A great case-study in how one great performance can make a movie worthwhile. Murder on the Orient Express is exquisitely constructed. Director Sidney Lumet handles the sprawling cast with ease and constantly fills the frame with lush period-detail. It’s as glitz and glam as a 70s period picture can be, shot on beautiful celluloid, production designed within an inch of its life, scored with utter bombast and cast to the nines. This is probably the most impressive international cast you could hope to assemble in 1974; Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Widmark, Martin Balsam, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave and Albert Finney. Blimey! Talk about A-list.
Being based on one of Agatha Christie’s most renowned novels, Orient Express also boasts a crackerjack murder mystery. Luckily mastermind detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) is on the scene and quickly gets to work in breaking down the clues and solving the crime. Now, everything I’ve already pin-pointed in the movie is all well and good but it’s all rather generic, like lavish background dressing. Where the film really comes alive is through Finney’s performance. Not known for taking on hard character roles (Alec Guinness was Lumet’s first choice), Finney is nothing short of a revelation as Poirot. Made up to be twenty years older and camouflaged with a bulky posture and bumbling accent, I wonder if I would have even recognised it as Albert Finney were it not for his name it the credits. He totally disappears into the role. He’s hilarious though and convincingly sharp. I love all of the little ticks and details that make Poirot Poirot. Finney imbues so much nuance into is portrayal that the joy of most scenes is simply watching him tackle the character’s body language or dialogue. The last act of Murder on the Orient Express is essentially one long monologue by Poirot as he breaks down his evidence to the collective of suspects and presents his theory as to who did the evil deed. To sustain the audience’s interest for such a length of screen time is no mean feat but Finney makes a meal out of it and the sequence flies by. It’s really something and probably one of the best slices of solo-performance I’ve seen.
Much has been said about Christie lately, what with Tarantino’s Hateful Eightopenly borrowing from her bag of tricks. That film also shares Orient Express‘s snowy setting which confines the suspects to one space, but where Tarantino’s take felt like a modern take on something old-fashioned, Lumet’s approach is unashamedly classical. It’s exactly the right way to do this sort of film, but when watched today it can’t help but feel like an old bottle of perfume. The lavish packaging has faded and the scent has lost much of it’s potency. Seeing all of these top-shelf players build and ensemble together is lots of fun and the murder mystery has a very satisfying and sly pay-off. It’s not enough however to make the entirety of it’s two hour plus running time feel warranted. There’s only so many scenes of characters talking in a train car you can take before it starts to feel a bit repetitive.
Luckily, Finney’s fantastic turn as Poirot gives the film a constant through line of surprise and ennui that climaxes in an epic barrage of inspired exposition that is somehow the most entertaining part of the picture. Even watching it for the first time today, forty two years after it’s release, I consider it a genuinely great performance and one that appears to be quite overlooked. All window-dressing aside, Murder on the Orient Express looks rather plain and average now. Lumet is on solid form, of-course, and most of the actors get their five minutes to show-off but all of them are overshadowed by Finney who’s performance makes it all feel like essential viewing. It’s not, but his performance is.