There’s been a murder on the Orient Express!
In the middle of the night, a shady American businessman (Richard Widmark) was stabbed to death. Now, with the train momentarily stalled due to a blizzard, its up to the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), to solve the crime. With only hours to go before the snow is cleared off the tracks and the case is handed over to the local authorities, Hercule must work with Bianchi (Martin Balsam) and Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris) to figure out who among the all-star cast is a murderer.
Is it the neurotic missionary played by Ingrid Bergman? Is it the diplomat played by Michael York or his wife, played by Jacqueline Bisset? Is it the military man played by Sean Connery? How about Anthony Perkins or John Gielgud? Maybe it’s Lauren Bacall or could it be Wendy Hiller or Rachel Roberts or even Vanessa Redgrave? Who could it be and how are they linked to a previous kidnapping, one that led to the murder of an infant and the subsequent death of everyone else in the household?
Well, the obvious answer, of course, is that it had to be Sean Connery, right? I mean, we’ve all seen From Russia With Love. We know what that man is capable of doing on a train. Or what about Dr. No? Connery shot a man in cold blood in that one and then he smirked about it. Now, obviously, Connery was playing James Bond in those films but still, from the minute we see him in Murder on the Orient Express, we know that he’s a potential killer. At the height of his career, Connery had the look of a killer. A sexy killer, but a killer nonetheless….
Actually, the solution to the mystery is a bit more complicated but you already knew that. One of the more challenging things about watching the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express is that, in all probability, the viewer will already know how the victim came to be dead. As convoluted as the plot may be, the solution is also famous enough that even those who haven’t seen the 1974 film, the remake, or read Agatha Christie’s original novel will probably already know what Poirot is going to discover.
That was something that director Sidney Lumet obviously understood. Hence, instead of focusing on the mystery, he focuses on the performers. His version of Murder on the Orient Express is full of character actors who, along with being talented, were also theatrical in the best possible way. The film is essentially a series of monologues, with each actor getting a few minutes to show off before Poirot stepped up to explain what had happened. None of the performances are exactly subtle but it doesn’t matter because everyone appears to be having a good time. (Finney, in particular, seems to fall in love with his occasionally indecipherable accent.) Any film that has Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, and Albert Finney all acting up a storm is going to be entertaining to watch.
Though it’s been a bit overshadowed by the Kenneth Branagh version, the original Murder on the Orient Express holds up well. I have to admit that Sidney Lumet always seems like he would have been a bit of an odd choice to direct this film. I mean, just consider that he made this film in-between directing Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. However, Lumet pulls it off, largely by staying out of the way of his amazing cast and letting them act up a storm. It looks like it was a fun movie to shoot. It’s certainly a fun movie to watch, even if we do already know the solution.