[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
There’s an air of bad faith, not unlike the scent of bathroom deodorizer, about Murderonthe 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.
[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: Sleuthsets us down in our old friend, The Remote Old Country House Where Things Are Not As They Seem, whilst Murder on the Orient Expressis 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 Sleuthand the detriment of OrientExpress. Sidney Lumet, a stern social commentator, or so he would have us believe, in earlier films like The Pawnbroker, TheHill, A View from the Bridge, and, of course, Twelve Angry Men (which has the most bearing here), is revealed by a close examination of OrientExpress 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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
If your friendly neighbourhood TV station or film society is tonight showing an uncut print of Clair’s And Then There Were None orWilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, you need not miss such delights in favour of Death on the Nile. But if not, you could do worse than attend. Made by the same producers as Sidney Lumet’s 1974 Murder on the Orient Express, it has, however, a different screenwriter, a different director and a different Hercule Poirot; and the difference shows. Although Jack Cardiff – who seems finally to have realized that it’s better to be a good cameraman than a bad director – gives us plenty of tourist-spot imagery up and down the banks of the Nile, with romance at the Sphinx, romantic torment at Abu Simbel and derring-do elsewhere, the film as a whole doesn’t slam gloss into the viewer’s eye the way Orient Expressdid, and if the starpower on display is of a marginally lower voltage than previously, the leading lights certainly give off enough energy to keep us all bright. Above all, Peter Ustinov as Hercule P. floats along in the Agatha Christie mystery soup quite serenely, whereas Albert Finney, padded and beeswaxed to the nines, felt obliged to attack the material with a funambulistic gusto.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
In the drawingroom detective storyâ€”whether literary or cinematic or bothâ€”the central feature of the genreâ€™s art is also its one great failing: the form gives away the content. We know we are witnessing a genre-piece, circumstantial evidence that in â€œreal lifeâ€ would be insufficient to damn instead tends to exonerate, betokening the red herring. Only persons with airtight alibis may be considered real suspects. Consequently one figures out the who in Death on the Nilefairly easily, while the how must remain for Poirot to reveal to our far weaker gray cells. Director John Guillerman never really plays the revelation of the guilty party for surprise; in fact, his formal, often symmetrical compositions betray his awareness and acceptance of a certain formalism in both the story and its genre that makes the identity of the murderer a foregone necessity: if it were anyone else. the neatness of it all would be quite spoiled. So we feel comfortable with the filmâ€™s array of guest suspects, regarding them as traveling companions on the journey toward the how. In contrast to the labored, artificial â€œnostalgiaâ€ of Sidney Lumetâ€™s Murder on the Orient Express(with which Death on the Nileinsists upon comparison), Guillerminâ€™s film stresses placeâ€”and the movement from one place to anotherâ€”more than time. While the costumes and production design are done with charm and integrity, they are never so imposing as the Egyptian landscape, which is far better integrated with the goings-on in the film than was the Orient Expressâ€™s snowy mountain passage in the Lumet film. Guillermin gives us a sense of movement through that landscape, a feeling of progressâ€”however illusoryâ€”by repeated incidental emphasis on modes of transportation: cars, horses, carriages, boats, camels, burros; where Lumetâ€™s stalled train tended to make Murder on the Orient Expressbog down altogether in the mire of Geoffrey Unsworthâ€™s thick-as-a-brick photography. And even if the who is a foregone conclusion, Death on the Nile stays filled with the excitement of the puzzle (much like scenarist Shafferâ€™s Sleuth,or the Anthony Perkinsâ€“Stephen Sondheim screenplay The Last of Sheila),where Orient Expressnever got beyond the turgid objectivity of an impossible but obvious pattern.