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Murder on the Orient Express (1974)


Main image of Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
35mm, colour, 128 mins
Directed bySidney Lumet
Production Co'sEMI Films, G.W.Films
ProducersJohn Brabourne, Richard Goodwin
ScreenplayPaul Dehn
Original novelAgatha Christie
CinematographyGeoffrey Unsworth
MusicRichard Rodney Bennett

Albert Finney (Hercule Poirot); Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Harriet Belinda Hubbard); Ingrid Bergman (Greta Ohlsson); Jacqueline Bisset (Countess Andrenyi); Sean Connery (Colonel Arbuthnot); John Gielgud (Mr. Beddoes); Wendy Hiller (Princess Dragomiroff); Anthony Perkins (Hector MacQueen); Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Debenham); Rachel Roberts (Hildegarde Schmidt); Richard Widmark (Ratchett/Cassetti); Michael York (Count Andrenyi)

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When a man is murdered on the Orient Express, fellow passenger Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, is asked to solve the case.

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From its opening satin-backed Art Deco titles, this star-studded adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel aims for the peaks of glamour and sophistication. Director Sidney Lumet achieves a droll humour and lightness of tone, while the production design helps build an atmosphere of hazy nostalgia, with sumptuous costumes and a loving reconstruction of the luxurious Wagon-Lit train cars. Lumet, considered an 'actors' director', makes the most of his illustrious performers, especially Albert Finney, heavily disguised under layers of make-up, a false nose, padded cheeks and moustache, who nevertheless plays Christie's Belgian detective with an aggressive energy.

While Christie often leaves supporting characters somewhat undeveloped in her novels - since the need to maintain mystery prevents disclosure - Lumet tends to favour character revelation and psychological insight in his films. In Murder on the Orient Express, Lumet, with scriptwriter Paul Dehn, attempts to flesh out the characters, providing more defined motives for the suspects and more substantial roles for his cast. There are real gems of casting: Anthony Perkins as a mother-fixated psychotic is a marvellous stroke - drawing on his most famous role in Hitchcock's Psycho (US, 1960) - while Ingrid Bergman won Best Supporting Actress (the only winner among the film's six Oscar nominations) for her portrayal of nervous Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson.

A drawback to Lumet's concern for motivation is that some surprises are inevitably lost. It is revealed from the start, for instance, that the Armstrong case is crucial to proceedings. The wonderfully constructed opening montage sequence, consisting of flashback action coupled with newspaper headlines and photographs, emphasises the centrality of Daisy's kidnapping to the plot.

The strength of the film lies in its cast, and in Lumet's ability to create a surprisingly cinematic work from the limitations of text and confines of setting. The director was particularly proud of the shot of the train leaving the station, accompanied by Richard Rodney Bennett's famous music, which mirrors the sounds of a moving train. Dame Agatha was disappointed with many of the attempts to translate her stories to the screen, but having been invited to view a rough cut of Lumet's version, she reported herself delighted. The films' backers also had much to celebrate, as the production became one of British cinema's greatest financial successes.

David Morrison

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Video Clips
1. All aboard (3:23)
2. The murder (1:23)
3. A complex solution (5:13)
Production stills
Rome Express (1932)
Bisset, Jacqueline (1944-)
Blakely, Colin (1930-1987)
Coates, Anne V. (1925-)
Connery, Sean (1930-)
Finney, Albert (1936-)
Gielgud, John (1904-2000)
Hiller, Wendy (1912-2003)
Redgrave, Vanessa (1937-)
Roberts, Rachel (1927-1980)
Shaffer, Anthony (1926-2001)
Unsworth, Geoffrey (1914-1978)
York, Michael (1942-)
The Romance of Steam
Agatha Christie on Television