Posted by Susan Doll on January 7, 2013
Recently 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.”
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