Revisiting Murder on the Orient Express

orientposterRecently I read Making Movies, Sidney Lumet’s career autobiography about his work as a director. This insightful but unpretentious bio includes no salacious stories about wild parties and loose women, no vindictive recollections about past slights, and no sad stories of a woeful childhood. Instead, Lumet recalled the production of his movies in great detail, providing insight into the process of film production along the way. He described the aesthetic and technical decisions on his films and what he intended them to mean—even if they did not work out the way he wanted. Lumet’s enlightening explanations and interpretations are a welcome change from directors who insist they never intend any deep meaning or subtext when they select certain techniques or create specific imagery. He also explains each phase of film production, from scriptwriting to scouting locations to shooting to scoring to marketing. The book serves as a crash course in film studies, and I highly recommend it to movie lovers of all ages.

One film that Lumet repeatedly discussed took me by surprise. The director is renowned for his pointed social dramas in which society’s institutions brutalize, betray, or forsake the protagonists or other characters. Acclaimed films such as Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, and Prince of the City criticize society’s weaknesses, offering pessimistic portraits of our contemporary era.  While Lumet did describe the production and meaning of these films in detail, he was equally forthcoming with a much lighter movie—Murder on the Orient Express.

SIDNEY LUMET, c. 1974

SIDNEY LUMET, c. 1974

An adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s wildly popular Hercule Poirot mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express was released in 1974, which was the height of the Film School Generation’s innovation, exploration, and experimentation. It was a throwback to the glamor and fantasy of the classic Hollywood that the Film School Generation had eschewed. As much as I love the films of the 1960s-1970s, I remember just how serious, difficult, and downright pessimistic they could be. After a steady diet of dark dramas, violent action, unheroic protagonists, and unresolved endings, Murder on the Orient Express was like a welcome breeze in an overheated room.

It is clear from his description of the production that Lumet enjoyed making this old-school mystery. He confessed that he “shrieked with joy” when he finished reading the script and discovered the identity of the killer, who committed murder on the world’s most famous train. I thought I would share some of his strategies as the movie progressed through the different stages of filmmaking, because Lumet’s insights made me appreciate that craftsmanship and aforethought are not exclusive to movies with serious intent and meaningful themes.

GEORGE COULOURIS AS THE DOCTOR

GEORGE COULOURIS AS THE DOCTOR

Lumet decided from the beginning of his involvement that the key to adapting the novel, which had been written 40 years earlier, was to evoke nostalgia. It was the guiding word for all departments working on the movie, from the period set design by Tony Walton to the satiny Art Deco titles in the opening credits. Thus, the film had an additional intent than the original novel, which was contemporary with Christie’s time when it was published. Lumet’s contribution to the nostalgia theme was the decision to use an all-star cast of glamorous, old-school Hollywood icons and established British actors, a technique no longer in vogue in the era of method actors playing antiheroes in social dramas rendered in a naturalistic style. The cast included Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Richard Widmark, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Rachel Roberts, Jacqueline Bisset, and Michael York. Lumet decided that even the supporting players should be treated as larger than life, so small roles were given to veterans such as Jean-Pierre Cassel, Martin Balsam, and Colin Blakely. Old-timer George Coulouris, who played Thatcher in Citizen Kane, made the most of a bit role as the doctor who examines the body of the victim.

POIROT REVEALS THE MURDERER TO THE OTHER CHARACTERS.

POIROT REVEALS THE MURDERER TO THE OTHER CHARACTERS.

Such a star-studded cast came with a potential problem—a diversity of acting styles. Hollywood stars, Broadway-trained performers, and British stage actors were being thrown together in a Grand Hotel-type story that could have resulted in a clash of styles, not to mention a clash of egos. But, Lumet reminded the cast that all acting styles have something in common, which is the art of really listening to your fellow actors in character in a scene and then responding in kind as your character. According to Lumet, the stage actors were star-struck by the movie stars, and the movie people were impressed with the stage performers, particularly Finney, Gielgud, and Redgrave who were acting on the London stage in the evenings and working on Murder on the Orient Express during the day. Ultimately, the cast worked extremely well together. Lumet also wanted to echo the more melodramatic acting of the Golden Age, particularly for those archetypal characters with less screen time, such as Bergman’s Swedish missionary or Connery’s British soldier. Even Finney played Hercule Poirot broadly, exaggerating his fussiness and aloof manner. Lumet’s decision to heighten the melodrama turned stereotypes into memorable characters through the efforts of seasoned actors and old-school stars who enjoyed the opportunity to play up the glamor and adventure of another time and place.

BERGMAN'S CHARACTER GETS THE THIRD DEGREE FROM POIROT.

BERGMAN’S CHARACTER GETS THE THIRD DEGREE FROM POIROT.

In the chapter on writing the script, Lumet confessed that he liked long monologues in films, but studio executives and producers rarely did, because they feared audiences would get bored. One of the reasons MGM resisted Network was because screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky had written four long monologues for the character Howard Beale. In Murder on the Orient Express, Ingrid Bergman’s skill was showcased in one key scene in which her timid character is interrogated by the determined Poirot, a scene that Lumet captured in a single continuous take of about five minutes. The conclusion of the film depicts Finney revealing the truth to the other characters as key scenes of the murder are re-played  based on his solution. Finney’s monologue runs 17-minutes with his character becoming increasingly agitated as his narration continues—an illustration of Finney’s ability to control and sustain the emotion of the scene.  Small wonder that Bergman won an Oscar for her performance as the meek missionary while Finney was nominated for his turn as Poirot.

WENDY HILLER, SEAN CONNERY, LAUREN BACALL

RACHEL ROBERTS, WENDY HILLER, SEAN CONNERY, LAUREN BACALL, & MARTIN BALSAM

Lumet worked closely with cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth to create “the sheer physical beauty” that was the director’s goal for the look of Murder on the Orient Express. Unsworth used a long lens to soften the image in general; sometimes, he opted for backlighting to highlight the mystery, glamor, and romantic nostalgia of the material. But the cinematography is more than just an appealing, romanticized vision of the past; it subtly guides the viewer’s perception of events. For example, some events are depicted twice in Murder on the Orient Express.  The characters’ participation in the murder is depicted early in the film, but we don’t understand the significance of their actions. Later, during Poirot’s lengthy revelation, we see their same actions in context of the truth. Unsworth shot the first version of the events with a normal lens, which approximates the normal vision of humans; he shot the second version in a wide angle lens, which subtly distorts the image. Viewers may not be able to recall or articulate why, but the scenes shot with the wide-angle lens will seem different, or “off.”

THE SET FOR THE ISTANBUL TRAIN STATION

THE SET FOR THE ISTANBUL TRAIN STATION

The opening scene of the characters boarding the Orient Express in the Istanbul station was shot inside a shed in a railroad yard outside Paris. Inside the shed, a six-car train consisting of antique cars from Brussels and an old-fashioned engine from the Swiss Alps masqueraded as the luxurious Orient Express. The most stress-inducing shot in the scene was the one of the train leaving the station, because Lumet and Unsworth had only one chance to nail it. It is the last shot of the scene, in which the train rolls toward the camera as it leaves the station. The train increases its speed as it passes by the camera, which then tracks toward the Wagon Lits logo on the middle car. (Wagon Lits constructed the luxury cars for European railroads.) The camera pans left across the logo, then stops to catch the rest of the train as it flies by. The shot ends on the tail lights of the last car as it disappears into the darkness.

THE WAGON LITS LOGO IN A LATER SCENE

THE WAGON LITS LOGO IN A LATER SCENE

The opening scene was scheduled to be completed on a Sunday night, including the final shot. Bergman, Finney, Redgrave, and Gielgud were flown in on Saturday night after their stage performances in London on the condition that they be back in London on Monday. In addition, the cast and crew were supposed to vacate the shed by 8:00am Monday morning when the railroad company needed the space. After the actors were finished around midnight, it was time for the final shot. Lumet had till 5:10am to complete the final shot, because that was the time the sun would start to rise. The hours ticked by as Unsworth and his crew worked to light the cavernous space. He completed the lighting at 4:30am, which gave Lumet, Unsworth, and McDonald 40 minutes to get the shot. Fortunately, the careful preparation paid off, and the shot went off without a hitch. The success of the shot was dependent on camera assistant, Peter McDonald, who racked focus on the Wagon Lits logo as the train rolled past the camera.

Lumet confessed that the production of Murder on the Orient Express was exhausting, recalling, “You’ve never seen anyone work so intensely on something meant to be light in spirit.”

22 Responses Revisiting Murder on the Orient Express
Posted By Carol : January 7, 2013 12:29 pm

“Even Finney played Hercule Poirot broadly, exaggerating his English fussiness and aloof manner.”

Poirot was Belgian, not English. I suppose it’s a change from being mistaken for French all the time. :)

Thanks for the write-up.

Posted By Carol : January 7, 2013 12:29 pm

“Even Finney played Hercule Poirot broadly, exaggerating his English fussiness and aloof manner.”

Poirot was Belgian, not English. I suppose it’s a change from being mistaken for French all the time. :)

Thanks for the write-up.

Posted By robbushblog : January 7, 2013 12:41 pm

MOTOE is a great, fun little mystery. I watched it again last year and was surprised that I didn’t remember who had committed the murder. It was like watching it for the first time again and I enjoyed it immensely.

One thing: “Even Finney played Hercule Poirot broadly, exaggerating his English fussiness and aloof manner.” Poirot is Belgian. Have a great day, Suzi.

Posted By robbushblog : January 7, 2013 12:41 pm

MOTOE is a great, fun little mystery. I watched it again last year and was surprised that I didn’t remember who had committed the murder. It was like watching it for the first time again and I enjoyed it immensely.

One thing: “Even Finney played Hercule Poirot broadly, exaggerating his English fussiness and aloof manner.” Poirot is Belgian. Have a great day, Suzi.

Posted By swac44 : January 7, 2013 12:49 pm

No doubt the success of this adaptation led to Peter Ustinov’s enjoyable portrayal of Hercule Poirot, and although fans of the series might consider David Suchet’s TV portrayal to be definitive (much like some consider Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes), I’d love to see someone take another crack at Poirot for the big screen (or any Christie character, really). But I wonder if the flood of TV adaptations has devalued her canon in terms of its cinematic worth.

Posted By swac44 : January 7, 2013 12:49 pm

No doubt the success of this adaptation led to Peter Ustinov’s enjoyable portrayal of Hercule Poirot, and although fans of the series might consider David Suchet’s TV portrayal to be definitive (much like some consider Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes), I’d love to see someone take another crack at Poirot for the big screen (or any Christie character, really). But I wonder if the flood of TV adaptations has devalued her canon in terms of its cinematic worth.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 7, 2013 1:30 pm

Carol and Rob: I forgot that Poirot was actually Belgian, though the character is the construction of an English writer. I corrected the text above. I appreciate my loyal readers who help me out with these kinds of mistakes, because there are no editors or fact-checkers to do so.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 7, 2013 1:30 pm

Carol and Rob: I forgot that Poirot was actually Belgian, though the character is the construction of an English writer. I corrected the text above. I appreciate my loyal readers who help me out with these kinds of mistakes, because there are no editors or fact-checkers to do so.

Posted By Doug : January 7, 2013 3:37 pm

A fine post, Susan-thank you. When you mentioned ” This insightful but unpretentious bio includes no salacious stories about wild parties and loose women, no vindictive recollections about past slights, and no sad stories of a woeful childhood.”
It reminded me of the Ginger Rogers auto biography-she remembered the fun of making her movies,gave some details as to the productions, but to read her book, you would never know that she was married once, let alone five or so times, and the sexual exploits of her Hollywood compatriots obviously weren’t noteworthy. She was a lady.
“MOTOE” came out when I was 15-it wasn’t the type of show that a 15 year old boy would care to see, but I may check it out now.
Ingrid Bergman-a few years ago I wrote a epilogue for Casablanca in interview form. A history student finds and interviews Ilsa Lund about her time in WWII assisting her husband Victor Lazlo.
After the events of Casablanca when Ilsa and Victor leave in a plane they are captured working once more in the Czech underground. Victor is killed, Ilsa placed in a camp where she is rescued by Rick Blaine, who has heard of her capture and comes looking for her.
They get married after the war and move to Arizona, which is where the history student interviews her.
I love happy endings.

Posted By Doug : January 7, 2013 3:37 pm

A fine post, Susan-thank you. When you mentioned ” This insightful but unpretentious bio includes no salacious stories about wild parties and loose women, no vindictive recollections about past slights, and no sad stories of a woeful childhood.”
It reminded me of the Ginger Rogers auto biography-she remembered the fun of making her movies,gave some details as to the productions, but to read her book, you would never know that she was married once, let alone five or so times, and the sexual exploits of her Hollywood compatriots obviously weren’t noteworthy. She was a lady.
“MOTOE” came out when I was 15-it wasn’t the type of show that a 15 year old boy would care to see, but I may check it out now.
Ingrid Bergman-a few years ago I wrote a epilogue for Casablanca in interview form. A history student finds and interviews Ilsa Lund about her time in WWII assisting her husband Victor Lazlo.
After the events of Casablanca when Ilsa and Victor leave in a plane they are captured working once more in the Czech underground. Victor is killed, Ilsa placed in a camp where she is rescued by Rick Blaine, who has heard of her capture and comes looking for her.
They get married after the war and move to Arizona, which is where the history student interviews her.
I love happy endings.

Posted By DBenson : January 7, 2013 3:55 pm

In the book “Murder Ink,” Tony Walton wrote a piece describing how the train interiors were designed to be more glamourous than the real thing.

I remember reading the Mad Magazine satire before seeing it. Mad gave away the ending, but I was sure they were kidding. Then, in the last moments of the movie, I found out they were NOT kidding. Is it a spoiler when you don’t believe it?

Anyway, a fun film.

Posted By DBenson : January 7, 2013 3:55 pm

In the book “Murder Ink,” Tony Walton wrote a piece describing how the train interiors were designed to be more glamourous than the real thing.

I remember reading the Mad Magazine satire before seeing it. Mad gave away the ending, but I was sure they were kidding. Then, in the last moments of the movie, I found out they were NOT kidding. Is it a spoiler when you don’t believe it?

Anyway, a fun film.

Posted By WA : January 7, 2013 4:04 pm

Love this movie – and post. Two things: 1.) the gorgeous score by Richard Rodney Bennett adds immeasurably to the film’s nostalgia, glamour and mystery, and 2.) I remember thinking at the time that I was disappointed that Lauren Bacall wasn’t singled out along with Ingrid Bergman for giving a great performance. It’s certainly one of her finer, later performances.

Posted By WA : January 7, 2013 4:04 pm

Love this movie – and post. Two things: 1.) the gorgeous score by Richard Rodney Bennett adds immeasurably to the film’s nostalgia, glamour and mystery, and 2.) I remember thinking at the time that I was disappointed that Lauren Bacall wasn’t singled out along with Ingrid Bergman for giving a great performance. It’s certainly one of her finer, later performances.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 7, 2013 5:37 pm

Doug: I have read Ginger Rogers’ autiobio, and I enjoyed it. Everyone is curious about the gossip in Hollywood, including me, but I always admire those who refrain from it.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 7, 2013 5:37 pm

Doug: I have read Ginger Rogers’ autiobio, and I enjoyed it. Everyone is curious about the gossip in Hollywood, including me, but I always admire those who refrain from it.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 7, 2013 5:38 pm

WA: I am glad you mentioned the score. I was going to and then didn’t. In the scene in which the train is pulling out of the station, the music echoes train sounds — at least it does to me.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 7, 2013 5:38 pm

WA: I am glad you mentioned the score. I was going to and then didn’t. In the scene in which the train is pulling out of the station, the music echoes train sounds — at least it does to me.

Posted By Gene : January 7, 2013 10:05 pm

Sidney Lumet was truly a treasure and I found Making Movies to be a great read on being a film director. He was so unpretentious and such an incredible talent. I haven’t seen MOTOE since I was a kid. Will have to revisit it though I will confess I am one of those who finds David Suchet’s interpretation to be unrivaled (just as Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple) so it will be interesting to consider Finney’s performance.

Posted By Gene : January 7, 2013 10:05 pm

Sidney Lumet was truly a treasure and I found Making Movies to be a great read on being a film director. He was so unpretentious and such an incredible talent. I haven’t seen MOTOE since I was a kid. Will have to revisit it though I will confess I am one of those who finds David Suchet’s interpretation to be unrivaled (just as Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple) so it will be interesting to consider Finney’s performance.

Posted By SergioM : January 8, 2013 11:41 am

I still vividly remember the first time I saw this film in a theater when it came out and coming down with a bad case of the flu while watching it. I was shivering in my seat like it was 15 degrees in the theater. I had to make it through the end and somehow I got back home and practically had to be dragged by my parents to the bed.

The insane devotion of a film nut

Posted By SergioM : January 8, 2013 11:41 am

I still vividly remember the first time I saw this film in a theater when it came out and coming down with a bad case of the flu while watching it. I was shivering in my seat like it was 15 degrees in the theater. I had to make it through the end and somehow I got back home and practically had to be dragged by my parents to the bed.

The insane devotion of a film nut

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