Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Murder on the Orient Express

(UK, 1974)

There can’t have been many better years for Actors in a Leading Role than 1974. The nominees were Albert Finney for this one, Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, Al Pacino for The Godfather, Part II, and Dustin Hoffman for Lenny. Man, what a list! May I have the envelope, please? And the winner is … Art Carney, for Harry and Tonto. As I’ve said elsewhere, I loved the movie, and you can’t help being happy for the Old Pro, but that was really scandalous. Lee and I agreed, they should have just declared a tie, and given out five statues. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, it would be Nicholson, by a hair, with Finney breathing down his neck. His transformation—and not just with make-up, though that was spectacular, too, but by every breath and mannerism—was so complete that I swear if his name hadn’t been in the credits I would never have known it was him. Just look at this role, and then at Tom Jones just nine years earlier, and tell me that’s the same man.

And that’s just the leading role. He was surrounded by a dozen huge movie and stage stars, each one of them superb in a small part. Richard Widmark, who plays the bad guy brilliantly, said he took the part just so he could hang around with his co-stars, and I’ll bet several of the others did, too. Ingrid Bergman won the supporting Oscar, and richly deserved it. The producer says he fell in love with her in Casablanca (what man didn’t?), and his knees were literally shaking when she first appeared on the set. I could go down the list of one of the best casts ever assembled for a motion picture, but I won’t. Just go to the page at the IMDb and drool.

This is one of those perfect movies. Every frame is right. The swelling waltz theme is right. The photography is so lush you can almost taste it. The production design by Tony Walton is impeccable. Sidney Lumet, who directed it, wanted to recreate the sense of glamour of old Hollywood, and did a superb job. Working from an ingenious script by Paul Dehn that managed to squeeze every element of a fiendishly complicated plot into a bit more than two hours and never, never bore the audience, he created a gem of a movie that continues to satisfy even after half a dozen viewings. I mean, it had me during the lush opening credits! And then it moved into an awesome reconstruction of an old crime that had me goggling. Right up to the tour-de-force ending, where Albert Finney explicates the murder in a speech that was almost uninterrupted for the space of eight script pages, a soliloquy that dwarfs anything in Shakespeare, the movie never sets a foot wrong. I see it every five years or so, and will do it again five years from now.