[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 52, October 1976]
In his autobiography I Remember It Well,Vincente Minnelli registers a very pragmatic regret that his producer-partner Arthur Freed took such good care of him all those years at MGM. Left to dream his cinematic dreams, cast fragile spells with camera and decor, and build to the visual equivalent of crescendos through flamboyant mise-en-scène, he never had to learn how to deal with the front-office boys, the money men, the guys who had the power to say when and how and even whether he would get to make a film. With the passing of Freed and the extravagant studio armament of Metro, Minnelli was left defenseless in the New Hollywood, and the effect was startlingly apparent: gross conceptual misfires like Goodbye Charlie, the pointlessly transatlantic misadventure of The Sandpiper, several years’ wait for an expensive Barbra Streisand musical liked by neither Streisand fans nor musical aficionados, and then more years waiting for … nothing at all, it appeared, until a couple of seasons ago we began to hear about an adaptation of Marcel Druon’s Film of Memory.
At last it’s here—A Matter of Time—and again Minnelli has been done in by the logistics of the nouveau cinema: the Italian locations obligatorily and tediously paused for, the Italian cast impossible to direct in any mode supportive to the stellar likes of Bergman, Boyer, and (for the sake of discussion) Liza Minnelli, the Movielab color a tawdry, enervating substitute for a man who dreams in richest Technicolor, the sets inadequately realized, the post-dubbed soundtrack deleterious to any evoking—let alone sustaining—of mood…. Whatever Louis B. Mayer might have been, he wasn’t Samuel Z. Arkoff, and if there be a prototype for co-exec-producer Giulio Sbarigia he’s that Italian who made Cinecittà hell on earth for “directors” Edward G. Robinson and Kirk Douglas in Minnelli’s now-prophetic Two Weeks in Another Town.Vincente Minnelli can swoop around corners with the utmost elegance, but he can’t cut them—and corner-cutting shows all over A Matter of Time.
[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.