June 29, 2007

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Grade: 61/100

Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Albert Finney, Martin Balsam, John Gielgud

What it's about. Set in Europe circa 1935. Unpleasant businessman Richard Widmark is murdered in his bed on the luxury "Orient Express" train line. The suspects are a diverse group of aging stars, including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, and most attractive of all, Jacqueline Bisset. All of these suspects, it turns out, have a strong motive to kill Widmark, due to a heinous crime he committed a few years prior.

On the case is Agatha Christie's most famous (or second most famous, after Miss Marple) detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney). Finney, along with friend and railroad businessman Martin Balsam, try to determine the guilty party, with time on their side since the train is stopped by a winter snowdrift.

How others will see it. "Spot the Star" is always great fun for movie fans, and those who have seen enough films made prior to Titanic will enjoy the large group of mostly British thespians past their glory days. One star difficult to identify is the lead himself, Finney. Dark, slicked hair, and a waxy mustache have made him nearly disappear into the role, a la Paul Muni.

Even those unable to appreciate the legendary cast might nonetheless be charmed by the period atmosphere, the silly accents, the occasional dramatics, and of course, the preposterous revealing of the assassin. I won't spoil the ending, although you probably know it anyway, but perhaps it can be safely said that involves a family reunion and a curious ritual of assembly line dedications and stabbings.

How I felt about it. Give Murder on the Orient Express its due. The film is entertaining. Poirot is coy, quirky, comic, and relentless. He's much like Inspector Clouseau, except he's incisive instead of incompetent. Other actors are also effective, especially Balsam, Bacall, Bergman, and Widmark.

Balsam admires Poirot greatly, and is so entraced by his interviews with the suspects that comes to believe each and every one of them is guilty. But just because he's impressionable, it doesn't mean that he's wrong.

Bacall is a talkative serial complainer who promptly alienates strangers. She seems to enjoy the obnoxious role. Bergman is a religion-obsessed wallflower who speaks bad English and is fond of discussing her charity work with "little brown babies." The humorless Widmark has more money than friends, and we soon learn why.

Michael York and Sean Connery have lovers on the train, but this doesn't really excuse their chronic rudeness. Their love interests, Jacqueline Bisset and Vanessa Redgrave, are pleased as punch but make little impact. Perkins, Gielgud, and Hiller are merely evasive.

Murder on the Orient Express is an engaging albeit minor detective film. The artifical aspects of the characters, plot, and resolution are perhaps inseparable from the movie's charm.

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