Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet, 1974) There's a new version of Agatha Christie's "bottle mystery"* coming at the end of the year (directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh). I'm not sure why it's necessary as it was remade in an excellent version of the British television series featuring David Suchet in his long-running portrayal (24 years) of Christie's eccentric Belgian detective with the extremely effective "little grey cells." 

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?

Why, pull everybody into the dining car and start a spirited game of musical murder motives that touches on every single passenger sweating in the dining car, intercut with highlights from the interviews that Lumet now has in one of his more obvious tropes—the flash-backs now occur in his trademark wide-angle lens close-up's distorting the faces into disturbing emphasis****—as if the cut-aways themselves weren't enough to make us pay attention to them. If you watch enough Lumet, you can tell when he wants you to really notice something—by bending the world into unfamiliarity. It's as subtle as being hit with a hammer.

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.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: Broadcast News

The Set-Up:  When he's "on," you can't beat James L. Brooks. Well conceptualized, researched and cast, Brooks in tip form makes extraordinary, even definitive, films that make good story-telling look easy. His only short-falls seem to be in a somewhat unimaginative (let's call it "functional") director's "eye," and the perfectionist's need to "futz" with the material, risking ruining it, like a bad pull in Jenga.

But there are moments—and they are moments—when he nails it right to the wall, where the set-up is simple, even innocuous, and the pay-off is so perfect it makes your head hurt.

This one—from Broadcast News—is one of them. Jane (Holly Hunter) is a mess, a jangling bundle of nerves and nerviness. A little spit-fire, who achieves a sense of calm in a meditative state that collapses in an instantaneous and cathartic crying jag. An explosive burst of (what? Conscience? Empathy? Weltschmerz? Cramps?) that nicely compartmentalizes emotion and stress that is then filed away—spiked—then forgotten. -30-

Throughout the film she is stuck in a quandary that tears her apart, personally and professionally. Two guys—Aaron (Albert Brooks), the schlumpy reporter whose skills she admires and whose neuroses she tolerates, and Tom (William Hurt), the ambitious, if intellectually dull, golden boy anchor-type. This moment of confrontation with the head of the news division has her caught in the middle: Aaron, who's the better man for the job, has been shunted aside for Tom during a special report to interrupt programming. She is incensed at the decision and pleads (although "pleads" is not the word) her case in the direct and efficient way she is used to. The result reveals a crack in her professional armor. And couldn't be more perfect.

The Story: At a casual Sunday get-together for the Washington Bureau, the report has just come in that a Libyan plane has just attacked a military installation and been shot down by an American war plane. The News president Paul Moore (real life NBC reporter Peter Hackes) has just ordered a special news bulletin, hastily assembled with Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) executive producing and (as News anchor Bill Rorich—Jack Nicholson—is on his boat for the weekend) Tom Grunick (William Hurt) anchoring, over Jane's best friend and frequent collaborator Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks). Determined that this is the wrong move, she seeks out the executive to plead her case.

Action! (in 3....2....*)


As she moves past Tom who is talking on the phone, eventually catching up with Paul. In the b.g. Tom has just HEARD the "BEEP" of an ANSWERING MACHINE.  

TOM Hello, Buddy. It's 1:35 -- and this is Tom. 

TOM You can reach me at the office. It's important. I can use a little help.

Jane, because of the proximity to Tom is speaking in whispered intensity.

JANE: Paul, forgive me.  Pardon me for interrupting...

JANE:  But...Paul...

JANE: ...I need to talk to you outside for just a minute.

Paul nods.

JANE: Great!
JANE Tom isn't ready for the job you're about to hand him. Not near ready. Not by the longest shot. 

JANE Aaron's spent six weeks in Tripoli... 

JANE ...he's interviewed Gaddafi -- he reported on the Eight-one story. I think he's essential to do the job we're capable of and I think it's my responsibility to tell you that.

PAUL Okay, that's your opinion. I don't agree. 

JANE It's not opinion. 

PAUL You're just absolutely right and I'm absolutely wrong?

She nods. 

PAUL It must be nice to always believe you know better. To think you're always the smartest person in the room. 

JANE (from her depths) No, it's awful. Oh my, it's awful. 

JANE PAUL (turning to leave) You'd better get moving. 

Broadcast News 

Words by James L. Brooks 

Pictures by Michael Ballhaus and James L. Brooks 

Broadcast News is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.