Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Notorious: Celebrating the Ingrid Bergman Centenary. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Adapted from Agatha Christie’s famous novel, Murder on the Orient Express (Lumet, 1974) brings to the cinema a highlight of 20th century English literature. Separate mediums, one the art of words and one the art of moving images, it is difficult sometimes to show creativity or abstraction from the origin source when plot integrity sets the precedent. True to the book, Lumet’s feature film succeeds in transcribing script to screen, but unfortunately does little to transform the literary into the cinematic. Literature, the use of words to symbolize thoughts are of little value to the world of images which do not represent but reveal. So, while Christie’s impeccable dialogue and narrative come to life on screen, it is presented with a kind of concreteness which takes away some of the understated mystery which prevails when reading the novel.
Ominous musical tones are heard in the soundtrack, enhancing one’s experience of confusion and captivation.
This is not to say that the film adaptation does a disservice to the original novel, but simply that there are certain medium-specific aspects that couldn’t be rendered on screen. On these occasions, Lumet chooses to use film techniques to, at the least, present the mood and atmosphere that might be garnered from reading Christie’s novel. The film begins with a series of newspaper clippings about a child’s abduction laid over a high-contrast, expressionist enactment of the events. Darkness and fast-motion befuddle the happenings, making somewhat incoherent what exactly happened and what the people involved look like. Ominous musical tones are heard in the soundtrack, enhancing one’s experience of confusion and captivation.
Cutting to present 1935, five years after the abduction and murder of one Daisy Armstrong, we see a couple and a mysterious but prominent figure board a ship on the Asian side of Istanbul. We are soon to learn that the couple, amongst several other passengers, are boarding the Orient Express, a train from Southern Europe to England. Our mystery man, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is offered a bed on the fully reserved train by his friend, the Orient’s overseer. This would be of serendipitous value, as Poirot later becomes entangled in a twist of lies and deceit involving a middle-of-the-night murder.
Prior to the murder, the film has little momentum. Lumet shows narrative progress without a rhythmic sense of time passing.
Prior to the murder, the film has little momentum. Lumet shows narrative progress without a rhythmic sense of time passing. This is likely because the novel does not distinguish the time when narrating the character’s backgrounds. However, since cinema exists as recorded time, Lumet must find a way to introduce characters at different moments. Using the length of the train and a band at a dinner party, he uses stock photos as if to rhythmically index the passing of time. Shot of train, character established, shot of train, character established, etc. It is rather perfunctory and keeps the film’s cinematic aesthetic from development while simultaneously retaining the integral structure of the literary novel. Each character in the grand ensemble cast is slowly introduced, in much the same manner as how each character is slowly, one by one, interrogated by Poirot. It is as meticulous as it is banal.
Besides some artistic shots of the train’s billowing smoke, and one great long take which tracks the incredible length of the train before closing in on a vacant light which suddenly and triumphantly radiates, the film is shot rather conventionally, with a theatrical set presence and dramatic performances. To add cinematic flair, Lumet uses a number of flashbacks, seen through a starkly different lens, to emphasize a clouded past and to reveal certain developments in the case. The flashbacks only show what reader and viewer alike ought to have discovered at the given point in time. In this way, the film retains its progressive plot, wherein each discovery leads to a question and each question leads to a discovery.
The film boasts a superstar cast, with luminaries from Bacall to Bergman to Connery to Perkins, but it is Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot who steals the show. Authentically portraying an Agatha Christie character, Finney undeniably captivates viewers with his careful movements, intelligent questions, and confident speech. The final thirty minutes of the film presents a kind of soliloquy, where Finney, as Detective Hercule Poirot, dramatically presents his findings. It is highly theatric and fascinating to watch. Bergman, who won an Oscar for her role, is worth mentioning too, as a long take interview between Poirot and Greta (Bergman) has her speaking broken English in a vulnerable manner which only she could do justice.
As the interrogations continue, it becomes clear that everyone has some kind of connection to the murderer. If not a motive, each character still has lies and mistrust which makes them appear suspicious. Christie’s intentions here are to illustrate the little details present when a person tries to deceive. The little mistakes, the vocal changes, the anxiety and the resilience: these qualities are accounted for in each and every interrogation. And with each interrogation is a red herring, designed to confuse us as well as Poirot, and designed to keep the ending, the revelation, a surprise for us all. By the end of the film, all the lies are finally understood, providing the story a certain amount of retroactive content to make it readable/viewable multiple times.
True to the book, Lumet’s feature film succeeds in transcribing script to screen, but unfortunately does little to transform the literary into the cinematic.