[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.
A romantic thriller in the Gaslight vein, Sleep, My Love (1948) is a shadowy melodrama with an atmosphere of Gothic thriller by way of high society film noir, and it grabs your attention immediately with a kicker of an opening: a train speeding through the night, Claudette Colbert waking up in a sleeping car with a scream, a panicked run through the passenger cars. Where is she, how did she get on a night train to Washing D.C., what is happening? Colbert is New York heiress Alison Courtland and, back in their Big Apple mansion, Don Ameche is her husband Richard, a man with a plan under his sensitive show of concern. As he patiently explains the police, this isn’t the first incident where she’s been disoriented or confused. And as the police prod him for details, he reluctantly reveals a gunshot wound on his left arm. Yes, he admits, she shot him, but she wasn’t in her right mind.
Richard seems too good to be true as the concerned, protective husband trying to cover for his wife’s mental slips, in part thanks to Ameche’s overly-earnest performance and theatrically soft-spoken response to every crisis. And he is, as we discover early in the drama. The train trip and public breakdown is part of an elaborate scheme, a piece of theater stage managed by the sinister-looking Charles Vernay (Orson Welles veteran George Coulouris). He’s a co-conspirator, pulling strings while Richard plays the nurturing husband, and he even endures the unwanted presence of Richard’s sexy mistress Daphne (Hazel Brooks), who lounges about Charles’s photography studio between romantic assignations.
Continuing the Gaslight comparison, with Colbert in the Bergman role of the heiress being driven crazy and Ameche as the husband playing the mind-games, Robert Cummings would be her Joseph Cotten, in this case incarnated as handsome bachelor Bruce Elcott.