Murder of the Orient Express

I’ve written several blogfolio posts about Agatha Christie’s works. From that, please infer that I am a fan of Mrs. Christie’s. I can lay claim to having read all her mystery novels and most of her plays and short stories. I’ve even read two of her Mary Westmacott novels. (I can’t help but interject that I feel that one of those, Absent in the Spring is Mrs. Christie’s literary masterpiece.) I admire Mrs. Christie’s work enormously and am extremely grateful to her for the many hours of pleasant diversion it afforded me.

Of the mystery novels, Murder on the Orient Express is probably my favorite. The setting grabs the imagination, the characters are especially colorful, Poirot is at his most cunning, and the solution is brilliant. The book was also made into a terrific movie in 1974. It was directed by Sidney Lumet and featured Albert Finney as Poirot, surrounded by one of the greatest all-star casts of all time.

As of last year, we have a new movie version, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring himself as Hercule Poirot. Some might say that the new movie has an all-star cast as well. As I see it, the question is whether this new Murder on the Orient Express is more sacrilegious or more dreadful.

My acquaintance with the first movie goes back to a theater screening within days of its release. I remember having enjoyed it immensely, but my love affair with the movie began a year later, in the earliest days of pay-extra cable movie channels.

The house of my youth was served by Theta Cable, long since defunct or swallowed up by Time Warner. Theta introduced its Z Channel in the mid-70s; it showed (for an additional monthly fee) recently released movies, two per week, each shown twice an evening for a week, until Friday brought a new pair of films. The channel brought a significant commercial-free enhancement to the broadcast television schedule.

One week, one of the movies was the Lumet Murder on the Orient Express. Decades later, my grandmother still remembered how often I watched the movie. During the week it appeared, I probably caught it once every evening, and perhaps even twice, eighth-grade bedtime permitting. It remains one of my ten favorite movies of all time.

This teenage love affair with the movie (and Tony Walton’s marvelous recreation of the original train) led me to read the book. It the second Christie I read, my first having been, perversely, Curtain. I enjoyed it every bit as much as the movie, and have reread it often, albeit not as often as I’ve seen the movie.

I know that Raymond Chandler wrote that only a half-wit could come up with the solution to Murder on the Orient Express, but I still think that you would need a very clever half-wit indeed to think so far outside the whodunit box. Sure, it’s a crazy solution, maybe even crazier than the one to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but leave it to Mrs. Christie to pull off an insane solution that actually makes sense.

(Note: when I refer to “the solution” to Murder on the Orient Express, I am referring to the second of the two solutions proffered by Poirot at the end of the novel. In what follows, I will do my best to avoid revealing the identity of the murder. Although I will refer to the murderer as “he”, that is mere syntactic expediency. It is in no way to be taken as an indicator that the murderer is a male individual.)

All that is preamble to a pay-extra cable experience I had last month. I made the mistake of watching Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express.

It’s the kind of movie that, five seconds after it begins, you whisper “it’s wrong already” to the person sitting next to you. It stays wrong for the next almost two hours, getting, if possible, even wronger by the time it’s over. To anyone who knows and appreciates the book (to say nothing of the first movie), this remake is just plain awful.

There is no shortage of Agatha Christie movies that wreak havoc with their source material. The series of movies with Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple is a good example. Whether or not you like Rutherford as Miss Marple (Mrs. Christie did not), the scripts of the movies are not in the least bit faithful to the books on which they are based. One is actually an entirely original story, and another has the temerity to turn a Poirot novel into a Miss Marple movie. Although the Margaret Rutherford movies are travesties (in the literal sense), they at least respect the spirit of the genre in which Mrs. Christie worked: the whodunit. No matter what their plots may be, the Rutherford Miss Marple movies all provide a crime, evidence and a solution that the viewer could conceivably have discovered before the end of the picture.

Even the ghastly version of And Then There Were None with Fabian retains the whodunit’s puzzle structure. At the root of the Agatha Christie novels is a puzzle – a puzzle in which the reader is invited to match wits with the authoress. The authoress usually prevails.

The Branagh Murder on the Orient Express loses sight of this concept. Presumably to avoid a series of inevitable one-on-one interviews with Poirot because they’re somehow uncinematic, the passengers’ stories are to a large degree intercut, so that, for example, we get what we get of Penélope Cruz’ character’s story in such tiny bits and pieces that I defy anyone to follow it.

This new Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a puzzle.

But, if it’s not a puzzle, what is it? Or, more to the point, what is it trying to be?

I think we find the answer in the now anticlimactic scene in which Poirot confronts the train’s passengers with his two solutions to the mystery. Putting aside the absurdity that the scene is played outside in the snow rather than onboard the nice and comfortable heated train (the movie contains much ridiculous traipsing around in the snow), Branagh plays it as though he’s figuring out the solution with everyone watching. Poirot would never do such a thing. The narration propounding the two solutions then yields to an impassioned speech from one of the passengers in which he (or she) begs Poirot to exercise clemency and allow the culprit to go free. (In other words, that Poirot adopt the first of his two solutions.) The plea for clemency hinges on a bunch of trite 2018 psychobabble reasons: Poirot is to tamper with justice to allow a psychologically damaged murderer go free and begin life anew.

In the book (but not in the Lumet movie), an analogous plea is made by the same character; it’s done in the space of a single paragraph, largely because it is beside the point. Without declaring a parti pris, the Poirot of novel leaves it to M. Bouc (a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits and the de facto authority figure on the train) to decide which of the two solutions will be presented to the Yugoslav police when the train arrives in Brod.

M. Bouc chooses the first solution. (As does Martin Balsam’s character in the first movie.) Poirot has nothing to do with the decision that allows the murderer to go free.

In offering the option of the first solution, a solution that all present know to be wrong, Poirot opens the door to allowing vigilante justice. The victim, Mr. Ratchett, has the blood of half a dozen people on his hands; the murderer on the Orient Express brings him to the justice he has theretofore escaped. Poirot is willing to let that stand. It’s a thorny issue: the rights and wrongs of vigilante justice is a theme that recurs in the Poirot casebook, most notably in Curtain.

There is, however, a very important but attached to the first solution. Poirot may be willing to let the murderer escape Yugoslav justice, but he’s not going to let the murderer think that he’s outsmarted the great Hercule Poirot.

The Branagh movie doesn’t end with the revealing of the two solutions. Instead, it galumphs along for what feels like fifteen minutes while Poirot/Branagh wrestles with his conscience. In this version, the choice of solution is given to Poirot, who propounds the two solutions so that he can choose between them. (What rational person does that?) The audience cannot doubt for a second which solution will ultimately be offered to the police, which is why the book and first movie end immediately when M. Bouc makes his choice. By dragging the movie on, Branagh turns a brilliant whodunit into some kind of rumination on the nature of justice – a rumination that not coincidentally stars himself.

Among other things, this kills the effect made by the solution when it is propounded. Raymond Chandler may have condemned Mrs. Christie’s audacity, but the solution clearly made a huge impression even on him. Murder on the Orient Express is headed in one direction and one direction only: the reveal of its audaciously brilliant solution. Perhaps Chandler was right: only a half-wit could guess the solution because there is no way that a reader of normal intelligence could possibly come up with it on his own.

When the reader learns the solution, he is dazzled by Mrs. Christie’s brilliance and daring…and that’s the end of his interest in the book. Only a half-wit would care about what happens next.

Therefore it follows that only a half-wit would want to watch the last fifteen minutes of the Branagh movie.

Mr. Branagh clearly thought he was smarter than Mrs. Christie and could therefore make a Murder on the Orient Express that was somehow better, cleverer (!), or more meaningful than the original. The position of anyone who isn’t a half-wit would be that Branagh would have done much better to start from scratch if he wanted to make a movie on a train with gunplay and detectives’ moral dilemmas.

All of the problems with the Branagh movie go back to one completely faulty assumption: thinking that Poirot is the central character.

In the thirty-three novels Mrs. Christie wrote with Hercule Poirot as detective, he is – with the single exception of Curtain – never the protagonist. The books are not about Poirot. Yes, he’s the unifying figure, as he plays his assigned role of illuminator of mysteries, but the characters who interest us as characters are the suspects, witnesses and murderers Poirot encounters in the course of his work.

Mrs. Christie’s descriptions of Poirot amount to little more than affable shtick: the egg-shaped head (“what is an egg-shaped head?”, Mrs. Christie once asked rhetorically in an interview); the glorious moustaches; the obsessive-compulsive straightening of objects; the dandified wardrobe and tight patent leather shoes; the eventual dyeing of his hair and mustache; the cat-like green eyes; the mangled English; sirop de cassis, tisanes and hot chocolate as beverages of choice; the advocating of order and method; and, of course, those famous grey cells.

These traits hardly constitute more than a quick sketch of the character. And they are all we ever get: Poirot barely has any backstory, and, his friendship with Hastings aside, his only other emotional involvement is with a female criminal whom he occasionally and fleetingly admires.

(Branagh, on the other hand, films himself sighing repeatedly over an old photograph of someone he keeps calling Catherine. Who she is, we never discover. We don’t care, either.)

To make the detective the central character, Branagh has to add details like that foolish sighing over the photograph. He also does things that are extremely un-Christean, as, for example, an interpolated and utterly pointless shootout in the baggage car. The tacked-on prologue in Jerusalem is a charmless invention that is superfluous to the case at hand. (In the book, Poirot boards the Orient Express after having solved a case for the French authorities in Syria. That’s all we ever hear of it. That’s all we ever need to know about it, either. Branagh wastes ten minutes so that Poirot (i.e. Branagh) can make a public spectacle of his genius in front of a preposterously co-ed Wailing Wall.)

We know that Mrs. Christie criticized Albert Finney’s moustaches in the Lumet movie, stating that they looked nothing like the finest moustaches in England, which is how she invariably describes them. (I would suggest that Mrs. Christie had no idea how they actually might look, and would have been hard-pressed to draw a picture of them.) In response, Mr. Branagh found some very elaborate facial hair to glue onto his face, but it just looks weird and calls attention to itself in the wrong way.

What’s most wrong about the mustache is that it’s grey. So is Poirot’s hair. That Poirot has recourse to the dye bottle is established in so many words in more than one novel. There is no way a Belgian detective with OCD would tolerate hair of different colors on his face and head. Greying hair is the opposite of order and method.

One can easily explain the attempt to make Poirot into the movie’s protagonist because of the generally bad idea of having an actor direct his own movie. Self-aggrandizement almost invariably results, as it does here. Perhaps the director would have done better to play one of the passengers. He might have taken the role of the victim. (Had he done so, we’d not have missed Johnny Depp in the slightest.)

There’s so much else in the movie that’s wrong I don’t know where – or even if I should – start. Item: the politically correct foolishness of turning Colonel Arbuthnot (the Sean Connery role) into Dr. Arbuthnot, and making him black. If the original passenger manifest was all-white, we mustn’t forget that Mrs. Christie was often a passenger on the real-life train, and knew what sort of people traveled on it from personal experience. Sticking in a black and then having him endlessly repeat his tiresome backstory is unnecessary. So is giving him a gun. And so is giving him a pipe he doesn’t get to smoke because we can’t have smoking onscreen and possibly offend non-smokers’ sensibilities.

(We can similarly assume that casting of Miss Cruz into the Greta Ohlsson role was a further attempt at jamming diversity down Mrs. Christie’s throat.)

All the rest of the casting is just as wrong. Josh Gad’s secretary to the victim creates the wrong kind of comedy. The added plot detail that he is stealing from Ratchett is particularly infelicitous: given that Ratchett is himself a murderer, only a half-wit would steal from him. Dame Judi Dench succeeds somehow in making the Princess Dragomiroff dull. Lucy Boynton’s drug-addicted Countess Andreyni is a foolish idea badly executed. I have no idea what Michelle Pfeiffer thought she was doing, but it’s all wrong for Mrs. Hubbard. And, if I don’t know what Miss Pfeiffer was doing, please don’t ask me about Derek Jacobi’s performance as the victim’s valet.

Even the train is wrong. Admittedly, the Lumet movie makes mistakes in some of the smaller details. Although the first film shows that the Orient Express departs Stambul with a dining car attached, a dining car wasn’t coupled to the real Orient Express until the train reached the Bulgarian border: the train departed at 10:00 p.m., by which time it was assumed that the passengers had dined. It’s a small point, but the shots of the train’s chef tasting oysters on the platform justify an inaccuracy that goes to establish the luxury onboard the train. That has also to be weighed against a dining car that incorporated crystal panels from the actual Orient Express. The Lumet and Walton train creates a dazzling vision of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits at its most elegant and luxurious. The movie’s train makes the viewer long to rush out and board the Orient Express himself.

What we get in the new mess creates no such longing. The train is riddled with countless absurd inaccuracies, such as a club car with a very long north-south bar that takes up an enormous amount of valuable space. Oh yes, it has a piano, too, although the pianist vanishes early in the movie, probably sensing her own superfluity. (The result is a club car that seats eight.) As for the dining car, suffice it to say that the designers equipped it with an open kitchen. In the 1930s. Those of the class that was able to travel on the Orient Express had neither desire nor interest to watch their food being prepared.

There’s no sense in beating the dead horse any further. Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a movie of the book. It’s also a bad movie. I’m not entirely sure what it is intended to be, but one thing is certain: Mrs. Christie knew very much better.

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