Manners, Morals, and Murder: Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express. More than puzzles are to be teased out in these two jokey, backward-looking thrillers. Two ultra-British subjects are handled by two very American directors, and whodunit – or whodunwhat – is only one of many queries to be resolved. In essence, each is of a classic English pre-war mystery-thriller type: Sleuth sets us down in our old friend, The Remote Old Country House Where Things Are Not As They Seem, whilst Murder on the Orient Express is a glossy confined-space thriller where The Killer Has To Be One Of A Small Number (all played by famous stars, of course) And Cannot Get Away For A While; the detective, Hercule Poirot, he of the waxed moustaches and the little grey cells, has to trap said killer in the limited space of time before the snow-plough arrives to allow the Orient Express, marooned in snowdrift, to continue its Istanbul-to-Calais route.

Let those readers who haven’t seen the films quit reading now, if they haven’t already. I aim to be so unsporting as to blow the surprise endings, and most of the inner workings of the plot, on both films. Actually, simply what happens isn’t so all-important; if it were, who would want to see either film a second time? And though neither film seems to be realistic, grim reality keeps on creeping in, to the advantage of Sleuth and the detriment of Orient Express. Sidney Lumet, a stern social commentator, or so he would have us believe, in earlier films like The Pawnbroker, The Hill, A View from the Bridge, and, of course, Twelve Angry Men (which has the most bearing here), is revealed by a close examination of Orient Express to be a threadbare moralist indeed; whilst Joseph Mankiewicz, widely regarded as a witticism-churning butterfly too hooked on his own bons mots to be much concerned with Life, or even visual style, has come up with as acute a study of Britain’s steel-trap class system as any native director from the so-called good old days of the island’s filmic new wave.

* * *

Sleuth, adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his hit play with more care than has been generally noted, is a gladiatorial duel between two very different, but maybe not all that different, men. Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) is as patrician as that surname, evoking Winchester public school, suggests, and Milo Tindle (“tindle” is an old English word for a kind of bondservant) is very much of the people, and played by the British cinema’s archetypal working-class hero, Michael Caine. Andrew is in his late fifties and running to fat; Milo is in his mid-thirties and likes to keep himself smooth-looking. Andrew writes preposterous but popular novels about a jolly private eye called St. John, Lord Merridew; Milo is a trendy hairdresser. Andrew has kept tabs on his loot scrupulously whereas Milo, like so many born poor, fritters his away on sharp suits, luxury apartments and a two-seater sportscar with his initials on the door. Andrew is a true-blue WASP Briton; Milo is half-Italian on his refugee father’s side and a lapsed Catholic and he is also Andrew’s wife’s lover.

Battle is joined when Milo arrives at the aforementioned Remote Country House, ostensibly to discuss Andrew’s divorce plans, and armed with proof of his extramarital dalliance with a Finnish lady who runs a nearby sauna bath. Andrew devotes several minutes to the fine old British upper-crust art of putting the upstart in his place. Vodka and lime as we get acquainted? Oh, dear, we’re just out, would gin and tonic do instead? Oh, all right. Milo, instantly one-down, descends several rungs further in the confidence stakes when he foolishly agrees to a quick snooker game and never even gets the chance to wield his cue. An attempt to wound the ebullient Andrew on sexual grounds (when the latter describes himself as a “sexual athlete”, Milo sneers, “Better at the sprints than the long-distance stuff, no doubt?”) sets things firmly in motion; though this attempt fails (“I’m in the pink,” breezes Andrew, “I could copulate for England over any distance….”), it establishes that the core of the rivalry is not only to do with one particular woman, but with the very essence of potency and sexual drives and goals.

Andrew proposes a way out of their problems to the fiscally shaky Milo: If the latter pinches some jewelry Andrew has in his safe, he can get it fenced in Amsterdam for enough money to keep the greedy Marguerite (Mrs. Wyke) by his side, thus preventing the possibility of her returning to the unloving Andrew, who, in turn, can claim a nice tax-free fortune from the insurers. The sexual connotations of jewel-thieving can be discerned by the most amateur Freudian, and Milo’s status in Andrew’s eyes is revealed when the author persuades his proletarian rival to dress up as a clown, lest he be spotted in mid-theft by any passer-by. After much humiliation, including the wrecking of Marguerite’s bedroom, Milo gets to the crunch of the matter and finds himself double-crossed. Andrew produces a gun which fires real bullets, and says he will kill him, claiming defence of property. Why? “Because I hate you…. Because you’re a greasy little wop!” And one who has appropriated Andrew’s possession: the author has no love for Marguerite, but regards her as his, and not to be lost to a social inferior – “Did you think I would let myself look so ridiculous?”

It’s Milo who looks ridiculous. Blubbering with terror in his dishevelled clown suit, he collapses when Andrew presses the gun to his neck and fires. End of first half; curtain, or at least very slow dissolve. Now, we all know a big star like Michael Caine can’t be offed this early in the movie, and when, two nights later, Andrew receives a faintly absurd-looking (and -sounding) visitor – the cloddish, portly, elderly, balding, rustic-accented, stooped and mustachioed Inspector Doppler of the local fuzz – any child in the audience will see through the several tons of make-up and identify Bermondsey’s own superstar. Andrew doesn’t; and on the stage, I’m told, the distancing effect of the footlights meant that everyone, at every performance, gasped at the point where Doppler disrobes and reveals Milo underneath. In other words, Mankiewicz has taken a very important artistic decision at this point: he has deliberately thrown away Shaffer’s theatrical trump card and replaced it with a more subtle cinematic one of his own. He has made the audience conspirators, just as we were all Judy Barton’s conspirators in Vertigo. And, like Hitchcock, he later pulls the rug out from under us.

It’s all very amusing for a good while as Milo slyly turns the tables on the jovially patronising Andrew. Humiliation, Andrew explains, was his idea; his aim was not murder, but simply to scare Milo shitless, carefully reserving a blank for the momenta della verita. Milo, turned to jelly, had fainted on hearing the gun’s report, and on waking (and “noting shrewdly that he was still alive,” as Andrew chortlingly puts it), had been so covered in shame that he had departed, vowing never to see Marguerite again; the blank cartridge had not only demolished his social-climber’s bluster, but effectively castrated him. Hell has no fury, though, like a bourgeois scorned. Milo, aka Doppler, confronts an initially alarmed and finally quite terrified Andrew with various bits of planted evidence and the factoid of Mr. Tindle’s disappearance, accuses him of murder and has him cringing on the floor, utterly abased. The whirligig of time has satisfyingly brought round its revengesm – or has it? Though it’s pleasing to see an unmitigated pig like Andrew brought low, we must now reflect on the morality of Milo’s vicious action.

For Milo, like Andrew, plays to win; and unlike Andrew, he plays to kill. Gradually, we realise that Milo isn’t, as the phrase is, playing the game. He’s the new boy in the social stakes, and he doesn’t know, or respect, the rules. His humiliation of Andrew isn’t complete, he means it to go on – and on and on. Like a trapped animal that might bite off his own tail, Milo tries to demolish everything in sight, and finally demolishes himself. He’s become like Andrew, only more so. Perhaps he always was. And, perhaps (just perhaps), we always were, too. Milo’s sole aim, after all, has been that of the unthinking, and certainly un-moral, nouveau riche. He’s become like Andrew because he always wanted to be like Andrew. That was the sum of his pathetic ambition. He has Andrew’s ego, as witness those initials on the side of his flashy and, for a Londoner, wholly impractical sportscar. He has Andrew’s sexism – it’s quite clear he doesn’t love Marguerite, his posh and silly piece of crumpet. He has Andrew’s fetishistic love of trivial possessions, Mankiewicz’s camera picking out his wrist-bracelet, his cuff links, his monogrammed blazer in details a theatre audience couldn’t get. What he doesn’t have, quite, is Andrew’s style, although the older man isn’t, of course, as stylish as he thinks he is. But Milo’s just as nasty, and quickly shows himself to be heartless.

Has Milo really seduced and then strangled the Finnish lady? No, he hasn’t, actually, but we half-believe him when he says he has, because he seems in a controlled frenzy of vengeance, and we realise he’s the sort of man who wouldn’t hesitate to involve others in his private feud with Andrew. He’s a vulgarian; quite apart from his attire and car, he crudely dismisses Andrew’s old Cole Porter records as “pure cornball” and is nasty about detective fiction as a whole. We never find out whether or not Andrew’s novels fall into the fascist tradition that characterised most British popular blood-and-thunder fiction till 1939 (and not infrequently thereafter, really), but Milo, not having read any of them, doesn’t know either. He merely seeks to wound. And that’s why he sets Andrew scrabbling for the clues incriminating him in the second non-existent murder after reducing him to a sobbing pulp; that’s why he gloatingly reveals that he’s discovered Andrew’s Achilles heel from the dissatisfied Finn. Poor old Andrew, we learn, has traditional difficulties in the sack, after all – something easily guessable from that extravagant boasting at the beginning. But Milo didn’t guess it. Like his victim, he prizes a macho image too strongly.

Sleuth is in the nature of a magic show, but Mankiewicz’s filmic sleight-of-hand conceals a knife poised to strike at audience complacency. Time and again, the director cuts to Andrew’s cherished Edgar Allan Poe award, bestowed on him by the Mystery Writers of America. Poe’s statuette surveys the increasingly unpleasant proceedings with impassive visage, and we may recall the denouement of his best detective story, The Purloined Letter, where the missing document transpires to have been in front of everyone’s eyes throughout. Here, too, the answer is in front of us, there is nothing actually concealed. Andrew and Milo really are the only characters in the drama. Furthermore, horror really is the soul of the plot, for Andrew, learning that no murder has been committed, finally breaks down totally. But Milo’s vengeance has not finished even now. However, by going too far he rekindles Andrew’s vengefulness, and in destroying his enemy as he promised, he brings about his own, wholly unexpected (by us, too) destruction. Milo has had his private revenge first, but has still sent for the police, presumably to put Andrew in court as well. Andrew, thinking this just another bluff (for Milo has already gone vastly too far) and now deranged by the younger man’s cruelty and the self-knowledge he has avoided so long, pulls out the gun again. This time, no blank saves Milo. As the police car pulls up outside, the upstart perishes and so does his slayer. Perfect stalemate has been reached, at a terrible cost.

“Make sure you tell them, Andrew,” croaks the dying Milo, “it was only a bloody game!” Bloody indeed. Neither has gained anything, both have lost everything, and for nothing. Usually referred to as a comedy, Sleuth is a little nightmare. As the despised guardians of the law hammer on his door to take him away forever, Andrew sets in motion all the doll-objects with which he has littered his home. These life-size mannequins seem more human than the two men, if only because they are not more inhuman. A Chinese gentleman quivers in silent mirth, a fairground Laughing Sailor rocks to and fro, and old Edgar Allan doesn’t crack so much as a thin smile. Possessions take over; Andrew and Milo have become what they own or strive to own, and it has destroyed them, taking first their manhood (impotent Andrew makes pointed innuendoes throughout about the “unmanly” image of hairdressing as a profession) and then their very lives. The bloody thing about the bloody game is that no one can ever win it.

* * *

The bloody thing about Murder on the Orient Express is that it really is nothing more than a game with a bit of blood in it. Again, horror is the soul of the plot (the overtly sought literary counterpoint in this instance is Macbeth), but Sidney Lumet, if he’s noticed at all, doesn’t seem in the least bothered. Vengeance is again uppermost in the action, the murder victim being a well-heeled assassin come to wealth via the kidnapping and infanticide of a rich family’s baby. Several other deaths ensued from this crime; now the relatives and friends of the various deceased have tracked down the culprit (God knows how) and done him in aboard the luxury train. Quickly planted clues might lead a mere police investigator to assume (as intended) that the corpse, known to have connections with a well-known organisation headquartered in Palermo, had simply been multiple-knifed in a routine fratellanza hacking-spree. Ah, but, as chance and Agatha Christie would have it, the passenger list on this glossiest of choo-choos also includes Hercule Poirot, the world’s greatest shamus and a chum of the train company’s excitable director (Martin Balsam doing a Billy Gilbert number with thick Italian accent), and he ferrets out the motive for this apparently vile deed, nails the thirteen surviving passengers as the guilty ones, and then – happy ending – decides not to do a thing about it. Everyone clinks the champagne glasses, the train moves on thanks to the doughty snow-plough boys, and honour, not to mention box-office, is satisfied.

Yes, I know: the above paragraph is relentlessly facetious. Is my tone offensive, considering that the plot described involves the ruthless murder of a defenceless baby, the suicides of two innocent people, a stillbirth and a death in childhood, a gruesome knife murder and, centrally, a vindication of the most straightforward kind of vigilante justice? Of course; but it’s not more offensive than the tone of Lumet’s picture. Lynch law has scarcely had a more persuasive apology. We have only the film’s word for it that nasty Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark) is one and the same as the infamous Cassetti, mastermind of the Armstrong kidnapping, a man wholly unknown, except by name, to the police forces of the world, who were not even able to issue a vague description of him before he hopped it to Europe with $200,000 in ransom money. How did his noble killers find him? How were they sure? How did they know he was in Europe? Why did Ratchett/Cassetti hire as his private secretary a young man whose father had been the investigating D.A. in the Armstrong case? Surely he would have drawn as little attention to himself, and his illegally gained fortune, as possible? Poirot identifies him from a scrap of burnt paper with the dead child’s name on it. The possibility that Ratchett may have simply been an eccentric unsolved-crimes buff given to making elliptical notes occurs to nobody.

Now, Murder on the Orient Express makes no effort to be grimly realistic in the more usual Lumet manner. Campy fun from nostalgia boom-time, it appeals to an escape-hungry audience by means of its plush sets, its cast of graceful superstars (they had to be all guilty, really – their agents would permit nothing less!), its details of mid-Thirties high living (cigarette-holders, exotic post-luncheon liqueurs, and even a befezzed Turkish orchestra playing “Red Sails in the Sunset”) and its numerous, often witty reminders of past movies. It’s a nice moment when Albert Finney’s Poirot traces a letter in the dust on the train window à la Hitchcock’s vanishing lady; Anna May Wong fans will identify the chinoiserie design on Jacqueline Bisset’s nightgown from Shanghai Express; Richard Widmark’s Ratchett could almost be Tommy Udo in late middle-age after a lot of success and an anger-management course. But this particular characterisation is in fact one of the film’s disturbing aspects; so is the fact that the multiple-killers solution is (allowing Michael York’s Hungarian diplomat to be regarded as primarily an accessory to the common grief) a pretty-well-exact inversion of the plot of Lumet’s first film, Twelve Angry Men. Here, twelve angry people, plus Mr. York, reach their own verdict and dispense their own justice. There’s no Henry Fonda here to hold them back. Even the all-knowing sleuth approves.

And that’s why Widmark is encouraged to play in a manner nostalgically recalling late-Forties Fox; to reassure us that, after all, it’s only a movie. That’s why Ratchett is just an unpleasant thug: we mustn’t be distracted by the horrific reality of infanticide. That’s why the quick run-through of the events of the kidnap and the subsequent deaths of the Armstrong family and their wrongly suspected servant-girl is presented in the form of an old-style Hollywood montage, with newspaper headlines, Kanestyle pastiche newsreels, and a few cunning clues: we mustn’t be allowed to ponder on the very real horror of such a situation. It could happen, unlike the rest of the movie, which swirls about in a Thirties cloud-cuckooland, in the sort of mystery-plot landscape where vital hints as to the solution hinge upon such absurd bits of esoteric knowledge as the name of the junior partner in a well-known London department store, or the precise language with which a London secretary who had never been in America would express the desire to contact her legal advisers when abroad. Consequently, reflection on the kickoff point for all this delirious cocktail of stargazing, luxurious decor and silly but compulsive mystification (did you guess the ending? I did) must be numbed, discouraged, banished. If we’re simply to be amused by the film, which is all Lumet intends, we mustn’t take any of it seriously.

And that’s what really sticks in the craw. The fact that large sections of Murder on the Orient Express are amusing, pretty, clever or otherwise attention-grabbing shouldn’t blind anyone to the fact that it’s quite unarguably a fascist movie. There’s no ambiguity of the sort that defenders of Straw Dogs or Dirty Harry (such as I) could legitimately point to. The fact that “it’s not serious” is irrelevant. And anyway, who says it’s not serious? It’s a fantasy, but nearer to reality than your average James Bond film; and if I’d condemn those films morally (which I certainly would), I’m certainly not going to beam approvingly on a movie which tries to wring escapist fare out of the death by violence of a tiny child. What kind of starting-place is that for a so-called fun movie, for God’s sake?! And I’ll go further. The Armstrong kidnapping not only could happen – it actually did happen. The event is transparently based on the Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932, a crime that had not, significantly enough, been resolved at the time Agatha Christie published her novel in 1934.

The Lindbergh baby’s death was a crime that shocked the whole world, but its aftermath was surely no less shocking. The harassment of the Lindberghs by an unfeeling mob was vile; but no less so was the treatment accorded the man arrested for the crime, Bruno Richard Hauptmann. I am not suggesting, as some have, that he was the innocent victim of prejudice, political expediency, hysteria and injustice. He may very well have been guilty; but he was still the victim of these appalling things. Several books on the case have appeared and common to all of them is the inescapable suspicion one forms that Hauptmann’s innocence or guilt was irrelevant to the authorities. Once arrested, he was, I think, a doomed man. When the public bays for blood, someone must be sacrificed. Though it seems to me extremely unlikely that Hauptmann was wholly innocent, it seems pretty certain that the kidnapping was not the work of just one man. Yet only the sketchiest investigations were made about possible collaborators. Hauptmann’s conviction closed the case, with around two-thirds of the (marked) ransom money unaccounted for, as it still is, and numerous vital questions unanswered, as they still are.

Hauptmann was very far from the Dr. Mabuse-style master criminal impersonated by Widmark; he was an illiterate German immigrant (illegal) with a minor teenage criminal record. His execution in 1936 came after three temporary reprieves, with huge crowds surrounding the New Jersey jail and reportedly cheering when death was announced. Lumet’s film also invites us to cheer at death. Crime seems so much more civilized, even when it’s bloody murder, when Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave and Sir John Gielgud are committing it. Lots of good liberals and lefties in the all-star cast, you’ll notice, and doubtlessly they’d all swear blind that Murder on the Orient Express was nothing more than good, clean, escapist fun. The company that found the cash for the film and distributed it in Britain, EMI, is led by that most respected of showbiz entrepreneurs, Sir Bernard Delfont, who likes to show how moral he is every now and then by not distributing films that offend his moral code, notably Ennio de Concini’s Hitler: The Last Ten Days and Don Sharp’s Hennessy. And what have all these charming people come up with? An ingenious whodunit that even Andrew Wyke would enjoy.

SLEUTH (1972)
Direction: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer, after his play. Cinematography: Oswald Morris. Production design: Ken Adam. Editing: Richard Marden. Music: John Addison. Production: Morton Gottlieb. A 20th Century-Fox release.
The players: Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1975)
Direction: Sidney Lumet. Screenplay: Paul Dehn, after the novel by Agatha Christie. Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth. Production design: Tony Walton. Editing: Anne V. Coates. Music: Richard Rodney Bennett. Production: John Brabourne, Richard Goodwin.
The players: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Colin Blakely, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, George Coulouris, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Dennis Quilley, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York.

© 1978 Pierre Greenfield

2010 Afterword: A few extra details are to be noted. Agatha Christie’s novel, unlike Lumet’s film, indicates that the sinister Cassetti/Ratchett character had been apprehended by the police, only to escape justice on a technicality. This adds an extra “justification” for his killers and explains how they knew what he looked like. Anthony Shaffer revealed in the autobiography he published at the end of his life that he had done an uncredited rewrite on Murder On The Orient Express; he got sole writing credit on its two follow-ups, Death On The Nile (1978) and Evil Under The Sun (1982). The casually reactionary attitudes found in most “Golden Age” British detective stories (certainly including Agatha Christie’s), which Sleuth is at such pains to criticise, are not exactly absent from these movies. Shaffer also shared script credit on another Poirot film for different producers (the Israeli team of Golan and Globus) – this was the abysmal flop Appointment With Death (1988), where Poirot seems almost to have become an advocate of Zionism.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.