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Murder on the Orient Express: Whodunit

‘The Who’s Who in the Whodunit!’ was the tagline of the film, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1974) based on the popular Agatha Christie novel of the same name. And how true was it! The film boasted almost every star on the Hollywood firmament at that time, comprising the finest talents of the 20th century.
In fact, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ started a trend in filming some of the most stylish of Agatha Christie novels by producer John Brabourne, including ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978), ‘The Mirror Crack’d’ (1980), ‘Evil Under the Sun’ (1982) and ‘Appointment with Death’ (1988).
After several disappointing film adaptations of her novels, Agatha Christie refused to sell the film rights to any more of her books, but EMI chairman, Nat Coleman enlisted the aid of Lord Louis Mountbatten to persuade Christie to allow the filming of her 1934 novel. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ eventually turned out to be her favorite film adaptation of any of her books. Incidentally, the producer of the movie, John Brabourne had married Patricia Knatchbull, the eldest daughter of Lord Mountbatten. Brabourne in fact, was a survivor of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing, which killed his father-in-law in 1979.
The novel, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ was inspired by the notorious kidnap and subsequent murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr, the baby of the famous aviator, Charles A Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in 1932. Charles A Lindbergh died three months before the movie was released.
Riding high on the critical and commercial success of his neo-noir crime drama, ‘Serpico’ (1973), director Sidney Lumet thought that the best way to acquire an all-star cast was to sign the biggest star first, and in 1974, Sean Connery was the biggest star in Hollywood with the image of James Bond. As expected, the rest of the cast members eagerly accepted the offers, upon being approached.
Albert Finney was 37-years-old during the shooting of the movie, and was the third choice for the much-older Poirot. The role was first offered to Alec Guinness who was unavailable, and then to Paul Scofield. Special make-up was created to give Finney the appearance of the 55 to 60-year-old popular but peculiar Belgian detective.
Anthony Perkins, as in ‘Psycho’ (1960) played a man, who has lost his mother at an early age, and has difficulties having relationships with women. Marlene Dietrich was considered for the role of Princess Dragomiroff and rejected, after which Wendy Hiller was signed to play the role. Richard Widmark agreed to do the movie just to have the chance to meet other stars.
Exterior shooting of the film was mostly done in France in 1973, with a railroad workshop near Paris standing in for Istanbul station. The scenes of the train proceeding through Central Europe were filmed in the Jura Mountains on the then-recently closed railway line from Pontarlier to Gilley, while the scenes of the train stuck in snow were filmed in a cutting near Montbenoît. There were concerns about a lack of snow in the weeks preceding the scheduled shooting of the snowbound train, and plans were made to truck in large quantities of snow at considerable expense. However, heavy snowfall the night before the shooting made the extra snow unnecessary, with the snow-laden backup trucks themselves getting stuck in the snow.
The final scene, in which Poirot shares his solution of the case, required more shots and camera angles than could be captured in a single take on the cramped set. The cast had to shoot the scene multiple times, as the required number of cameras didn’t fit in a small space of the railway coach. This was especially hard on Finney, whose monologue was eight pages long. Poirot’s summation scene – right from where he begins to speak after laying out the evidence on the table to when he sits down concluding his summation – ran for 27 minutes and 57 seconds.
Composer Richard Rodney Bennett was originally hired to arrange 1930s tunes for the soundtrack of the film, but persuaded the studio that this was a cliché and that he should write an original score. He later said: “Sidney Lumet wanted Eddy Duchin (a popular American pianist and bandleader of the 1930s)… I wanted the Warsaw Concerto… the waltz theme (for the movie) was a combination of the two.” Bennett’s ‘Orient Express Theme’ has been subsequently reworked into an orchestral suite and performed and recorded several times. It was performed on the original soundtrack album by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden under Marcus Dods. The piano soloist was the composer himself.
The film, when released received positive reviews and was a success at the box office, given its tight budget of $1.5 million and earnings amounting $19 million, thus making it the 11th highest grossing film of 1974. Striking production values, delightful cast, and Finney’s exhausting performance turned out to be the highlights of the film.
The movie attracted six Academy Award nominations, including one for Ingrid Bergman, who finally won the award in the Best Supporting Actress category for her portrayal of a simple soul who is a missionary. She was surprised when her name was read as the winner in the particular category, at the Oscars in 1975. In accepting the award she got up and said quite matter-of-factly that fellow nominee Valentina Cortese deserved it for ‘Day for Night’ (1973). Interestingly, all of Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance is virtually contained in a single scene: her interrogation by Poirot, captured in a single continuous take, nearly five minutes long.

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