“Murder on the Orient Express” (Paramount/EMI, 1974) begins with a great, crashing cadenza from orchestra and grand piano, which resolves into the haunting main theme. The orchestration is so lush and lavish it’s actually funny: the composer, Richard Rodney Bennett, is letting you know from the first chord that he will not be kidding around. It’s an ideal opening to this superb adaptation of the famous Agatha Christie novel. The picture is all about style, glamour and intelligent silliness; the music captures this perfectly, and sets the tone for what is to come. The score is one of the very best ever to be composed for a picture. Early in the pre-production process, a serious effort was made to hire the legendary Bernard Herrmann to write the score, but talks broke down when he could not be dissuaded from his initial assessment of the sort of music the story called for: “It is . . . a train of DEATH!” Sidney Lumet told him, no, he wanted something more elegant, sophisticated, romantic. But Herrmann remained obdurate: “It is . . . a train . . . of DEATH!” Herrmann hated Richard Rodney Bennett’s score — he may be the only one who did.
The screen adaptation is quite a lot better than the original novel. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie novels, and I’m bound to say I cannot account for her immense popularity. I don’t mean to suggest she’s terrible, of course: at her best, she’s ingenious, and her two most famous detectives, Hercule Poirot (whom she grew to dislike intensely) and Jane Marple (whom she liked very much) have enough peculiarities to make them interesting. But the rest of her characters seem nearly interchangeable, and often the solutions aren’t worth the trouble it took to arrive at them. The novel that made her famous, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” strikes me as the best of a fairly feeble lot, while “Murder on the Orient Express” is one of the least satisfactory. Except for Poirot, there’s very little in the way of characterization, and she doesn’t come close to conveying the luxury and glamour of first class travel aboard the Orient Express. The novel’s structure is unusually clumsy: halfway through, there’s an account of a seemingly unrelated kidnapping (based on the Lindbergh case), which interferes with the story’s natural momentum — and the story is told in stilted, unnatural dialogue. The motion picture corrects the structural weakness: rather than stick the kidnapping, which precedes the main action of the story by five years, in the middle, screenwriter Paul Dehn opens the picture with it. It’s a tour de force — one of the best openings I’ve ever seen. It’s just under three and a half minutes, and I find it irresistible:
What is irresistible about it? Well, most importantly, it’s this: no matter how often I see it, leaves me asking the question, “What happens next?” In this case, the answer is: next we meet Hercule Poirot, who has just finished a case in Istanbul and is heading to England on the Orient Express. This sequence, too, is a tour de force. Director Sidney Lumet and his cast had exactly one night to shoot the entire ten minute sequence in a French train station; the set-ups were so complex that there wasn’t time to do a single runthrough — the actors and all the extras had to hit their marks correctly on the first take; the light technicians and cameramen had to execute their jobs perfectly without rehearsal and without a chance to do retakes. The result is one of the most celebrated movie sequences from the 1970s. This was in the days before autofocus, so when the camera travelled, the operator had to keep everything in focus manually — it’s incredibly difficult to do, even when one has plenty of rehearsal. I remember when I saw this picture in its first run — at the Cinerama in Seattle — after the long, backward tracking shot that runs the length of the train, when the camera closes in on the locomotive and the headlight suddenly turns on, there was a great wave of spontaneous applause. We all knew we were seeing something remarkable. At the time, I couldn’t have identified what, exactly, made the sequence so special, but it was extraordinary — unmistakably so. Here’s the sequence in its entirety. (If you want to skip ahead, the tracking shot begins at 7:25.)
The other great improvement is in the vividness of the characters. It’s tempting to believe that the all star cast is responsible for making the characters so much more interesting and eccentric than those in the novel, but this isn’t entirely true. The cast is wonderful — especially Albert Finney, whose long summation at the end is a masterclass in the art of dominating a scene. But the actors had a lot of help from the screenwriter. To put it bluntly, Paul Dehn’s dialogue is far superior to Agatha Christie’s. He kept most of her plot and very little of her dialogue. She always got the job done, but she rarely wrote memorably funny lines. Dehn’s script is full of sparkling dialogue. Here are a few examples of passages from the book followed by Dehn’s adaptations of them.
First, here’s an early scene on the train. The man who will be murdered, Samuel Ratchett, tries unsuccessfully to persuade Poirot to act as his bodyguard:
“I regret, Monsieur,” [Poirot] said at length. “I cannot oblige you.”
The other looked at him shrewdly.
“Name your figure, then,” [Ratchett] said.
Poirot shook his head.
“You do not understand, Monsieur. I have been very fortunate in my profession. I have made enough money to satisfy both my needs and my caprices. I take now only such cases as — interest me.”
“You’ve got a pretty good nerve,” said Ratchett. “Will twenty thousand dollars tempt you?”
“It will not.”
“If you’re holding out for more, you won’t get it. I know what a thing’s worth to me.”
“I also — M. Ratchett.”
“What’s wrong with my proposition?”
“If you will forgive me for being personal — I do not like your face, M. Ratchett,” he said.
“I have made enough money to satisfy both my needs and my caprices” is the best line in this exchange, and it’s the only one that made it into Dehn’s screenplay. As you’ll see, the exchange is brisker and has far more personality in it.
Albert Finney’s performance is brilliant, but Paul Dehn has also given him better, tighter dialogue to work with.
Here are a few short passages from Christie’s chapter entitled “The Evidence of the Valet”:
[Poirot asked,] “Do you remember reading in the paper of the Armstrong kidnapping case?”
A little colour came into the man’s cheeks.
“Yes, indeed, sir. A little baby girl, wasn’t it? A very shocking affair.”
“Did you know that your employer, M. Ratchett, was the principal instigator in that affair?”
“No, indeed, sir.” The valet’s tone held positive warmth and feeling for the first time. “I can hardly believe it, sir.”
* * *
“Is there anyone in [your compartment] with you?”
“Yes, sir. A big Italian fellow.”
“Does he speak English?”
“Well, a kind of English, sir.” The valet’s tone was deprecating. “He’s been in America — Chicago — I understand.”
“Do you and he talk together much?”
“No, sir. I prefer to read.”
“And what, may I ask, are you reading?” he inquired.
“At present, sir, I am reading Love’s Captive, by Mrs Arabella Richardson.”
Here’s the scene in the picture:
Now here are two examples of Dehn’s dialogue that isn’t based on anything in the novel, but provides welcome and much-needed light-heartedness in a script that is essentially (and necessarily) an unbroken stream of exposition. The first is Poirot’s interview of a secretary named Miss Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave). In the novel, Miss Debenham’s only telling characteristic is her British unflappability, but Christie merely informs us of this quality; Miss Debenham’s dialogue doesn’t manifest it. Dehn solves the problem nicely and Redgrave takes it further: she makes the woman a smiling sphinx, and her response demonstrates that Miss Debenham listens carefully to what is said to her and wastes no time in supplying a maddening answer — and in as few words as possible.
Mrs Hubbard, a garrulous American millionairess with a noisy opinion about everybody and everything, is played to perfection by Lauren Bacall. Bacall had a great knack for this sort of part: she had authority and style, and never bothered about being likeable. Nor did she ever lay it on too thick — a consummate pro. It’s wonderful to see her float through a crowd of crouching, chattering beggars as if they didn’t exist.
Finally, one more moment with John Gielgud. Nothing remotely like this passage is in the book. I include it because there are few things funnier than hearing John Gielgud say the words “spotted dick.”