One of the measures of a classic could be in its ability to be interpreted in different ways. The reason for a story’s endurance could be from an elasticity for an artist to stage it or convert it to another medium. Each generation has their Tarzan and Macbeth. It can also be seen in how two different directors, Sidney Lumet in 1974 and Kenneth Branagh today, each tackled Agatha Christie’s Murder on The Orient Express.
For those not familiar with the novel, I’ll do my best to give as little away as possible. Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot finds himself on the titular train leaving Istanbul, with passengers of various social class and nationalities. He is approached by a shady man, Rachet, who offers him a job to ferret out someone on the train who is leaving death threats to him. Poirot declines. the next morning a snowdrift blocks the train and Rachet is found dead, stabbed twelve times in his room. To keep the matter quiet the director of the train line asks Poirot to investigate. Early on he learns that Rachet was really Lanfranco Cassetti, the man responsible for the Armstrong kidnapping where a three year old heiress was abducted and murdered after the ransom was delivered. Poirot begins to find connections between the passengers and Cassetti to ferret out the culprit.
The reveal is one of the best known in mystery fiction. In fact, I knew it before reading the book. I was curious to discover what Poirot does with the information he has learned. It presents an interesting questions of justice and morality. Christie barely touches the moral quandary, with Poirot making an immediate judgment in the last line of the book, giving it a dark comic finale. The way the ending is treated in both films is where the main difference between them lies.
Sidney Lumet used the story to expand his pallet as a director. Known for gritty urban tales like The Pawnbroker and Serpico, he was looking for a “souffle” as he put it, something light, grand and classic. With Tony Walton’s costume and production design, he created classic look mirroring Hollywood’s golden age. In casting he used many stars associated with that era such as Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman who won an Academy Award for playing against type as the odd missionary. Richard Widmark draws back on his early hoodlum roles, playing Cossetti. Top names of the time Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, and Michael York give more luster to the suspects with several theater pros like John Gielgud adding class. Lumet’s experience in early television comes into play as he brilliantly blocks the actors in he cramped space of the train cars without the use of false walls.
For Poirot, Lumet wanted the finest English actor he could get for the role. After offering the role to the more age appropriate Alec Guiness and Paul Scolfield, he went with Albert Finney. The actor played to the characters absurdities, yet this worked in making the audience believe in his extreme deduction skills.
It is slightly ironic with all the care in casting, Lumet decides not to begin with introducing us to the suspects and future victim like Christie. Instead, we get a depiction of the Armstrong kidnapping and its tragic fall out told in noir-ish flashes with just eerie music for sound. It is the darkest part of the film. In doing so, it allows us to understand both the motives of the suspects and the decision Poirot comes to about the fate of those involved with the murder, a decision that takes about as much time in Christie’s book. Because we have experienced the tragedy in the beginning, we can simply enjoy our favorite actors play out a drawing room style mystery, although, if intended or not there is a feeling of moral ambiguity because Lumet has each suspect toast the mastermind in the way of doing a curtain call.
Branagh brings more ambiguity and weight to the current version, while retaining the style. With the help of CGI he plays up the exotic nature and breadth of the locations the Orient Express travels through. Michael Green’s screenplay has even more snappy dialogue that hearkens back to the golden age. Unlike Lumet, he uses false walls and ceilings to allow more intricate camera work, such as an overhead shot when Casetti’s body is found. That said, he said he was drawn to the emotional weight that Christie suggests of how one horrible crime effects so many.
It is in the casting where he starts to show his motives. While he uses many name actors like Michelle Pfieffer and Penelope Cruz, they don’t have the wattage of Lumet’s ensemble. Many are known character actors, some of different ethnicities of the original character they are playing. Leslie Odom Jr. plays a composite of two.
All are impeccable. In a close up with a few lines, Willem Dafoe tells you everything you need to know about his heartbreaking motive. Branagh uses his experience as a stage director for great interaction. The best scenes are the ones that all the players share.
However, his main focus is on Poirot, and not simply because he is playing him. The opening scene is a mini-mystery in Istanbul that establishes the detective’s skills as well as his eccentricities by solving a theft that could start a religious war. He deftly apprehends the the fleeing criminal with little exertion, but much humor, with the use of his cane. However, before he gets on the train he explains to a local policeman that his deductive talent comes from wanting to see the world as it should be, allowing him to notice when something is askew. It’s great for being a detective, but a curse on the rest of his life. This sense of absolute challenges and plagues him all while bringing more suspense as to what we we learn at the the view of justice he decides on.
It is interesting that both Lumet and Branagh have adaptations as a major part of the directorial output and “Murder On The Orient Express” shows their different aesthetic and interests that both come out through the plot. Even though he was making his souffle, Lumet’s often used theme of an individual’s fight when institutions and systems fail. He said he could not have made Network if he didn’t do this film first. Branagh taps into his love of classic with heroes carrying emotional weight. Both do justice to Christie’s tale of justice by any means.