HIGH COM­EDY AMID CHRISTIE’S CLUES

‘ MUR­DER ON THE ORI­ENT EX­PRESS’ ★★★ Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Novem­ber 1974

Chicago Sun-Times - - MOVIES -

Though Agatha Christie’s novel “Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press” was pub­lished in 1934, Hol­ly­wood took 40 years to make its first adap­ta­tion, a box- of­fice hit packed with celebs. Co- star In­grid Bergman would go on to win the best sup­port­ing ac­tress Academy Award, while Al­bert Fin­ney was a best ac­tor nom­i­nee.

There is a cry of alarm, some muf­fled French, a com­ing and go­ing in the cor­ri­dor. Her­cule Poirot, ad­just­ing the de­vices that keep his hair slicked down and his mus­tache curled up, pauses for a mo­ment in his train com­part­ment. He lifts an eye­brow. He looks out into the hall­way. He shrugs. The next morn­ing, it’s re­vealed that Ratch­ett, the hate­ful Amer­i­can mil­lion­aire, has been stabbed to death in his sleep.

This is the quite ob­vi­ously a case for Her­cule Poirot, the most fa­mous de­tec­tive in the world, and, over break­fast, he agrees to ac­cept it. The list of sus­pects is long, but lim­ited: It in­cludes ev­ery­body on board the crack Ori­ent Ex­press, en route from Is­tan­bul to Calais, and cur­rently brought to a stand­still by an avalanche of snow that has fallen across the track. Poirot ar­ranges to be­gin a se­ries of in­ter­views and plunges him­self ( and the rest of us) into a net of in­trigue so deep, so de­cep­tive, and so labyrinthine that only Agatha Christie would have wo­ven it.

“Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press” is a splen­didly en­ter­tain­ing movie of the sort that isn’t made any­more: It’s a clas­si­cal who­dunit, with all the clues planted and all of them vis­i­ble, and it’s peo­pled with a large and ex­pen­sive col­lec­tion of stars. Al­bert Fin­ney, who plays Poirot, is the most im­pres­sive, largely be­cause we can never for a mo­ment be­lieve that he is Fin­ney. His hair is slicked down to a patentleather shine, his eyes have some­how be­come beady and sus­pi­cious, his French mus­tache is con­stantly quiv­er­ing with alarm ( real and pre­tend), and he scur­ries up and down the train like a para­noid crab. The per­for­mance is bril­liant, and it’s high com­edy.

So is the movie, al­though it’s care­ful never to make its es­sen­tially comic in­ten­tions get in the way of Miss Christie’s well- oiled mys­tery. This isn’t a “thriller,” be­cause we’re not thrilled, or scared — only amused. The mur­der it­self has a cer­tain an­ti­sep­tic, rit­u­al­is­tic qual­ity, and the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is an ex­er­cise in so­phis­ti­cated cross- ex­am­i­na­tion and sput­ters of in­dig­na­tion. What I liked best about this movie is its style, both the de­lib­er­ately old- fash­ioned vis­ual strate­gies used by direc­tor Sid­ney Lumet, and the cheer­ful over­act­ing of the dozen or more sus­pects.

They form a suit­ably bizarre menagerie and at first glance have noth­ing in com­mon with one an­other. Bear with me please, and I’ll work my way through the all- stars: Lau­ren Ba­call is a par­tic­u­larly ob­nox­ious Amer­i­can, In­grid Bergman is an African mis­sion­ary, Michael York and Jac­que­line Bis­set are Hun­gar­ian roy­alty, Jean- Pierre Cas­sel is the con­duc­tor, Sean Con­nery is an English of­fi­cer re­turn­ing from In­dia, Vanessa Red­grave is his con­stant com­pan­ion, John Giel­gud is a veddy, veddy proper man- ser­vant to mil­lion­aire Richard Wid­mark, Wendy Hiller is an aloof Rus­sian aris­to­crat, An­thony Perkins is Wid­mark’s sec­re­tary, Rachel Roberts is a neo- Nazi ladies’ maid, Martin Bal­sam is a direc­tor of the rail­road line, and there are, be­lieve it or not, oth­ers also un­der sus­pi­cion.

There are ob­vi­ously big tech­ni­cal prob­lems here: More than a dozen char­ac­ters have to be in­tro­duced and kept alive, a very com­pli­cated plot has to be un­rav­eled, and ev­ery­thing must take place within the claus­tro­pho­bic con­fines of the rail­way car. Lumet over­comes his dif­fi­cul­ties in great style, and we’re never for a mo­ment con­fused ( ex­cept when we’re sup­posed to be, which is most of the time).

There is hardly any­thing more I can tell you, or even hint, about the plot, ex­cept that noth­ing is as it seems ( and you knew that al­ready about a movie based on an Agatha Christie book). The movie pro­vides a good time, high style, a loving sa­lute to an ear­lier pe­riod of filmmaking, and an un­ex­pected bonus: It ends with a very long scene in which Poirot asks ev­ery­one to be silent, please, while he ex­plains his var­i­ous the­o­ries of the case. He does so in great de­tail, and it’s fun of a rather ma­li­cious sort watch­ing a dozen high- priced stars keep their mouths shut and just lis­ten while Fin­ney mas­ter­fully dom­i­nates the scene.

Al­bert Fin­ney played Poirot in the 1974 adap­ta­tion of “Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press.” | PARAMOUNT PIC­TURES

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