Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Directed by Sidney Lumet


Murder on the Orient Express is over the top, but in a good way.  It’s like a movie version of the game Clue.  We’re given a cast of diverse, eccentric characters, a single location (train car) and a murder.  Before the murder happens, we’re introduced briefly to all the major characters.  After the murder, detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), interviews each person one by one, uncovering ways they knew the deceased and a mystery or two about the deceased himself.

Everybody on board has some kind of connection to the dead man, Ratchett (Richard Widmark).  He was the man who, years earlier, had kidnapped and killed Daisy Armstrong, the daughter of a wealthy, famous family.  We’re told this entire backstory in the span of a few wordless minutes at the start of the film, seen through successive newspaper headlines.

After each person Poirot interviews, his two accompanying friends act as the Greek chorus, saying that surely this most recent person must have been the killer.  These two characters provide a sense of comic relief from a story that doesn’t need any.  They help set the tone of this movie as something of a game.  There is no emotional resonance to Ratchett’s death, particularly after he is revealed to be himself a killer.

Instead, it’s all just one giant puzzle.  The rules of the story are outlined quickly.  There is a body, multiple suspects each with a reason to be suspected, and whomever the killer is, he or she is still onboard.

Finney carries the film as just about every scene follows his investigation.  Along the way we meet a variety of characters played by an incredible cast.  Sean Connery feels as though he’s only briefly in the movie, and yet he’s impactful in every scene.  I mean, he’s good, I guess.  It’s not like he dominates the scene.  But having so many well-known actors (including Vanessa Redgrave, Ingrid Bergman, Norman Bates from Psycho) gives you a sense that that character might be the villain.  But with so many big names and faces, your attention is constantly being misdirected, just like by the two Greek chorus characters whose overt suspicions dump water on your own suspicions.

The important backstory, of Ratchett’s true identity and the grief he caused by killing Daisy Ridley, is told to us so quickly, that we never have a chance to feel the emotional weight of the murder.  That’s because there might as well not be any.  Shown the killings through a series of newspaper headlines gives us the effect of documenting the story through the tabloids.  We digest these horrible crimes quickly and impersonally.  That gives the following story a tabloid feel as well.  Like in any true crime movie, show or podcast, we care who did it, but we don’t really care about the victim or any of the emotions/motivations underneath the murder.  We just want a name.

After conducting his investigation, full of twists and turns, red herrings and purposeful misdirections, we learn that… everyone did it.  Ratchett was stabbed once by each person, and the clues left behind were from a combination of people as well as being intentionally set aside to obstruct the subsequent investigation.

The final scene, in which Poirot delivers his theory to the entire traincar, unfolds like in a courtroom drama.  Poirot, of course, is telling us what happened as much as anyone else, and the very fact that he tells the entire cast of characters what he found only adds to the absurdity and performative nature of the story.  Poiroit’s character is also incredibly broad, a character you might expect to see on a sketch show, not in a film about murder.

After telling the characters that he knows they all did it, Poirot confesses that Ratchett deserved what he got, and Poirot will not turn them in.  They all arrive at their destination, relieved, and Poirot admits that he will have to live with this on his conscience.

Murder on the Orient Express is a fun movie, though a bit long.  It’s easy to get lost in the details, in all the clues and the numerous important characters.  I never really cared who did it, though maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention.  I didn’t play the game, as it were, that the film asks you to take part in.

In the end, this is an oddly uplifting film.  It’s ultimately a story about people who took revenge, together, on the man that caused them so much grief.  I suppose it’s meant to be uplifting, but their crime, though meant to be understandable, is pretty heinous.  The film never bothers to make us feel the weight of what Ratchett did to make him deserve it, so I’m not exactly sure how we should feel.  It felt pretty harmless, but a guy died.  Maybe revenge is a dish best served with an ensemble cast, or something.

Revenge is a dish best served together.

Revenge is a dish best served cold.  That one’s not good.

Revenge is a dish best served as part of a team bonding activity.  Or something like that.

Up Next: James White (2015), War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Boyhood (2014)


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