Review: Murder on the Orient Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

There’s an air of bad faith, not unlike the scent of bathroom deodorizer, about Murder on the Orient Express. I’m as fond of “production values” as the next fellow, maybe fonder, but I don’t wish to be force-fed them by a soulless dietitian who knows what I as a consumer ought to want. That’s the way Sidney Lumet has directed this film, and all of Geoffrey Unsworth’s filtered lyricism, all of Tony Walton’s art-deco design, all of Richard Rodney Bennett’s tongue-in-jolly-good-show-cheek music can’t convince me that Lumet gives a tinker’s fart about the Orient Express, the old Hollywood, Grand Hotel, or the artificial but scarcely charmless business of working out an Agatha Christie red-herring mystery.

Christie’s jigsaw puzzles don’t put us in touch with death’s feather on the nerve the way Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald & co. can, but they do celebrate a species of imagination, however quaint and trivial, and a director capable of responding to the glory of imagination—be he George Cukor riding a latterday Orient Express (Travels with My Aunt) or even Mel Brooks tooling into the Transylvania Station—can communicate his own rapture to us. Lumet treats Christie’s plot and her trainload of improbable types with the same palooka touch he normally brings to tales of angst-ridden pawnbrokers and tormented cops. Orient Express runs the stylistic gamut from claustrophobic closeup to diffusion-fogged flashback, and any director who can have a Turkish orchestra strike up “On the Good Ship Lollipop” within minutes of announcing the grisly murder of a blond Thirties girlchild had better have some kind of stylistic as well as moral integrity to fall back on. An actor’s director, Lumet helps a few of his cast members toward etching amusing character vignettes—Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, and John Gielgud are fine, and Vanessa Redgrave is a knockout—but mostly he encourages them to trade in manneristic ploys that only accent the artificiality of Christie’s design without justifying it, and tend to demean the whole notion of running a movie on starpower. It doesn’t run on anything else: Lumet’s mélange of scenic intercuts, exterior atmospheric bits, and interior plot-and-action combustion builds up about as much momentum as a wheelless handcar.

RTJ

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

Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson