Just as she reaches a climactic plot point, though, her husband, bandleader Ricky (Desi Arnaz), quietly enters the room and pecks her on the cheek. To Lucy, who’s been transported into the whodunit in which her nose is buried, this is a jolt akin to stepping off a sidewalk curb in a dream. She reflexively chucks the book out the window and shrieks, “Don’t scare me like that!”
But before we get a closer look at what Lucy’s reading — the disappointingly made-up The Mockingbird Murder Mystery — we’ve already assumed that she’s probably thumbing through an Agatha Christie novel. The latter was, after all, both the most popular novelist at that time and the premier author of the period able to garner such a reaction from a reader.
Even the most casual of a Christie fan is able to empathize with Lucy’s slapstick reaction. The writer, forever literature’s most famous murder mystery specialist, wrote such riveting — and brilliantly intricate — whodunits at her peak that our becoming completely encased in their mystique was about as preventable as fighting off a heart surgeon’s anesthetic.
Much of what makes Christie’s novels so delicious — the elegant yet glib prose, the easily recognizable characters, the eventual, and breathless, reveal of the cleverly-planned murder at the forefront — tend to get lost inside the scope of a cinematic adaptation, however.
A great deal of money and a particularly romantic cinematographer can do much by way of making the recurring opulence of Christie’s stories come to luxurious life. But the episodic nature of, say, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), makes more sense when confined to the page than when stretched into a feature length. A movie’s worth of intense interrogations, followed by an almost mathematical explanation of the central scheme, is not as engaging when glittering sets, proudly of-the-time costumes, and star-studded casts take the place of Christie’s chic writing style.
With the exception of a select few, the majority of Christie adaptations are glamorous yawns, gussied-up but not all that interesting artistically. But when a page to screen transition’s successful, we’re as transfixed as we might have been while reading the source material. Coming to mind is the delectable 1978 adaptation of Death on the Nile (1937), and, of course, the Academy-adored, commercial treasure chest that was the 1974 reimagining of 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express.
The latter film, which was among the top 20 highest-grossing movies of that year, lines up with the decade’s attraction to movies in which starry ensemble casts faced calamity. It’s a quasi-disaster film, only the objects of destruction are not miles-high skyscrapers or lumbering cruise ships but rather crumbling white lies and dignities, all belonging to wealthy, impeccably-dressed individuals.
But Murder on the Orient Express also stays true to what made Christie such an incomparable talent: her sense of humor is pronounced here, and much is made of the antique pleasures of the source material.
Set in the winter of 1935, the film famously takes place on the titular luxury locomotive and concerns the strange, mid-journey murder of American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark). Because his demise coincides with an emergency stop, and because some evidence points to a stowaway’s possibly being onboard, most presume that one of Ratchett’s enemies somehow hopped on the train, murdered the man, and then jumped right back off.
But to Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), an egg-headed, cartoonisly Belgian detective, a hint of deception hangs in the air. The more he chats with the other people on the coach about Ratchett’s death, the more he senses a cover-up — and an overall feeling that someone, or multiple someones, on the Orient Express might have something to do with the crime.
The ensemble cast, including such additional luminaries as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bissett, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York, make up the suspects, and each are given their moment to chew the scenery in extended, poker-faced one-on-ones with Finney’s Poirot. Particularly standing out are Bacall, as the brassy, compulsively talkative black widow Harriet Hubbard, and Bergman, as the meek, Bible-crazed missionary Greta Ohlsson. Though Finney is certainly Murder’s best feature: he’s a caricatured joy of a mustache-twirling, impossibly shrewd lead.
The film itself is reasonably stagey, and too-literally shows the ins-and-outs of the crime toward its end. (Poirot’s explanation of the death is already drawn-out as is, so we’re vexed when the movie’s director, Sidney Lumet, feels the need to show the murder in unnecessary, tedious detail immediately afterward.)
But Murder on the Orient Express is nevertheless the best movie based on a Christie work. Her glossy, subtly satirical prose is effectively captured by screenwriter Paul Dehn, and it’s further complemented by the gleam of Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography and the artful, presentationally-styled performances. And, most satisfactorily, we gasp at the big reveal just as heartily as we might have if we were reading the novel. It’s a lot of fun — though turning toward Christie’s page-bound offerings might delight more. B+
2 Hrs., 6 Mins.
Murder on the Orient Express November 9, 2017
he first episode of I Love Lucy (1951-56) begins with a scream. It’s around 10 p.m., and Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) — who will become America’s most iconic redhead in a matter of months — sits in front of her vanity in a parlor room chair, her eyes wide. She’s just taken off her face for the night and has traded her cold cream for a murder mystery novel. A housewife who probably finished all the day’s duties around noon, we gather she started reading the book earlier that day and accidentally succumbed to the cliché of not being able to put it down.
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.