Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Forty-eight years ago today, the film Murder on the Orient Express premiered. Based on the book of the same name written by Agatha Christie, she stated this and Witness for the Prosecution were the only movie adaptations of her books that she liked.

Title: Murder on the Orient Express
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay by: Paul Dehn
Based on: “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie
Produced by: John Brabourne & Richard Goodwin
Starring: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Rachel Roberts, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, & Wendy Hiller
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Edited by: Anne V. Coates
Music by: Richard Rodney Bennett
Production Companies: G.W. Films Limited & EMI Films
Distributed by: Anglo-EMI Film Distributors
Release date: 24 November 1974 (UK)
Running time: 128 minutes
Country: United Kingdom
Language: English
Budget: £554,100 ($1.4 million)
Box office: $35.7 million
Academy Award Ingrid Bergman (Best Supporting Actress)
BAFTA Award John Gielgud (Best Supporting Actor)
BAFTA Awards Ingrid Bergman (Best Supporting Actress)
BAFTA Awards Richard Rodney Bennett (Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music)

The teaser to the film shows the 1930 kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong, who is later found murdered. In December 1935, Hercule Poirot, having solved a case for a British Army garrison in Jordan, is due to travel to London on the Orient Express from Istanbul and encounters his old friend Signor Bianchi, a director of the company that owns the line. Other passengers travelling in the same coach as Poirot and Bianchi are American widow Harriet Belinda Hubbard; English governess Mary Debenham; Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson; American businessman Samuel Ratchett, with his secretary/translator Hector McQueen and English valet Edward Beddoes; Italian-American car salesman Antonio (“Gino”) Foscarelli; elderly Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff and her German maid Hildegarde Schmidt; Hungarian Count Rudolf Andrenyi and his wife Elena; British Indian Army Colonel John Arbuthnott; and American theatrical agent Cyrus Hardman.

The morning after the train departs, Ratchett tries to secure Poirot’s services as a bodyguard for $15,000 as he has received death threats. Poirot declines Ratchett’s offer, but curiously questions the motives of his enemies, angering him. That night, Bianchi gives Poirot his compartment as he transfers to another coach. The train is stopped by a snowdrift between Vinkovci and Brod in Yugoslavia, and Poirot is awoken from sleep several times, once by a scream from Ratchett’s cabin. The next morning, Ratchett is found stabbed to death, and Bianchi asks Poirot to solve the case. Poirot enlists help from Stavros Constantine, a Greek medical doctor who slept in the same coach as Bianchi. Dr. Constantine ascertains that Ratchett was stabbed 12 times in a distorted pattern and with seemingly varying accuracy and lethality.

Found at the crime scene is a fragment of a letter, revealing that Ratchett was actually Lanfranco Cassetti, a gangster, who five years earlier planned the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong, infant daughter of wealthy British Army Colonel Hamish Armstrong and his American wife, Sonia. Cassetti had a Mafia colleague help him kidnap and kill Daisy, but then betrayed him and fled the country with the ransom money; he was only revealed on the eve of his partner’s execution. Overcome with grief, the pregnant Mrs. Armstrong gave premature birth to a stillborn baby and died in the process. Colonel Armstrong, consumed by grief from the loss of his family, committed suicide. A French maidservant named Paulette, wrongly suspected of complicity in the kidnapping, had also committed suicide to avoid being arrested, but was found innocent afterwards. Further clues are discovered, including a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief with the initial “H”, Cassetti’s broken watch, and a conductor’s suit. Poirot’s timeline of passenger activities the night before indicates that Cassetti was murdered at about 1:15 a.m., the time of the smashed watch and the scream. As the coach was isolated through the night, the murderer must be one of its passengers or the train’s French conductor, Pierre Michel. Mrs. Hubbard reports that she detected a man in her room, later finding the bloodied knife discarded in her compartment. Foscarelli dramatically hints the murder was most likely part of a Mafia feud.

Poirot interviews the passengers and Pierre. He learns McQueen was the son of the Armstrong case’s District Attorney and was very fond of Mrs. Armstrong; Beddoes had been a British Army batman; Greta Ohlsson has limited knowledge of English and has been to America; Countess Andrenyi is of German descent, and her maiden name is Grünwald (German for “Greenwood”, Mrs. Armstrong’s maiden name); Pierre Michel’s daughter died five years earlier of scarlet fever; Colonel Arbuthnott, who displays knowledge of Armstrong’s military decorations, reveals his plans to marry Ms. Debenham (which Poirot, suspicious, overheard) once his divorce from his philandering wife is finalized. When Poirot questions Princess Dragomiroff, he discovers she was a friend of Linda Arden, retired actress and Mrs. Armstrong’s mother; the Princess was Sonia’s godmother. He learns that the Armstrongs had a butler, a secretary, a cook, a chauffeur, and a nursemaid. Poirot flatters Schmidt by saying he knows her to be a good cook. Foscarelli denies having been a chauffeur. Hardman reveals he is, in fact, a Pinkerton detective hired as a bodyguard by Cassetti. When Poirot shows him the photo of Paulette, he is visibly moved.

Poirot gathers the suspects and describes two solutions to the murder. The first suggests Cassetti’s murder was a Mafia Feud killing-an unknown man disguised himself as a Train Conductor; stabbed Rachett/Cassetti with the knife and disregarding the uniform coat, with the undetected assailant escaping from the train through the snow. This is rejected by Bianchi and Dr. Constantine as absurd. The second, more complex solution links all the suspects in the coach to the Armstrong case. In addition to self-incriminating revelations by Hardman, McQueen, Schmidt, and the Princess, Poirot has deduced Countess Elena is actually Mrs. Armstrong’s sister, Helena. The Princess claimed the Armstrongs’ secretary’s name to be “Miss Freebody”; this is in fact Mary Debenham (freely associated from the well-known British department store (at that time known as ‘Debenhams and Freebody’). Beddoes was Armstrong’s butler in the Army; Miss Ohlsson was Daisy’s nursemaid; Colonel Arbuthnott was a close army friend of Armstrong; Foscarelli was the family’s chauffeur; Pierre was Paulette’s father; Hardman was a policeman in love with Paulette; and Mrs. Hubbard is in fact Linda Arden, Mrs. Armstrong’s mother- and arguably the brains behind this whole plan of revenge. McQueen had drugged Cassetti, rendering him unconscious and allowing the conspirators to murder him jointly, (the Andrenyis stabbing together), totalling 12 – the typical complement of a jury – wounds of differing damage. The scream and broken watch were provided by McQueen to persuade Poirot that the murder had occurred earlier, when the other suspects were in the clear. In fact, the suspects joined to commit the murder once Poirot had returned to sleep, after two o’clock. The only passengers not involved in the murder are Bianchi and Dr. Constantine, both having slept in the other coach, which was locked.

Poirot asks Bianchi to choose one solution before the train is freed from the snowdrift, but admits that the Yugoslavian police will much prefer the simple one. Bianchi, in sympathy with the suspects, and knowing how evil Cassetti was, proposes the simple solution, and Poirot agrees, although he will struggle with his conscience. The relieved passengers and Pierre toast each other as the train is freed from the snowdrift and resumes its journey.

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