughts: I found MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to a be a great showcase for superb actors, a fun playground to see a myriad of different personalities clash, creating often times fantastic sparks. Even with the stellar supporting cast filled with huge personalities, there are still none that can topple Albert Finney’s Oscar Nominated turn as Hercule Poirot. He seems to be having so much fun he’s essentially daring the audience not to enjoy themselves. Add on top of that some truly interesting visual filmmaking tricks by the great Sidney Lumet and you get an all-around winner. Also keep an eye out for the great hat-box trick (notice I added in the “box” to keep that from sounding dirty) that Poirot pulls off to pull a clue out of a burnt piece of paper… fucking awesome.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Thursday, November 13th: DANIEL (1983)
Friday, November 14th: EL DORADO (1967)
Saturday, November 15th: THE GAMBLER (1974)
Sunday, November 16th: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)
Monday, November 17th: SALVADOR (1986)
Tuesday, November 18th: BEST SELLER (1987)
Wednesday, November 19th: THE HOLCROT COVENANT (1985)
Looks like we’re swinging into the ‘80s for a little bit in the coming week. Some good lookin’ stuff in there. Can’t wait to dive into these upcoming titles! See you tomorrow for DANIEL, following director Sidney Lumet over to the 1983 drama starring Timothy Hutton, Ed Asner and Mandy Patinkin!