We'll discuss that very interesting version a little later. For now, we'll turn our attention to the all-star version produced by EMI and distributed in the U.S. by Paramount, with Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. Producers John Brabourne and Richard B. Goodwin wanted to "pull out all the stops" on the production just to get the film rights from Dame Christie, who was still alive at the time and had expressed that, after the Miss Marple movies of the 1960's starring Margaret Rutherford, she was "allergic" to filmed adaptations and clutched her film-rights to her like a precious jade statue. The two producers enlisted Brabourne's father-in-law, Lord Mountbatten, to reassure Christie of the producers' elevated intentions and she gave her guarded approval.**
Sidney Lumet was hired to direct—he was acknowledged to be a "tasteful" director, one who could supervise good performances out of most actors, and he'd recently had success with Serpico—and he began the process of casting, first hiring Sean Connery (with whom he'd worked often and whom Connery had hand-picked for movies he had some creative control over) in order to attract other A-listers, who, with Connery's presence, flocked like seagulls. Lumet had fond memories of making Orient—he centers most of the anecdotes in his book "Making Movies" around that production and how smooth it was. Lumet focused on "elegance" hiring cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, production and costume designer Tony Walton, and to touch up Paul Dehn's script, playwright Anthony Schaffer—who went uncredited.
There are some movies that can only be described as a "souffle" and Murder on the Orient Express is one of those. Hercule Poirot (Finney) must catch the Orient Express at the last minute, but his conductor-friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam) manages to find a room for him in coach when a Mr. Harris fails to appear. Because the Express is unusually crowded for the time of year, Poirot is grateful for the consideration and settles in for a pleasant trip. The passengers are a mix of the rich—the Princess Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller), the Count and Countess Andrenyi (Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset)—the nouveu riche—actress Harriett Belinda Hubbard (Lauren Bacall) and Col. John Arbuthnot (Connery)—and the humble—missionary Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), governess Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave) and servants McQueen (Anthony Perkins) and Beddoes (John Gielgud),*** in the employ of an uncouth American businessman Samuel Rathcett (Richard Widmark).
Ratchett strong-arms Poirot into dinner to ask for his protection—he believes his life to be in danger and that he might be murdered on the train. As Poirot happenstantially is in the room next to his, the detective thinks it highly unlikely, and retires to his cabin, where he has a restless night punctuated by a scream, Mrs. Hubbard complaining about a stranger in her room, and a mysterious woman in a red kimono. Oh yeah, and the train has come to a stop due to an impassable snow-drift.
It turns out Ratchett is not only uncouth, but rather psychic, as well. In the morning, he is discovered in his locked and chained compartment—the window open—dead from multiple stab-wounds, by his servant Beddoes and secretary McQueen. Now, I'm no detective, but I've seen lots of movies, so seeing as how the secretary is played by Anthony Perkins and the victim died of multiple stab-rooms, it makes him the most likely cinematic culprit—especially given the mysterious woman in the red kimono.
Clues start to appear that Poirot tracks like a pig hunting truffles. He interviews all the passengers on the train, who react in varying degrees between timidity and righteous indignation and the train's kitchen seems to be having a run of red herring. What's an Agatha Christie detective to do?
Murder on the Orient Express is unique in the Christie mysteries—the detective comes up with two possible solutions to the murder and must decide which of the alternatives to present to the authorities. It is a case of literally choosing the lesser of two evils—now, that would have been a hell of a title—and Poirot must weigh the consequences of the morality of his choice—one of the few instances where Poirot feels himself morally compromised and must live with his conscience for his choices. The only other time that happened was his last case, "Curtain."
But, not so much here. Lumet and Dehn and Schaffer are having such a grand ol' time, such moral ambiguity never comes up, only a sense of self-satisfaction in an extended curtain call of sorts (Vanessa Redgrave even winks sassily!) all to a frothy, jaunty Richard Rodney Bennett score that sound like it would be a good accompaniment to a Victorian ferris wheel.
And that's the problem. Lumet's first choice as a composer was one of the great film-music masters, Bernard Herrmann. Lumet expressed interest in him creating something fun and opulent after Herrmann screened the film and Herrmann became apoplectic. "That train," he roared "is a train of DEATH!"
And just so. It doesn't matter how much you gussy up a corpse, it's still rotten. Herrmann, who had scored many a murder—and much passion—in his career (and who would close out his career, and life, scoring Taxi Driver) could not and would not put music celebrating getting away with murder. But, Lumet, who excelled at details but could miscalculate spectacularly in The Big Picture, just didn't see it. He—and the producers—wanted an all-star romp. And that's just wrong. Evil, even under the guise of self-righteousness, even when practiced in the most opulent of board-rooms and Presidential Suites, is not a parlour game. It is what makes Christie's work—emanating from such a source as she—is so perverse.
I much prefer the 2010 ITV production starring David Suchet as Poirot, which is darker, grittier, and less concerned with glitz and star power—despite a meticulous production design and a cast that includes Eileen Atkins, Barbara Hershey, Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Chastain, David Morrissey and Toby Jones. In a darkened Orient Express—power has gone out on the snow-trapped train—the suspects huddle in the dark and tensions are high. It is also mentioned (with Christie's inherent class-prejudice) that such a polyglot of like-minded people could only emanate in the melting pot of America. Suchet's Poirot is far more conflicted, and the last shot is of the detective walking away from the scene of the crime, his eyes tearing from the cold, maybe, but probably for the same reason he clutches a rosary in the fervent hope of forgiveness.
So, again...Kenneth Branagh is doing a new version to be released in November of this year, and one can only speculate where it falls on the morality question, as it is written by Michael Green who's had a hand in the scripts for Green Lantern, Logan, Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049. It's hard to say, but it will probably depend on whether it's written by one hand...or by committee.
* "Bottle mystery" because the setting is restricted to the train—the many suspects contained in a single space from which they cannot escape, the fabled Orient Express. Christie's story was published in the U.S. under the title "Murder in the Calais Coach" to avoid confusion with a Graham Greene book that, itself, had its title changed for the American market.
** She quite enjoyed the film with one caveat—as much as she enjoyed Finney as Poirot, she didn't like his mustache.
*** There are also character actors Colin Blakely, Rachel Roberts, Denis Quilley, and George Coulouris (of The Mercury Theater). As the jokes goes: "Any names?"
**** Examples of Lumet's technique—initial and flashback: Wendy Hiller and Sean Connery.