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.

Authority, Misandry, and Mixing: A Few Links to Start the Week

First, a nice Mark Steyn obit on Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston makes a salient point:

But, if you’re a feminist or a gay or any of the other house pets in the Democrat menagerie, you might want to look at Rahm Emanuel’s pirouette, and Menino’s coziness with Islamic homophobia. These guys are about power, and right now your cause happens to coincide with their political advantage. But political winds shift. Once upon a time, Massachusetts burned witches. Now it grills chicken-sandwich homophobes. One day it’ll be something else. Already in Europe, in previously gay-friendly cities like Amsterdam, demographically surging Muslim populations have muted leftie politicians’ commitment to gay rights, feminism, and much else. It’s easy to cheer on the thugs when they’re thuggish in your name. What happens when Emanuel’s political needs change?

Then, Reason’s Cathy Young continues her look at GamerGate:

GamerGate has been attacked over anti-feminist comments made by some of the movement’s sympathizers, such as provocative British tech blogger and writer Milo Yiannopoulos. But far less attention has been given to extreme views on the anti-GamerGate side. Take writer Samantha Allen, whose decision to stop writing about videogames, apparently because of GamerGate, has been lamented by Brianna Wu as the tragic loss of a valuable voice. (Update: Allen contacted me to say she gave up videogame writing because of a Twitter harassment campaign in June/July, several weeks before the existence of GamerGate as such, even though Wu’s Washington Post column names her as one of the women “lost” to GamerGate.) A few months ago, Allen posted(and later deleted) a diatribe  on her Tumblr blog that opened with this declaration:

i’m a misandrist. that means i hate men. i’m not a cute misandrist. i don’t have a fridge magnet that says, “boys are stupid, throw rocks at them.” my loathing cannot be contained by a fridge magnet.

(It’s all downhill from there.)

Meanwhile, at Slate (no, really), Reihan Salam makes the case for slowing immigration down:

So if we want the Mexican and Bangladeshi immigrants of our time to fare as well as the Italian and Polish immigrants of yesteryear, we need to do two things. First, we need to spend a considerable amount of money to upgrade their skills and those of their children, as the world has grown less kind to those who make a living by the sweat of their brow. Because public money is scarce, this is a good reason to limit the influx of people who will need this kind of expensive, extensive support to become full participants in American society. Second, we need to recognize that a continual stream of immigration tends to keep minority ethnic groups culturally isolated, which is yet another reason to slow things down. No, this won’t suddenly mean that poor immigrants will become rich, and that well-heeled insiders will stop hoarding opportunities. But it will give us the time we need to knit America’s newcomers into our national community.

What connects these? Salam and Steyn point out that immigration can move faster than a society can handle it, and that can and will disrupt society. Young adds to Steyn’s warning to the left a troubling note: for some, to disrupt the society that gave them birth and abundance is a feature, not a bug. That they expect to remain in power afterwards makes them no stupider than Robespierre.

Steyn on the Kimberlin/Walker Trial, and Judge Cecil Jeconiah Vaughey…

The more you read Vaughey’s conversation with Walker, the more random, the more insane, the more I-misplaced-my-geritol it becomes:

WALKER: He has no right to do that, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Well, he’s — you incited him.

WALKER: But, your honor, I did not incite him within the Brandenburg standard though.

THE COURT: Forget Bradenburg [sic]. Let’s go by Vaughey right now, and common sense out in the world. But you know, where I grew up in Brooklyn, when that stuff was pulled, it was settled real quickly.

WALKER: I’m not sure what that means, your honor.

THE COURT: –Very quickly. And I’m not going to talk about those ways, but boy, it ended fast. I even can tell you, when I grew up in my community, you wanted to date an Italian girl, you had to get the Italian boy’s permission. But that was the old neighborhoods back in the city. And it was really fair. When someone did something up there to you, your sister, your girlfriend, you got some friends to take them for a ride in the back of the truck.

Remember, this is a semi-retired administrative law judge who has no idea what relevant law is. He’s a dinosaur. So he can think of nothing more useful to do than rhapsodize about the old days in Brooklyn when you could get your ass beaten by a handful of neighborhood boys for dating someone’s sister.

Someone on the Maryland State Bar needs to inquire about this man’s status and qualifications.