Monthly Archives: June 2013

‘Murder on the Orient Express’

Original poster.

Original poster.

“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?”
Poirot rose.
“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.”

The Full Figure Girl

Me, Jane:  The image that caused all the trouble.

Me, Jane: The image that caused all the trouble. The Legion of Decency almost went up in smoke over this photograph.

I like Jane Russell: she was not an exciting actress, but she was glamorous and likable.  She was never less than competent, and her self-possession gave her natural authority. She was capable and relaxed with good actors (like Robert Mitchum); the better her co-stars were, the better she was. As Calamity Jane in “The Paleface,” she had surprisingly great chemistry with Bob Hope, whom she adored. I think it’s her most accomplished performance — it’s a real star turn.  She’s funny, sexy, beautiful and in complete command of the material. When her co-stars weren’t good (like Jack Buetel (“The Outlaw”) and Elliott Reid (her love interest in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”)), her own self-assurance prevented her from being dragged down by their incompetence, but she wasn’t skillful enough or sufficiently witty to improve second-rate material. She only made two pictures with Mitchum, but she admired him enormously and they remained friends for the rest of his life. Robert Osborne once interviewed the two of them for TCM’s “Private Screenings” series. Mitchum, who had been charming and voluble before the interview began, became as loquacious as a clam when the cameras began to roll. Osborne couldn’t get more than a few words out of him.

Osborne: You don’t have a favorite Robert Mitchum film?

Mitchum: I don’t think so. They don’t pay me to see ’em.

Russell [sees that Osborne is unhappy with the response — cheerfully]: I just like Robert Mitchum movies . . .

Russell had to do all of the talking, and she spent much of the interview praising Mitchum’s talent, loyalty and above all his amazing intelligence. It was hard to watch — Osborne was clearly discomfited by Mitchum’s implacable silence — but I couldn’t help being impressed by the way Russell handled the situation.  She did everything in her power to give Osborne the interview he had a right to expect — short of trying to shame Mitchum into conversation. Such an attempt wouldn’t have worked, of course, but she had the presence of mind to realize it. She knew Mitchum was smarter and more talented than she — she said so repeatedly; she knew he had more interesting stories to tell. But he wasn’t in the mood to talk, so she covered for him and did her best to be entertaining and cheerful. It was a demonstration of her natural generosity and pragmatism; it was also (I don’t want to make too much of this) valiant.

It’s her presence of mind, her sanity, that sets her apart from the other sex goddesses. She’s the most level-headed of the bunch.  She was, in fact, quite unlike any other screen siren. She never played a bubblehead (like Jean Harlow, Betty Grable and Marilyn) or a nervous wreck (like Marilyn and, sometimes — howlingly — Lana Turner and Joan Crawford). In “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” when Russell pretends to be Marilyn in a courtroom scene, the result isn’t good or funny: she’s too self-assured and untroubled to impersonate a woman with Marilyn’s catalogue of neuroses, and, paradoxically, too unimaginative to play a nitwit. Nor did she play rapacious man-traps (like Ava Gardner and early Crawford).

Jane Russell, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe in a publicity shot for 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.'

Jane Russell, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe in a publicity shot for ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.’

Ava Gardner often played women who liked sex for its own sake, but in every case that I know of, these characters were vicious home-wreckers, murderesses or sociopaths; moreover, the lewdness of these femmes fatales was invariably presented as unmistakable evidence of villainy. Cruelty was always a part of the kind of sex she was after.  In “East Side, West Side,” for example, the pleasure Ava gets from having sex with James Mason is all bound up with her sadistic desire to hurt his wife (Barbara Stanwyck) — a woman she has never met. She’s not after money or position: she’s only after sex, but the only sex she likes is the kind that makes another woman wretched.

Jane Russell was the only screen siren who enjoyed being a sexy woman without being a bitch, who liked having sex for the pleasure of it, without being a tramp, and who never fretted about her reputation, her libido or her ability to look after herself. Strictly speaking, she wasn’t a siren: she never lured a man to his doom, only to her bed, where she showed him a good time then dumped him when she’d had enough. Sometimes she even fell in love. That’s why her sexiness is nearly always refreshing, even in the dopiest pictures.  She’s always in full command of her sex appeal, never a victim of it. The wolf who won’t take no for an answer is bound to get knocked insensible with the nearest blunt object. In this scene from “Macao,” Mitchum comes to her rescue, but there’s little doubt she’d have solved her own problem — and just to show she’s not impressed, she lifts Mitchum’s wallet while he kisses her. “Now we’re even,” she says. The opening scenes of this picture are so entertaining, it sets up the expectation that the rest will be equally enjoyable. Take my word for it: it isn’t. Alas.

Before I forget — that drunken salesman is Harold J. Kennedy. He appeared in pictures rarely, and usually without credit; he worked more often in the theatre (rarely on Broadway, mostly in summer stock). He had a long career, both as an actor and a director, and ended up working with a lot of major stars — usually on their way up, or far along their journey to oblivion. In 1978, Doubleday published his hilarious, vulgar memoir, “No Pickle, No Performance: An Irreverent Excursion from Tallulah to Travolta.” (Kennedy was not afraid to drop names.) His writing is approximately like his acting in “Macao” — Peter Bogdanovich once asked Jack Benny if it was true that Ernst Lubitsch used to act out all the parts the way he wanted them done. Benny said, “Yes.” “Was he a good actor?” “Well . . . ” Benny replied, “He was broad . . . but you got the idea.” That’s Harold J. Kennedy.

Later in the picture, Russell sings “One for My Baby,” which is one of the few times she got to do anything complicated in a movie. She does a lot of things right, beginning with not making a beeline for self-pity — she fights the self-pity, allows it to sneak up on her instead. Very nice, that — but again, she’s too sane and sensible to get deep under the skin of the song. Have a look:

Part of her problem is focus: she keeps looking skyward. Who’s she singing to? I don’t think she figured that one out completely — it makes the emotion vague and renders everything less than perfectly candid. I don’t really blame her: that’s what a director is for. Anyhow, she’s got the right idea, but she doesn’t quite put it across.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Ida Lupino did a great croaking version of it in “Road House.” Here’s that performance: