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 B. 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 commercially and critically well-received, as well as receiving 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.

Murder on the Orient Express Plot

In December 1935, Hercule Poirot is returning to England aboard the Orient Express, encountering his friend Signor Bianchi, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which owns the line. Aside from Poirot, the other passengers travelling on the Calais coach are: Mrs. Harriet Hubbard, a fussy, talkative, multiple-widowed American; enigmatic American businessman Samuel Ratchett, his secretary and translator Hector McQueen and English manservant Beddoes; elderly Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff and her German maid Hildegarde Schmidt; Hungarian diplomat Count Rudolf Andrenyi and his wife Elena; British Indian Army officer Col. John Arbuthnott; Mary Debenham, a teacher of English in Baghdad; Greta Ohlsson, a timid Swedish missionary to Africa on a fund-raising trip; Italian-American car salesman Antonio Foscarelli; and Cyrus B. Hardman, an American theatrical agent.

The morning after the train's departure from Istanbul, Ratchett tries to secure Poirot's services for $15,000 since he has received many death threats, but Poirot finds the case of little interest and turns it down. That night the train is caught in heavy snows en route through Yugoslavia. Poirot is disturbed numerous times during the night. The next morning Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his cabin. Poirot and Bianchi work together to solve the case. They enlist the help of Dr. Constantine, a Greek medical doctor who was travelling in another coach with Bianchi as the only other passenger and thus is not a suspect. Pierre Michel, the French conductor of the car, also assists the investigation, as well as being a suspect.

Dr. Constantine's examination reveals Ratchett was stabbed 12 times. Some wounds were slight, but at least three of them could have resulted in death. The stopped watch in the victim's pocket, as well as Poirot's reconstructed timeline of passenger activities the night before, indicate that Ratchett was murdered at about 1:15 a.m. The train had stopped, surrounded by fresh snow, before then. There are no tracks in the snow and the doors to the other cars were locked, so the murderer is almost certainly still among the Calais passengers. Also discovered at the scene of the crime are a pipe-cleaner, a woman's handkerchief with the initial "H" and a fragment of a burned letter. Upon examining the letter, Poirot discovers that Ratchett's real name was Cassetti, a Mafia gangster who five years before carried out the kidnapping and killing of Daisy Armstrong, the infant daughter of wealthy British Army Colonel Hamish Armstrong who had settled in Long Island, New York with his American wife Sonia. Overcome with grief, the pregnant Mrs. Armstrong went into labour early and died while giving birth to a stillborn baby. A French maidservant named Paulette, wrongly suspected of complicity in the kidnapping, committed suicide, only to be found innocent later. Colonel Armstrong, consumed by these tragedies, later killed himself as well. Cassetti betrayed his partner, leaving him to be executed while he fled the country with the ransom, as he was only revealed to be the leader of the kidnapping plot on the eve of the execution.

Poirot, Constantine and Bianchi begin their interrogation of the passengers. They learn that: McQueen was the son of the District Attorney who prosecuted the case and was very fond of Mrs. Armstrong; Beddoes was, before going into service, 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 but has spent some time in America fund-raising; Pierre Michel's daughter died five years earlier of scarlet fever; Col. Arbuthnott is going through a divorce and intends to marry Mary Debenham as soon as proceedings are over. Arbuthnott also displays an extensive knowledge of Armstrong's military decorations. When Poirot interviews Princess Dragomiroff he discovers she is a great friend of the now-bedridden actress Linda Arden, Mrs Armstrong's mother; the Princess was Sonia's godmother. He learns that also in the household were a butler, a secretary, a cook, a chauffeur and a nursemaid to Daisy. Poirot then flatters Hildegarde Schmidt by saying he knows a good cook when he sees one, and asks for a photo of the maid Paulette, with whom Miss Schmidt was friendly. Foscarelli, when asked, vehemently denies ever having been in private service as a chauffeur. Hardman reveals he is, in fact, a Pinkerton detective hired to guard Ratchett. When shown the photo of Paulette, he breaks down and reveals he was the policeman in love with Paulette, and feels responsible for her suicide.

After concluding his investigation, Poirot gathers the suspects in the dining car to present his solution. He has formulated two possible scenarios to explain the murder. The first, which he calls the simple solution, is based on several clues suggesting that Cassetti's murder was the result of a mafia feud. Poirot analyses his second solution — referring to it as the more complex of the two — according to which every suspect has a link to the Armstrong case, thus having sufficient motive for the murder. The Princess had dodged the answers to Poirot's questions either by saying she did not remember or by word association: for example when asked Mrs Armstrong's maiden name, she replied "Greenwood", the English for "Grunwald", allowing Poirot to deduce that Countess Elena Andrenyi was, in fact, Helena, Mrs Armstrong's sister, and Count Andrenyi her brother-in-law. The Princess also claimed the secretary's name was "Miss Freebody", so Poirot deduces the secretary was in fact Mary Debenham (as in the London department store Debenham and Freebody). By flattering Miss Schmidt, he confirmed that she had been cook for the Armstrongs.

Aside from the obvious motives of the Princess, Miss Schmidt, Mary, McQueen, the Count and Countess and Hardman, Poirot presents the motives of the other suspects: Pierre was Paulette's father; Beddoes was Colonel Armstrong's army batman and the family butler; Miss Ohlsson was Daisy's nursemaid (and inadvertently revealed her actual knowledge of English by showing that she understood difficult words); Col. Arbuthnott was an army friend of Armstrong's; Foscarelli was the Armstrongs' private chauffeur; Mrs Hubbard is, in reality, Linda Arden, Mrs Armstrong's mother. Ratchett was sedated by Beddoes and McQueen. Arbuthnott planted the pipe-cleaner and the Princess the handkerchief (a Cyrillic "N" resembles a Roman "H"). All of the incidents which disturbed Poirot's sleep were contrived for the sole purpose of confusing him about the time of death. Each of the passengers then stabbed Cassetti in turn.

When Poirot finishes his explanation, everyone is silent. Poirot suggests Bianchi should choose which explanation they present to the police: the simple or the complex one. Bianchi decides that the simple solution will be more than enough to satisfy the police and that Ratchett deserved everything he got. Poirot agrees with the decision, and he departs to prepare his report to the Yugoslavian police, even though he admits he will struggle with his conscience. The train becomes free of the snow and leaves as the passengers celebrate at the outcome of the investigation.

Murder on the Orient Express Cast

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot
Lauren Bacall as Harriet Belinda Hubbard
Martin Balsam as Signor Bianchi (M. Bouc in the novel)
Ingrid Bergman as Greta Ohlsson
Jacqueline Bisset as Countess Helena Andrenyi
Jean-Pierre Cassel as Pierre Paul Michel
Sean Connery as Colonel Arbuthnott
John Gielgud as Edward Beddoes (Edward Henry Masterman in the novel)
Wendy Hiller as Princess Natalia Dragomiroff
Anthony Perkins as Hector McQueen
Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Debenham
Rachel Roberts as Hildegarde Schmidt
Richard Widmark as Ratchett/Casetti
Michael York as Count Rudolf Andrenyi
Colin Blakely as Cyrus B. Hardman
George Coulouris as Dr. Constantine
Denis Quilley as Antonio Foscarelli
Vernon Dobtcheff as Concierge
Jeremy Lloyd as A.D.C.
John Moffatt as Chief Attendant

Murder on the Orient Express Production

The entire budget was provided by EMI. The cost of the cast came to ₤554,100. Experienced members of the crew who were signed on included cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, editor Anne V. Coates and costume designer/art director Tony Walton.

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 Brabourne's father-in-law) help them broach the subject. In the end, according to Christie's 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." Christie's 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 didn't in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn't 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 couldn't 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. I've never seen anything like it." page 246–247

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 Montbenoît.

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.

Richard Rodney Bennett's 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.

Murder on the Orient Express Reception

Murder on the Orient Express 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.

Murder on the Orient Express Critical Response

The film received positive reviews upon release and currently holds a 95% "Fresh" rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 7.4/10. 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' chief critic of the era, Vincent Canby, pointed out that "had Dame Agatha Christie's 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 wasn't 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 wasn't. 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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