Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

‘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.”

Charles Laughton in ‘Witness for the Prosecution’

Witness for the Prosecution Original Poster

‘Witness for the Prosecution’: Original Poster

When Billy Wilder was asked to name the best actor he ever worked with, his reply was immediate and final:  “Charles Laughton.”  Wilder worked with Laughton only once, but it’s easy to see why he held him in such high regard:  Laughton really was one of the most remarkable actors of his time.  Unlike Claude Rains, Laughton was often terrible — he veered far beyond the bounds of sentimentality time and again, and if he weren’t held in check, he had a tendency to ham it up.  But in the right material — not necessarily good material — with the right director, Laughton was as great as they come.  The picture Billy Wilder directed him in was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s stage play, “Witness for the Prosecution.”  With one notable exception, the acting is of so high a calibre, one barely can tell how thin the material is or notice the many holes in the plot.  The cast is full of first rate character actors, along with one or two amusingly second rate character actors (e.g., Henry Daniell, the ubiquitous Nellie from the 40s and 50s).  But the star is unquestionably the third-billed Charles Laughton, who appears to be having a fine time as the eminent barrister, Sir Wilfred Robarts (known by his admirers as “Wilfred the Fox”), who defends a man by the name of Leonard Vole in a murder trial.

Most of the picture takes place indoors, in one of two settings — Sir Wilfred’s law offices, and a courtroom at the Old Bailey.  Laughton and the supporting cast put on such a great show, there’s no sense of claustrophobia.  Indeed, the only claustrophobic scenes are those outside of the main settings . . . and that’s due almost entirely to Tyrone Power, who has top billing in the picture.  Power, at 44, is at least ten years too old to play the defendant, repeatedly referred to as “young man” — and looks at least twenty years too old.  The poor man died the following year, and he looks as if he might drop dead at any second.  He was never a good actor; when he was young, he was so stupendously attractive, nobody seemed to notice — but he aged badly (in “Witness for the Prosecution,” he often looks like Bela Lugosi — see below).  Without his youthful good looks, Power’s incompetent line readings had nowhere to hide.  Never mind — the rest of the cast are game, and more than a few of them have aces up their sleeves.

Ravages of Time:  Tyrone Power circa 1937, Power 1957, Bela Lugosi circa 1932 O fearful meditation!  Where, alack,  Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid? Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back, Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?  (Shakespeare Sonnet 65)

The Ravages of Time: Tyrone Power circa 1937, Power 1957, Bela Lugosi circa 1932
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
                  — William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65

Leonard Vole is accused of the murder of Emily Jane French, a well-to-do widow who had befriended him several months before her death.  Mrs French is played by the estimable Norma Varden, who had more than 150 credits to her name when she died.  She is perhaps best known as the wife of the monocled Englishman in the zebra-striped tie who gets his pocket picked in the first scene of “Casablanca.”  She was also the dithery clubwoman who is nearly strangled at a party by Robert Walker in “Strangers on a Train.”  Mrs French is a small role, but Varden makes the most of it.  I’m always glad to see her whenever she pops up in a picture.

Norma Varden as Emily French:  She is, what is known in Agatha Christie stories, "ripe to die."

Norma Varden as Emily French: She is, what is known in Agatha Christie stories, “ripe to die.”

Varden’s amusing, pathetic Emily French is but one of several lively performances in the picture.  I’m particularly fond of the hatchet-faced, always welcome comedienne, Una O’Connor, who was so memorable in “The Invisible Man,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and indeed, every one of the 84 pictures she appeared in.  Her turn as Emily French’s devoted servant, Miss Janet McKenzie in “Witness for the Prosecution” was her last, and perhaps her very funniest.  I hope you can tell from the pictures below that she is riotously funny every second she’s on the screen.  She’s also perfectly believable:  she does not play Miss McKenzie as a sweet old dear — no Helen Hayes she — no, she plays her as a querulous, suspicious old bitch.  There’s nothing remotely camp or overbroad about her desiccated little termagant . . . just honest hilarity.  Here she is in the witness box.

Witness OConnor 02

Witness OConnor 03

Witness OConnor 04

Witness OConnor 05

Witness OConnor

Una O’Connor: The many moods of Janet McKenzie — all of them ill-humored.

Francis Compton, likewise, is wonderfully droll as the learned judge.  He was primarily a stage actor.  This was the last picture he appeared in.

Francis Compton as the Judge

Francis Compton as the Judge

What all of these actors, beginning with Laughton, have in common is that they elevate the material.  By their very nature, courtroom dramas rely more heavily on exposition than most other movie genres, so it’s important that the actors who speak the exposition have enough personality to make the retailing of facts interesting.  Here’s an example of what I mean.  This is Sir Wilfred’s opening statement to the jury, before he puts his client on the stand.  In it, he tells us only what we already know.  The speech lasts just under two and a half minutes.  Except for an insert about halfway in, Wilder lets Laughton deliver it in a single take.  I expect Laughton did the whole speech in one take, and Wilder chose to add an insert to keep it from being overly static.  But it’s a marvel of great acting.  A recitation and repetition of facts that Laughton makes riveting, by sheer force of technique and personality.  In his heyday, it was said that Laughton could wring tears from an audience by reading the phone book.  The clip below suggests that this claim was not an exaggeration.

It would be ungentlemanly of me to neglect Marlene Dietrich.  Her performance is wonderful, everything it should be.  It’s even in the way being of a tour de force, albeit a quiet one.  She and Laughton play together beautifully.  They must have liked each other enormously.  But what must she have thought of Tyrone Power . . .?