Murder on the Orient Express and 1970’s Cinema

After Mark Steyn administers the appropriate thwacking to Branagh’s recent flop PC adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express – in which perhaps the worst crime is giving Poirot a preposterous walrus mustache – he moves on to speak glowingly of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version:

Oh, to be sure, Lumet’s Orient Express is of its time, and the color and lighting look a bit like a landlubbers’ season finale for “The Love Boat”, and you can’t help noticing in the crowd scenes that an awful lot of these 1930s railway porters seem to have 1970s haircuts. But Lumet was a superb director of actors, and a great organizer of material. He presents the backstory – a shocking murder years earlier halfway around the world – as a prologue, deftly compressing and clarifying perhaps the most structurally problematic part of the source material. By contrast, Branagh creates his own flat and self-indulgent prologue, set at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and featuring a priest, a rabbi and an imam, and then scrambles to fit in the actual Agatha Christie stuff. He also fails to conjure perhaps the most important character of all: the train. In 1974, Lumet hired the world’s greatest authority on locomotive sounds. The sound editor worked for six weeks on train noises only. At the start of the adventure, when the train pulls out of Istanbul, every bell, every whoosh of steam, every grind of wheels was completely authentic, right down to the barely audible click as the engine’s headlight goes on. And then the film’s composer Richard Rodney Bennett handed in his wonderful waltz theme for the scene, and Lumet knew that every single click and clank would be buried and inaudible. “We’ve heard a train leave the station,” he told the sound guy. “But we’ve never heard a train leave the station in three-quarter time.” The fellow walked out and Lumet never saw him again.

There was something of an undercurrent of pre-war nostalgia in the 1970’s. One needs only to look at Chinatown, or the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. For my part, I find the ’74 Gatsby decidedly inferior to Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation. Some people don’t like Luhrmann, but his Gatsby captures the frenzy of the Roaring 20’s in a way that the dreamily gauzy 70’s version cannot. By the same token, DiCaprio’s portrayal of the title character is naturally over the top, but he shows us the longing and the aspiration of Jay Gatsby, lives it and breathes it. Robert Redford gives us a Ken Doll in beautiful shirts.

This is the problem with nostalgia: it elegizes something dead. It’s so excited to revisit the past that it drowns itself. This is perhaps why I’ve never liked Grease – so thrilled it is at big cars and leather jackets that it doesn’t bother to have any but the most twiddling story as a vehicle for a series of bombastic songs. Lumet’s Orient Express suffers some of this as well. It’s hard to contain laughter at the opening credits.


The thought of anyone in the Thirties making something so lurid, so saturated ad nauseam completely tickles. The yellow and the pink silk and the faux-Deco chunky font just scream “70’s” at you. And the aforementioned train sequence smacks of excess as well; one can’t help wonder if we really need that much time devoted to a shot that tells us the Train Left The Station.

And yet. The prologue Steyn mentions above is not just deft but chilling, an almost hypnotic nightmare version of home invasion and child kidnapping in which the faces of the victims are seen but not the culprits. The mechanics of Christie’s story are faithfully moved from page to screen. And the performances are indeed a treat. Bergman is so good you forget that it’s Bergman. Gielgud as the Butler is a treasure. As Mrs. Hubbard, Bacall is always Bacall, but she’s a hoot. My favorite may be Anthony Perkins as Hector MacQueen. In the book, McQueen stands out the least among the suspects – he’s the American, and not much else. Perkins gives us a man who is polite and professional but mutters in inchoate rage when he thinks no one is looking. Not exactly a surprise for those familiar with Psycho, but it works.

It’s a long movie, but it’s a detailed mystery, so taking your time is the way to go. Currently Lumet’s Murder on The Orient Express is available for free on Amazon Prime Video. Pour yourself a glass of sherry and give it a watch.


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