November 20, 2009 / Filmwell
Moving past the “inspiration” film to the unsanitized story.
January 14, 2014
This is the first in a series of posts chronicling the fortunes of Agatha Christie on film from 1974-1988. I have previously covered some of these movies elsewhere, but the content of these posts is entirely new and oriented in a different direction.
Spoilers are not only expected, but required, and I offer them with no apology.
Detective fiction dominates television. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way; take any handful of non-reality TV shows and you’ll find that a healthy amount of them are “procedurals.” Now, “procedural” is a specific generic term referring to entertainments that document the workings of real-world police forces in a relatively fact-based way. The Wire is a procedural. Law and Order and Law and Order: SVU are procedurals. But if you apply this logic, it quickly becomes clear that a lot of the shows we call procedurals aren’t: Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Monk, Elementary, The Mentalist…. These shows use the language of procedurals, but they are in fact heirs to an older form—namely, the Classical Detective Story in the mode of Agatha Christie. With such a tremendous dominance over television, it would be easy to assume that the form should also appear frequently on the big screen—but such is not the case. There are, of course, reasons for this fact.
The detective story offers a number of problems for film adaptation: first it is essentially a talky genre; page after page can be spent interviewing suspects, asking where they were and what they did on the night of the murder. The climax, too, is talk: the detective offers a reconstruction of the murder—and, most importantly, of the way in which he (or she) discovered the killer. While this format works very well for a 45-minute episode of television, there is nothing very cinematic there. What’s more, the Golden Age of detection put in place a number of rules that seem bound to keep the form from leaving print: as S.S. Van Dine insisted, the characters are to be simply ciphers, cogs in a machine for efficient plot-delivery. They offer the actor—and so the audience—very little to grasp. Any audience identification is located in the detective and his companion(s), an identification most often built up over repeated and formulaic encounters (much like audience identification with a character on television). And that, understandably, makes adapting Golden Age stories for the big screen a daunting task.
In spite of this problem, the popularity of the detective story once made the form almost irresistible to Hollywood. During the thirties and forties there was a golden age of cinematic detectives: Philo Vance had his turn, as did Ellery Queen. Perry Mason, Charlie Chan, Mr. Wong, and Nick Charles all put in respectable, or at least lucrative, appearances. These movies attacked the problem of the genre’s talk-oriented nature in different ways, with varying degrees of success, but it is evident that the streak could not last long. In the fifties, television appeared on the scene and took over the cheap replication of murder-mystery plots (indeed, it could be argued that television does it better). In response, movies got bigger, while the tidy stage-bound plots of detective stories stayed roughly the same. Times changed, and so did tastes, and film noir, drawing on the rougher, action-oriented hardboiled fiction of Hammett and Chandler, became the dominant form of detective film.*
This shift was, in its later stages, driven by the advent of television, but it was also part of a larger conflict in the genre, one going back at least as far as Raymond Chandler, who in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” attacked the genteel form espoused by Van Dine—and, more important for this essay, Agatha Christie—as unrealistic. A truly artistic detective story, Chandler argued, must dramatize real crime on the real mean streets of real cities. Now, Chandler’s “real cities” were no more real than Christie’s drawing-rooms, but his argument had the flavor of truth if not the substance, and with the cataclysm of World War II the Classical-Analytic form found itself—outside of a few stubbornly popular authors like Agatha Christie herself—quietly slipping into the good night of cultural oblivion.
And then came 1974. The year was especially important for genre film-making. It was the year of The Godfather Part II, for one thing, and of Death Wish and Roger Moore’s second turn as Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun. These were, according to Wikipedia, among the top-grossing films of the year. It was also the year of Chinatown, a movie that sparked neo-noir so thoroughly that, watching it today, it seems positively quaint. The fact that Chinatown came out the same year as Murder on the Orient Express makes 1974 another key year in the decades-long struggle between the two wings of the genre. 1974 was also the year of a bloated, beautifully-produced and ultimately moribund adaptation of The Great Gatsby, a movie so terrifically bad that even the talents of Mia Farrow (who we’ll meet again), Robert Redford, Vladimir Nabokov and Francis Ford Coppola could not save it. This last film is, perhaps, as important to our narrative as Chinatown since, whatever its faults, it is undeniably a gorgeous period-piece. Perhaps something was in the water at the time, because in 1974 Hollywood set Sidney Lumet to work adapting Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. The success of this adaptation—which garnered for Ingrid Bergman an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress—led to a string of Christie adaptations. Orient Express, however, remains unique for reasons we will get to later.
In attacking the talkyness of the genre Lumet and his screenwriters made a canny move: they did not try to avoid it. Rather than attempt to ramp up the action, they took the most location-bound of all of Christie’s stories—set as it is in a train trapped by a snowdrift—and committed themselves to a broadly faithful question-and-answer format. And the odd thing is (in spite of some harsh words I’ve had for the film in the past) the adaptation, by and large, works. Possibly better than the sequels—that’s a question best reserved for later—but certainly differently from the sequels. And why did the adaptation work? There are two distinct answers, one production-oriented and one formal.
First is the casting. If, as per Van Dine, the characters in a Golden Age novel must be the thinnest of tissue, then audience interest must lie elsewhere: in the plot itself. But watching a two-hour movie is different from reading a book in two-hour snatches; it’s harder to put down, for one thing, and pick up at your leisure. Something has to hold your attention. And if the source material offers thin gruel for personality, there’s only two options: revamp the source material (and throw faithfulness to the wind) or fill the movie with castmembers who are already outsized personalities.
That’s exactly what Murder on the Orient Express does. Every member of the cast, down to the least important, is a recognizable face; most of them (like Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Sean Connery) have fixed personas against which they are playing—or into which they are playing, in the case of Anthony Perkins, who transforms MacQueen into an unstable young man with dubious sexuality and mother issues. These actors are all well-known—this is a star-studded cast—and the audience is thus expected to be entertained, not only because of the plot, but because these actors are acting out the plot. It’s a clever bit of sleight-of-hand, and it works; we do not notice how stereotyped Connery’s bluff British colonel is because it’s Sean Connery. If Bergman is a stereotyped missionary, it’s Bergman, playing against type, who delivers the goods.
And in the middle of all this is Albert Finney as Poirot—surely the most bizarre member of this cast. Unlike Bacall—unlike Connery or Martin Balsam or Ingrid Bergman—Finney is covered in a thick layer of makeup. His bulk is obviously padding, and it causes him to stand with a curious, stiff, peering quality. His accent, unlike that of Balsam as the Italian Bianchi, is music-hall in its broadness. He is in every way the outsider—outside this group of people, to be sure, but also outside the film itself. In a movie that trades on exotic and erotic connections with the principle cast, Finney is clearly the odd man out in every sense of the phrase.
But if casting alone were expected to carry the movie, it would still face the problem of the climax: how does one translate a detective simply narrating his train of thought? How does it become cinematic? Again, earlier films had come up with their own solutions: The Thin Man succeeds because of the sparkling wit of Nick and Nora Charles. And Orient Express succeeds—in part—because of the magnetism brought by Finney to the role. Throughout the movie, he is spikey and hard to like. And then, somewhere about the midpoint, something happens: it becomes clear that he is changing his tactics to fit the suspects. He becomes dynamic—in a way that none of the other characters are dynamic. He becomes charismatic. And when the time comes for him to offer up the solution, he positively crackles. But even that doesn’t elevate the movie. Good delivery in a bog-standard genre film is still good delivery in a bog-standard genre film. Something else needs to be there, an essential magic. And that magic lies in the choice of novels to adapt.
And here we must back up. Here we must offer a theory of detective fiction, one which I’ve mentioned before. And here—let the reader understand—be spoilers.
For in the Classical-Analytic detective story, what happens? As many critics—JK Van Dover, Julian Symons, etc—have pointed out, the quest of the detective is essentially to restore order. Society has been thrown into chaos by a murder, and it is the detective’s prophetic duty to seek out the wrongdoer and, after casting suspicion on every character in turn, expose him [or her!] and so ritualistically absolve the sins of the community. Once the scapegoat has been located and cast out, the society can return to a chastened sort of innocence. But Orient Express—like the movies to follow it—sidesteps this central structural demand by spending an inordinate amount of time on build-up. Cynically speaking, this murder-less screentime exists so that these very famous actors can strut their stuff. After all, once the murder has been committed all that’s left for them to do is answer questions. Then, too, this delay allows the money that was so evidently spent on the production to show up onscreen, in the lavish costumes and sets (and it really is a beautiful set). In most detective stories—and most of the movies in the series to follow Orient Express—this delay can come off as useless throat-clearing. But that is not the case here.
What makes Murder on the Orient Express different is that Poirot must ultimately point the finger of guilt, not at a single individual, but at the collection of suspects itself. Everyone had a hand in the murder. Everyone is guilty. And so, there are two ways to read this. The first—the tack taken by the Suchet adaptation of the same novel—is to transform the source-material into a meditation on vigilantism. In this reading, Poirot’s decision to let the criminals off scott-free is a compromise, for which he must pay with tears. Now this choice may strike some viewers (as it once struck me) as morally the more serious route, but it’s only so if the larger mythic implications of the detective story are submerged beneath socio-moral considerations. This is not the choice the film-makers take here; as the characters were elevated to the archetypal, so the murder itself assumes a ritualistic import.
In this reading, the real sin at the heart of Murder on the Orient Express is not the murder of Rachett but that of Daisy Armstrong and the four other people who also died as the result of the Armstrong tragedy. In the opening moments of the film we see, not the gathering of suspects (though that is the most memorable sequence in the film) but a blue-tinted reenactment of the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping and murder. It’s a dark sequence, especially after the luscious music and silk of the title, and it casts a pall over the first half of the movie—even before we discover that Rachett is responsible for the crime. And once we do, we are told—more than once—that Ratchett deserved what he got. “A repulsive murderer has himself been repulsively murdered.”
Now, in the classical detective story the symbolic resolution occurs when the detective unmasks the killer. The snake, having gotten into Eden, is exposed and expelled and the Great Good Place (to borrow a phrase from Auden) is restored. But if the real killer is dead, what is Poirot investigating? Murder on the Orient Express becomes the story of a detective who arrives too late because element of destabilization has been removed. The snake has been expelled from the garden. And so, if the story is to have a climax, it cannot rest in the unmasking of the guilty parties. Rather, Poirot retraces the events of the night in order to provide the audience with a reenactment of the murder itself. And not simply a visualization; as the scene plays, the blue night-light casts over the scene the same glow that suffused the opening; the music is the same; each member of the execution-squad (“twelve good men and true,” as we are reminded more than once—though they are not all men) enters, ritualistically says for whom they are stabbing Ratchett, and then stab.
Thus, more than in any other example of the genre of which I can think, the symbolic-sacremental effect of the climax is doubled: not only is the killer exposed and removed (and the audience is in on that bit); he has been exposed and removed even before Poirot began his investigations. And Poirot’s investigation becomes a sort of symbolic reenactment of the already-symbolic plot of investigation and expulsion. Which means, of course, that when we as the audience see the murder committed with our own eyes, the response is not horror but relief. “The repulsive murderer has himself been repulsively—and, perhaps, deservedly murdered.” But there is no perhaps for us. Nor any for Poirot, which is why—in spite of his protestations that he must wrestle with his conscience once he lets the killers go free—he turns as he exits the car. He sees the cast members drinking a toast. And—he smiles.
Murder on the Orient Express, then, succeeds—in spite of its unwieldy nature—for two reasons. The gimmick of casting stars in even minor roles makes every scene—all of it essentially exposition—watchable. And the plot represents a doubling of the mythic redemptive quest of the detective, which gives the film a natural climax—not in the solution, but in re-watching a solution that, if we only knew, had already been enacted by the midpoint of the movie. Hollywood would go on to make more movies about Poirot. But they would differ from Orient Express in two key ways. First, because the plots would resume the typical structure of detective stories, they have less mythic power. And, second, because Finney retired his spikey version of Poirot after only one film. Peter Ustinov, his successor, presents other facets of Poirot’s character—and so pushes the remaining films in a different direction. But that has to be saved for a future entry.
*Of course, noir got its start much earlier than a summary reading of this paragraph would suggest. It existed contemporaneously with films in the Classical mode, and proved to be much more influential in general–which is part of the story of this conflict.