Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Murder on the Orient Express: Review and Audio-Visual Extravaganza

Curtis over at The Passing Tramp has asked those of us interested in Golden Age Mysteries if we'd like to participate in a new endeavor--which he has christened The Tuesday Night Bloggers in honor of Agatha Christie's The Tuesday Club Murders. Each Tuesday we will submit posts on any and all things Christie. This is my first offering.

Murder on the Orient Express was my very first introduction to that mistress of the mystery plot, Agatha Christie. I found her at an elementary school book fair. Having cut my reading eyeteeth on Nancy Drew, I was intrigued by the combo pack of Christie books that promised me a mystery on the Orient Express as well as At Bertram's Hotel. I have to say that Express was a much better introduction to Hercule Poirot for an elementary-age reader than Hotel was to Miss Marple. In fact, Hotel is one of the few Christie books that I have never reread--it left such a poor impression on me. Perhaps, I should remedy that and see if 40-some-year-old me likes it better than 9-year-old me. Unfortunately, I no longer have those copies--so I post the cover from another version of the book I own, published as Murder in the Calais Coach.

I've recently introduced a friend of mine to Dame Agatha. It never ceases to amaze me that there are people in the world who have never read a Christie mystery. After getting her to read And Then There Were None (with my standard offer of a dinner on me if she could honestly tell me she solved it--I still haven't had to pay up), I just introduced her to Poirot with the same book that gave me my love for the Belgian sleuth and his little grey cells. I'm waiting with bated breath to see what she thinks of this one.

While waiting, I decided to take another trip on the Orient Express myself. Little did I know that it was going to turn into a complete orgy of reading, viewing, and listening. Not only did I reread the novel, but I also watched the 1974 star-studded film featuring Albert Finney as Poirot and the 2010 Poirot series version with David Suchet in the starring role as well as listening a BBC dramatization with John Moffatt as the Belgian sleuth.

The plot is well-known in mystery circles. Poirot has been in the Middle East sorting out difficulties for the French army. He plans to spend a couple of days "as a tourist" in Istanbul, but his plans are changed by a telegram requesting his immediate return to England. He arranges passage on the Orient Express and finds the train unusually full for the time of year--full up with what seems to be a United Nations worth of passengers. There are several Americans, Hungarians on a diplomat passport, a Russian princess, a German maid, a Swedish nurse, a British governess and British colonel and British valet, an Italian salesman, and a French conductor.  One of the Americans, Samuel Edward Ratchett, a businessman who strikes Poirot as a wild animal,

It was as though a wild animal--an animal savage but savage! you understand--had passed me by.

approaches Poirot and tries to hire him. Ratchett insists that he has an enemy on the train and he wants the detective to protect him. Poirot refuses. If for no other reason than "I do not like your face, M. Ratchett." 

The passengers spend a rather event-filled night on the train--Mrs. Hubbard, an American woman, insists that a man has been in her compartment; Ratchett cries out in his sleep and then tells the conductor, in French, that he has made a mistake; a mysterious woman in a red silk dressing gown bumps against Poirot's door, drawing him to peer out into the passageway; and finally the train is stopped by a snowdrift in Yugoslavia (in an area which is now part of Croatia). But when morning comes they find that it has been even more eventful than they imagined. Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, the victim of twelve stab wounds. M. Bouc, Director of the Wagon Lit Company and old friend of Poirot, convinces the detective to investigate the murder so that 

By the time the Yugoslavian police arrive, how simple if we can present them with the solution!....Instead--you solve the mystery! We say, "A murder has occurred--this is the criminal!"

Poirot is persuaded to put his little grey cells to work and begins interviewing the passengers. But the more interviews he conducts and the more evidence he collects, the more impossible it seems it will be to find a solution.

I remember being amazed by the solution the first time I read it. Christie certainly knows how to surprise and mystify. Express is one of the Christie novels that I can read over and over. It doesn't matter that it is one of the "big" Christie stories--one that once you've read it, you're not likely to forget the solution. There are always new bits and pieces to notice and think about. This time I was reading more carefully, looking for hints and clues that my younger self missed. Nuances in conversation here. A little foreshadowing there. A phrase that upon first reading (or even third or tenth or...) might have slipped by unheeded. And I was delighted again to see how Christie sets the first-time reader up to believe any of a variety of solutions without revealing the truth. A dazzling ★★★★ mystery from the Queen of Crime.

The rest of this post is devoted to the visual and audio adaptations of the book. Please know that there are spoilers ahead and those who have not read the book may wish to proceed with caution.

As mentioned, I also watched both the 1974 movie and the 2010 version with David Suchet during my little Orient Express murder-thon. It had been quite a while since I watched Albert Finney play the great Belgian detective and I must admit that with this viewing I found his portrayal to be quite over-the-top and almost lampoonish. It seems to me that Finney went out of his way to make the audience see Poirot as eccentric and larger-than-life. The entire movie has a very campy feel to it with the most pronounced performances coming from Finney's scenery-chewing to Anthony Perkins' Psycho references to "mother" to Ingrid Bergman's presentation of Greta Ohlsson as the impossibly backwards missionary to Wendy Hiller's heavy portrayal of the Princess Dragomiroff.

That said, I did appreciate that the movie was quite faithful to Christie's story in many ways. The Director remains Poirot's friend and he and Dr. Constantine make the choice between the two solutions presented by the detective as they do in the book. Most of the characters follow Christie's descriptions (save for the mentions above). And the doctor is kept out of the suspects altogether unlike the more recent adaptation.

David Suchet's portrayal of Poirot is, generally throughout the series, a much more authentic rendering of Christie's vision of the detective. However, the writers (directors, what-have-you) for the series have made this a much darker, much more guilt-ridden tale than the Queen of Crime ever wrote. Poirot is portrayed here as heavily Catholic, with a strict sense of right and wrong. The story opens with his investigation for the army--which results in the suicide of an officer. As he and a member of the army wait for his transport, the young officer seems to upbraid Poirot for his actions. Poirot is firm that the man knew what he did was wrong and he does not regret investigating and indirectly causing the officer's suicide. After all, it was the officer's choices that led to his end. When Poirot solves the crime on the train, he wrestles with his conscience over which solution to present to the officials. He would much prefer to make all those guilty of the murder face justice. He does not ask the Director to choose--he, Poirot, represents the final word. He must decide whether the truth--which may harm so many--is what is paramount or if what happened on the train represents true justice. There is no sense of this struggle in the novel. Poirot presents the solutions, the Director and the doctor make their choice, and Poirot retires from the case. 

The interpretation of the story as a whole is an interesting one. Not only does Poirot struggle with his sense of right and wrong and justice--but Mary Debenham, the governess, also faces her own moments of moral uncertainty when Poirot confronts her over the vigilante justice that she and the others have meted out. They have this exchange:

Mary: When you've been denied justice... you are incomplete. It feels that God has abandoned you in a stark place. I asked God... I think we all did... what we should do, and he said do what is right. And I thought if I did, it would make me complete again.
Hercule Poirot: [coldly] And are you?
Mary: [long pause, then] But I did what was right. 

But she does not seem certain that doing what was "right" has, indeed, made her complete. This adaptation does not really focus on solving the crime. Instead, it presents a morality play which asks, Is it ever right to take justice in your own hands when it has been denied through official means? It provides a different way to look at Christie's primary story.

My final excursion on the Orient Express was via the BBC's full-cast dramatization of the novel. This was a delightful experience, completely faithful to the novel and cleverly abridged to remove some of the repeated information (when Poirot re-emphasizes certain points to M. Bouc and the doctor, for instance) without losing any critical moments in the story. There is no over-acting or over-moralizing here, just a brilliantly dramatized audio version. John Moffatt is a good Poirot, although one could wish his accent were a bit more on target. The lovely Francesca Annis gives voice to Mary Debenham. I highly recommend this audio version to anyone who would like to enjoy Christie's novel on CD.


Clothes In Books said...

Love this Bev! What a great wallow for the reader in all the different versions. I have always loved the book, and I remember seeing the film version and thinking what a great idea to have all those famous people in it - it seemed quite a novel idea then. I thought, straight up, the Suchet version was ruined by the addition of the guilt and misery aspects. It could have been good without them...

Bev Hankins said...

Moira: The Suchet version is a different take for sure. It's put together nicely--but it's not the Agatha Christie story we're used to.

Anonymous said...

Superb review Bev, with tons of fascinating info - really enjoyed seeing the three versions compared to the book - great stuff.

Bev Hankins said...

Thanks, Sergio!

Brad (ahsweetmystery) said...

I really enjoyed this, Bev. Orient Express was my second Christie, right after And Then There Were None. (I think my first Marple was A Caribbean Mystery, so I fared better than you there!) I also love the BBC radio version of this one! Just listened to it again in the car!

My understanding is that when Suchet became a producer of the Poirot series, he insisted on adding this personal element of spiritual life to Poirot. And one of the results was this changed ending to Orient Express. I actually found it quite interesting, perhaps because I had seen and heard the other versions. I know others were more perturbed by it, though. The only time I can remember seeing Poirot in church in the novels was One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, and then it's the psalms he hears that - like a voice from God - help him see the case the right way! But I never imagined Poirot was one to suffer much guilt, and after reading Martin's book, I see that many GAD authors played around with the idea of justice and allowed their sleuths to make decisions that might trouble the local police!

Bev Hankins said...

Brad: I normally prefer films to stick to the source--Suchet does play this very well and, as I mention, it does offer another way to think about the circumstances of the murder. And, while I appreciate that, it's not my preferred way to think about it. :-)

fredamans said...

This is one I have seen the film but not read the book. Books are generally better too. Great review!

Jeff Flugel said...

Really enjoyed your post! I agree that this novel features one of Christie's most tricky and clever plots. I can see where you're coming from re: some of the performances in the '74 film version coming across as a bit hammy or over-the-top. (I personally think they err just this side of the line in catching the right tone...and Wendy Hiller and her droll delivery are a riot!)

Finney's Poirot is not to all tastes - though I do find he brings a more cosmopolitan and intimidating vibe that Suchet's cuddlier version often lacks. At any rate, I have to echo some of the others who have problems with the Suchet version. The whole heavily-emphasized Catholic guilt angle made for a very sour, unpleasant Poirot, and the mystery as a whole was damaged severely by this take, IMO. (Also, that CGI train was simply awful.) Why Suchet and the writers/producers, etc. felt the need to try to "improve" Christie in this and other adaptations (how they deep six CARDS ON THE TABLE is a particularly egregious example) is beyond me.

The Passing Tramp said...

I saw the '74 Orient when it opened when I was eight years old and loved it. Of course this rather spoiled the book for me. I like some of the star turns, though I agree Anthony Perkins was encouraged to do self-parody. I want to give a shout-out to Jean Pierre Cassel's train porter, I never see him get mentioned but I thought he gave one of the best performances in the film--nothing camp there! Loved Widmark, Bergman, Hiller--all some of the greatest actors of the 20th century. Seems to me like the Suchet version brought so much gloom and grimness to a book that doesn't have that, despite the subject matter.

Bev Hankins said...

Curtis: I did love this movie much more on earlier versions--I don't think I noticed the campiness of it. And, you are right, Jean Pierre Cassel does deserve mention as the porter. Very good performance!

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Why indeed, Jeff! (Prefer the Ustinov Death on the Nile. The music helps.)