ⓘ Murder on the Orient Express (1974 film)

Murder on the Orient Express (1974 film)

ⓘ Murder on the Orient Express (1974 film)

Murder on the Orient Express is a 1974 British mystery film directed by Sidney Lumet, produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin, and based on the 1934 novel of the same name by Agatha Christie.

The film features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot Albert Finney, who is asked to investigate the murder of an American business tycoon aboard the Orient Express train. The suspects are portrayed by an all-star cast, including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins and Wendy Hiller. The screenplay is by Paul Dehn as well as an uncredited Anthony Shaffer.

The film was a commercial and critical success. It received six nominations at the 47th Academy Awards: Best Actor Finney, Best Supporting Actress Bergman, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. Of these nominations, Bergman was the only winner.


1. Plot

In December 1935, Hercule Poirot is traveling aboard the Orient Express, encountering his friend Signor Bianchi, a director of the company which owns the line. The other passengers traveling in Poirot and Bianchis coach are: American widow Harriet Hubbard; American businessman Samuel Ratchett, with his English manservant Edward Beddoes and secretary/translator Hector McQueen; elderly Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff and her German maid Hildegarde Schmidt; Hungarian diplomat Count Rudolf Andrenyi and his wife Elena; British Indian Army officer Colonel John Arbuthnot; Mary Debenham, a teacher; Greta Ohlsson, a Swedish missionary; Italian-American car salesman Antonio Foscarelli; and Cyrus Hardman, an American theatrical agent.

The morning after the trains departure from Istanbul, Ratchett tries to secure Poirots services as a bodyguard for $15.000, as he has received death threats, but Poirot has no interest. That night, Bianchi lets Poirot use his compartment as he goes to sleep in another coach. During the journey, the train is stopped in heavy snows in Yugoslavia.

The next morning, Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his cabin. Bianchi entreats Poirot to solve the case. They enlist the help of Stavros Constantine, a Greek medical doctor who was travelling in the other coach.

Dr. Constantine finds Ratchett was stabbed 12 times, though some wounds were slight. Poirots reconstructed timeline of passenger activities the night before indicate that Ratchett was murdered at about 1:15 a.m. The doors to the other cars were locked, so the murderer is likely one of the passengers in Poirots coach, or its French conductor, Pierre Michel.

Found at the crime scene is a fragment of a burned letter. Examining the letter, Poirot discovers that Ratchett was actually Lanfranco Cassetti, a gangster who five years earlier planned the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong, infant daughter of British Army Colonel Hamish Armstrong and his American wife Sonia. Overcome with grief, the pregnant Mrs. Armstrong went into premature labour and died giving birth to a stillborn baby. A French maidservant named Paulette, suspected of complicity in the kidnapping, committed suicide, only to be found innocent later. Colonel Armstrong, consumed by these tragedies, committed suicide. Cassetti betrayed his partner by fleeing the country with the ransom, and was only revealed to be involved on the eve of his partners execution.

Several clues are quickly discovered suggesting that an assassin boarded the train during the night while it was stuck in the snowdrift, murdered Cassetti and then left the train. Mrs. Hubbard reports that she detected the presence of a man in her bed. Then, a button from a sleeping car conductors uniform is discovered. Pierre confirms that he is not missing any buttons from his uniform. Later, an entire conductors uniform is discovered that does not fit Pierre and is missing a button. In the uniforms pocket is a conductors pass key. Finally, Mrs. Hubbard discovers a bloody dagger. Dr. Constantine confirms that it could have inflicted all the wounds found on Cassettis body. Poirot later agrees with Foscarelli that the assassin was likely a member of a rival Mafia gang, exacting vengeance as part of a Mafia feud.

As these clues are being discovered, Poirot begins interviewing the passengers. He learns that: McQueen was the son of the District Attorney who prosecuted the case and was very fond of Mrs. Armstrong; Beddoes had been a British Army batman; Countess Andrenyi is of German descent and her maiden name is Grunwald; Greta Ohlsson has a limited knowledge of the English language and has been to America; Pierre Michels daughter died five years earlier of scarlet fever; Col. Arbuthnot, who displays a knowledge of Armstrongs military decorations, plans to wed Mary Debenham. When Poirot interviews Princess Dragomiroff he discovers she is a great friend of Linda Arden, Mrs. Armstrongs mother; the Princess was Sonias godmother. He learns that the Armstrongs had a butler, a secretary, a cook, a chauffeur and a nursemaid to Daisy. Poirot flatters Hildegarde Schmidt by saying he knows a good cook when he sees one, and she responds to his request for a photo of the maid Paulette, with whom Miss Schmidt was friendly. Foscarelli vehemently denies ever having been in private service as a chauffeur. Hardman reveals he is, in fact, a Pinkerton detective hired to guard Cassetti. When shown the photo of Paulette, Hardman breaks down and reveals he knew her.

Poirot gathers the suspects together, stating he has formulated two possible scenarios. The first, his simple solution, is the one suggesting that Cassettis murder was the result of a Mafia feud. The second, his complex solution, links all the suspects on the coach to the Armstrong case. In addition to the earlier self-incriminating revelations by Hardman, McQueen, Miss Schmidt and the Princess, the Princess had incriminated three others: when asked Mrs Armstrongs maiden name, she replied "Greenwood", the English for "Grunwald", allowing Poirot to deduce that Countess Elena was Mrs Armstrongs sister, and Count Andrenyi her brother-in-law; the Princess also claimed the secretarys name was "Miss Freebody", so Poirot deduced the secretary was in fact Mary Debenham as in the London department store Debenham and Freebody. Poirot then presents the motives of the other suspects: Pierre was Paulettes father; Beddoes was Colonel Armstrongs army batman and the family butler; Miss Ohlsson was Daisys nursemaid having inadvertently shown an understanding of complex English words; Col. Arbuthnot was a close army friend of Armstrongs; Foscarelli was the Armstrongs private chauffeur; Hardman was a police officer in love with Paulette and Mrs Hubbard is Linda Arden, Mrs Armstrongs mother. McQueen had drugged Cassetti so each of the passengers could stab him – with the Andrenyis stabbing Cassetti together, totaling 12 stab wounds. The noises which disturbed Poirots sleep were contrived to obfuscate the time of death.

Poirot asks Bianchi to choose one of the two solutions to present to the police once the train is freed from the snowdrift. He admits that the Yugoslavian police will likely prefer the simple solution. Bianchi decides that Cassetti deserved to die, and elects the simple solution. Poirot agrees, admitting he will struggle with his conscience when he gives his report to the police. The passengers celebrate with champagne as the train is freed of the snow and resumes its journey.


2.1. Production Development

Agatha Christie had been quite displeased with some film adaptations of her works made in the 1960s, and accordingly was unwilling to sell any more film rights. When Nat Cohen, chairman of EMI Films, and producer John Brabourne attempted to get her approval for this film, they felt it necessary to have Lord Mountbatten of Burma of the British royal family and also Brabournes father-in-law help them broach the subject. In the end, according to Christies husband Max Mallowan, "Agatha herself has always been allergic to the adaptation of her books by the cinema, but was persuaded to give a rather grudging appreciation to this one."

According to one report, Christie gave approval because she liked the previous films of the producers, Romeo and Juliet and Tales of Beatrix Potter.


2.2. Production Casting

Christies biographer Gwen Robyns quoted her as saying, "It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England - and he didnt in the film. I thought that a pity - why shouldnt he?"

Cast members eagerly accepted upon first being approached. Lumet went to Sean Connery first, saying that if you get the biggest star, the rest will come along. Bergman was initially offered the role of Princess Dragomiroff, but instead requested to play Greta Ohlsson. Lumet said:

She had chosen a very small part, and I couldnt persuade her to change her mind. She was sweetly stubborn. But stubborn she was. Since her part was so small, I decided to film her one big scene, where she talks for almost five minutes, straight, all in one long take. A lot of actresses would have hesitated over that. She loved the idea and made the most of it. She ran the gamut of emotions. Ive never seen anything like it.

The entire budget was provided by EMI. The cost of the cast came to ₤554.100.


2.3. Production Filming

Unsworth shot the film in Panavision. Interiors were filmed at Elstree Studios. Exterior shooting was mostly done in France in 1973, with a railroad workshop near Paris standing in for Istanbul station. The scenes of the train proceeding through central Europe were filmed in the Jura Mountains on the then-recently closed railway line from Pontarlier to Gilley, with the scenes of the train stuck in snow being filmed in a cutting near Montbenoit. There were concerns about a lack of snow in the weeks preceding the scheduled shooting of the snowbound train, and plans were made to truck in large quantities of snow at considerable expense. However, heavy snowfall the night before the shooting made the extra snow unnecessary - just as well, as the snow-laden backup trucks had themselves become stuck in the snow.


2.4. Production Music

Richard Rodney Bennetts Orient Express theme has been reworked into an orchestral suite and performed and recorded several times. It was performed on the original soundtrack album by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden under Marcus Dods. The piano soloist was the composer himself.


3.1. Reception Box office

Murder on the Orient Express was released theatrically in the UK on 24 November 1974. The film was a success at the box office, given its tight budget of $1.4 million, earning $36 million in North America, making it the 11th highest-grossing film of 1974. Nat Cohen claimed it was the first film completely financed by a British company to make the top of the weekly US box office charts in Variety.


3.2. Reception Critical response

The film received positive reviews upon release and currently holds an 89% "Fresh" rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes from 35 reviews with an average rating of 7.74/10. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, writing that the film "provides a good time, high style, a loving salute to an earlier period of filmmaking". The New York Times s chief critic of the era, Vincent Canby, wrote:

had Dame Agatha Christies Murder on the Orient Express been made into a movie 40 years ago when it was published here as Murder on the Calais Coach, it would have been photographed in black-and-white on a back lot in Burbank or Culver City, with one or two stars and a dozen character actors and studio contract players. Its running time would have been around 67 minutes and it could have been a very respectable B-picture. Murder on the Orient Express wasnt made into a movie 40 years ago, and after you see the Sidney Lumet production that opened yesterday at the Coronet, you may be both surprised and glad it wasnt. An earlier adaptation could have interfered with plans to produce this terrifically entertaining super-valentine to a kind of whodunit that may well be one of the last fixed points in our inflationary universe.

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