CANON OF FILM: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1974)

Murder On the Orient Express

In this week’s edition of CANON OF FILM, we take a look Sidney Lumet‘s hypnotic ‘Murder on the Orient Express‘ just in time for the release of Kenneth Branagh‘s remake of the same name. For the story behind the genesis of the Canon, you can click here.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Screenplay: Paul Dehn based on the novel by Agatha Christie (uncredited)

Strangely, the detective story is actually a fairly newer genre when compared to others, in terms of literary history, it is, and the inventor of the genre is not who you’d think it’d be either, it was Edgar Allen Poe, with  his trilogy of C. Auguste Dupin stories, ‘The Murder of the Rue Morgue‘, ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget,’ and my favorite, ‘The Purloined Letter‘ back in the 1840s. I’m not sure why this genre didn’t pick up until then, but it helps that the genre’s so young. The Whodunit has basically been a prime genre of films and all other literature ever since. The most famous character in the genre, is of course Sherlock Holmes, however, I think a pretty strong argument can be made that the second most well-known is Agatha Christie‘s Hercule Poirot (Oscar-nominee Albert Finney, one of nearly a dozen people to have or will play Poirot, my favorite is David Suchet, but Finney’s definitely a great one). Agatha Christie had two great detectives, of course, but I’ve never much cared for Miss Marple. Poirot has always been a bit of an enigma but a fascinating one.

Murder On the Orient ExpressStill however, like most great detective and stories, especially long-lasting ones that span decades of original material much less “based on” material that takes the character and creates a new mystery to give him, it’s easy to get a bit lost trying to organize his stories. For all-intensive purposes, they are the same, somebody’s murdered, there’s a lot of suspects, but only Poirot can see the clues and figure out who the real murderer is. It’s essentially the same with the most famous Poirot tale, ‘Murder on the Orient Express‘, except it’s not quite the same.

When I first made a note to do an entry for ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ but I had completely forgotten that Sidney Lumet directed it. That’s the kind of director Lumet is, he does so many different kinds of films, that we sometimes don’t even realize he’s involved in them. This is his range of work: ‘12 Angry Men,’ ‘A Long Day’s Journey Into Night‘, ‘The Pawnbroker,’ ‘Fail-Safe,’ ‘Child’s Play,’ ‘Serpico,’ ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ ‘Network,’ ‘The Wiz,’ ‘Prince of the City,’ ‘The Verdict,’ ‘Running on Empty,’ ‘Q & A,’ and at age 82 he directed Vin Diesel in a Mafia comedy, ‘Find Me Guilty.’ and maybe his most experimental film, he made a couple years after that with ‘Before the Devil Knows Your Dead‘. Except for a partiality towards courtroom material, and a love of New York City that ranks somewhere between Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, his films have almost nothing in common. He was once even supposed to direct ‘Malcolm X,’ before Spike Lee convinced him that a black man should direct a film on his life. His name doesn’t get mentioned often enough as a great director, which is why I’m highlighting him a bit. Also because like many of his films, ‘Murder on the Orient Express‘ feels like it could’ve been directed by almost anybody, like one of those journeymen that directs an episode of ‘Columbo.’ Of course, I say that, and then I remember that the first episode of ‘Columbo‘ was directed by Steven Spielberg, so maybe they aren’t that easy, and those should probably be looked at and analyzed more closely than we do now.

Murder On the Orient ExpressActually, before I got hounded by older family members who couldn’t remember the endings to the ‘Law & Order‘s and ‘Matlock‘ episodes they had literally already watched, several times before, including earlier that day, I was, and to some extent still am actually partial to whodunit mysteries. You know, the kind where the characters seem to be clichés of rich people with names that sound like characters in a game of “Clue.” What makes these great is not the crime, but the detective solving them. Poirot is one of my favorites. He is a weird contradiction as exceptionally flamboyant and introverted. If you read the novels of him, he would often solve a crime never leaving the house and having his assistant go interview and relay info. He’s somewhat of a direct inspiration for “Monk.” That he was on a train at all, is kind of interesting.

Ah yes, The (actual) Orient Express, traveling from, Paris to Istanbul, was, almost as mythical as the actual story behind ‘Murder on the Orient Express‘ it it was considered the premiere luxury train route at the time, and some variation on it, ran until the 21st Century when high-speed rail took over. Of course, what’s particularly intriguing about it for Ms. Christie and Mr. Lumet, is that it’s a great place, for a locked-in mystery. Characters arrive somewhere, someone gets killed, and then, they’re stuck there, until the murder is solved. I presumed Usually the location is some elaborate British summer mansion, but a train works just as well, especially when it gets stuck in the snow. Lumet, did like to make movies that stayed in one location, more stage-like in their presentation, something he picked up both from television, and being inspired by the Yiddish theater circuit in his youth. (One of his more famous TV productions was a 1960 stage performance of Sholom Ansky’s “The Dybbuk”.) Much less with a cast of acting talent like this to have on board.

Then of course, there’s a murder and an investigation and finally all the characters brought together in a room,… no, no, ain’t no way in hell I’m telling you the ending, whether you’ve read the book or not. This is one of the few endings to these things that’s still exciting to watch on multiple viewings and if I tell you why, I’d be giving something away, so just trust me on this,, and I’m positive that when Kenneth Branagh’s new remake comes out next week–the fourth filmed remake of the movie in my lifetime by my count of calculations, including two TV movies, and a Japanese remake, just last year– it will live up to this standard. I’m actually surprised, this, Agatha Christie’s most famous work hasn’t been remade more often, it’s not like there’s a lack of Agatha Christie adaptations out there, and it’s easily one of her top three most famous works, you’d think it would’ve been tackled more often but maybe until recently, some thought it’d be too easy to remake ‘Murder on the Orient Express‘. Or too difficult perhaps….

Other than maybe Billy Wilder‘s ‘Witness for the Prosecution‘, Lumet’s film is easily the best Agatha Christie adaptation so far. (And ‘Witness for the Prosecution‘ was only a short story that Wilder added a lot to and improved greatly in the film, so I’m not even sure I’d count that as an adaptation.) The film earned six Oscar nominations, and won Ingrid Bergman her third Oscar for Supporting Actress, and even she isn’t sure how she won that one. The performances are great, but what’s more important is the list of names involved in it. Yeah, that cliche about, how it’s always the biggest star who did it, kinda gets shot in the foot when every suspect is played by a star.

Or is it…..?

Murder On the Orient Express

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