Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Murder on the Orient Express (Third Review!)

(UK, 1974)

No need to repeat myself too much in these dual reviews, of this one and the 2017 re-make. The passage of 43 years gave Kenneth Branagh a fine set of new visual tools not available to Sidney Lumet, and Branagh made good use of them. But time did not provide Branagh with the incredible star power of the original cast. Dig this: Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman (Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Michael York. Giants! I won’t denigrate the cast of the new one, they work hard and deliver good performances. But let’s face it, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, and Michelle Pfeiffer are all good actors, but not a one of them has the strong screen presence of the original cast.

And then, of course, there are Albert Finney and Kenneth Branagh. And there is just no question, Finney nailed Poirot, and Branagh just skated around him. I wonder if at some point he realized the hubris of going up against one of the greatest screen performances of all time? And if he realized he came up wanting? This film got six Oscar nominations. In any other year Finney would have gone home with the gold, but it was a very strong year: Dustin Hoffman in Lenny, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II. The Oscar went to the weakest of the five, in my opinion: Art Carney in Harry and Tonto. Loved it, loved him in The Late Show and many others, but it didn’t compare to the other four. Hard choice. For me, it was Finney or Nicholson, depending on what day you ask me.

And I must mention the music. The 2017 has a pretty generic score. This one was brilliant. There is a lilting waltz theme that plays behind any scene where there is motion. It is all lush and romantic, the perfect backing for the lushness of the train and the sumptuous costumes of the cast. I think Richard Rodney Bennett should have won Best Original Score. It went to Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola instead.

Two more things to note. This movie begins with a haunting sequence, a montage in darkness and newspaper headlines, showing the kidnapping and death of little Daisy Armstrong that is heartbreaking in itself. It is a masterpiece that could stand on its own as a short film. Branagh doesn’t handle it nearly as well, scattering the story through the film. And one of the great scenes of all time: The Orient Express, sitting massively on the tracks in Istanbul, gathering steam as the theme builds behind it, and it begins to move, slowly, slowly, the great wheels and tie rods moving faster and faster … I get goose bumps whenever I see it, and I must have seen it seven or eight times by now. The DVD extras show just how hard it was to get that shot, given the technology of the day. They had one shot at it, and the cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, pulled off a miracle.