Three Poirots on a Train

There is a legend that a reviewer of Agatha Christie’s early novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was so exasperated by the novel’s final plot twist that he revealed it in his review. If this did happen it was contemptible. The device can still surprise (in the best sense) a naive reader and is perfectly valid.

Reviewing detective fiction, particularly good detective fiction, always poses a problem for the critic. You might want to make an observation about the plotting or the characterisation but in doing so spoil the ending. The new film version of Murder on the Orient Express, however, would appear to pose no such difficulty. There have been two previous film versions of the novel, the lavish 1974 feature and a 2010 telemovie, and even the director and star of the new adaptation, Sir Kenneth Branagh, has said that “everyone knows the plot by now”. Still I decided not take any risks. I took a companion who used to accompany me when I began writing this column, to provide a contemporary perspective. She hadn’t seen the earlier films or read the book. The plot worked for her. So if you are, like my friend, unfamiliar with the earlier movies, or the novel, and would like to see the new Murder on the Orient Express, please stop reading now until after you have seen the film. What is about to follow is full of spoilers.

The novel was presented to its first readers in 1934 in a compact hardcover published by Collins as one of its Crime Club selections, with a dust-jacket showing firemen shovelling coal into the furnace of a steam engine. The Crime Club published a specially selected list of books to libraries and book-sellers (the dust-jacket proclaims), and this is one of that special list—good advertising and marketing, if perhaps a little too respectable. It was nevertheless very successful. The hardcovers were not expensive yet were well enough made, judging from the replica edition I purchased for this review, to last in the lending libraries where the book found many of its readers. Certainly the edition I read in my local library in the early 1950s was in reasonably good shape and had to my mind a diverting puzzle plot.

It was a few years later that I discovered the delights of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and read “The Simple Art of Murder”, published in an early collection of Chandler short stories. This was a brilliantly written essay justifying the more realistic tough detective story that “gave murder back to people who did it for reasons, not just to provide a puzzle”. I must confess to having enjoyed the locked-room mysteries by John Dickson Carr, traditional detective stories by Dorothy L. Sayers, particularly Strong Poison with its strong characters and horribly believable murder plot, and the novels and plays of the great Agatha herself. I recall being pleasantly shocked by the stage version of Witness for the Prosecution. But here was Chandler arguing in elegant lucid prose that so-called classics of the genre were preposterous. Then there was this devastating put-down of Murder on the Orient Express:

And there is a scheme of Agatha Christie’s featuring M. Hercule Poirot, that ingenious Belgian who talks in a literal translation of schoolboy French, wherein by duly messing around with his “little grey cells”, M. Poirot decides that nobody on a certain sleeper could have done the murder alone, so everybody did it together, breaking it down into simple operations, like assembling an egg-beater. This is the type that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a halfwit could guess it.

Chandler did have a legitimate grudge. His own more realistic thrillers would often as not be reviewed in the New York Times by someone like John Dickson Carr who was totally out of sympathy with what Chandler was trying to achieve. Moreover, many of Chandler’s criticisms were valid. No sooner does Hercule Poirot go on holiday, or come to dinner, than a puzzling murder takes place that he, as “probably the greatest detective in the world”, must solve. Often the red herrings and the false trails are outrageous. Dame Agatha knew this as well as anyone and there is more than a touch of comedy in the ways she deployed her outrageous plots.

Still, as Chandler conceded, traditional crime writers did at times portray realistic murders. Dorothy L. Sayers in Unnatural Death has her titled sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, investigate the murders of sick and invalid patients by a pair of creepy “carers”. In Strong Poison he uncovers a particularly nasty murder motivated by greed. As for Christie, the murderer in Witness for the Prosecution is only too believable and even Murder on the Orient Express was based on a real crime. But Chandler is right about the novel. It is outrageous and a little dry as Poirot probes the evidence. Nevertheless characters have just enough definition to work, but unlike Christie at her best there is no real sense of horror—although there are some welcome touches of black humour, and the gradual unfolding of the solution created some effective suspense for its first readers. It certainly did for me. The book also works as drama.

Almost certainly these were some of the qualities that led the film producer John Brabourne to persuade Agatha Christie to let him have the film rights. She had not been happy with some of the film treatments of Poirot, so was at first reluctant. But Brabourne was a peer of the realm and had recently produced the Olivier Othello and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. Eventually Dame Agatha agreed.

I have not been able to watch the film again in time for this review, but from memory the all-star cast Brabourne was able to attract were very effective, giving the film an international flavour that at the time seemed very agreeable. You really did believe it was all happening somewhere in Europe. There was also the pleasure of watching familiar performers make the most of some well-written parts by the screenwriter, Paul Dehn, and responding to an actor’s director like Sidney Lumet.

Certainly the pace is leisurely. But watching Albert Finney’s heavily made-up Poirot question the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Wendy Hiller and John Gielgud, all of whose characters are lying their heads off, is hugely enjoyable and at times very funny. Indeed the outrageousness Chandler complained about helps the film work as black comedy. Lumet directs with a light touch, and the settings are suitably opulent, but the only time we experience an authentic Christie chill is when Richard Widmark as the villain reprises his smiling killer from the gangster movies and westerns in which he made his name. Reportedly Dame Agatha, who saw the film shortly before she died, was well pleased.

Brabourne continued the formula in Death on the Nile (1978) with again an all-star cast but this time Peter Ustinov as Poirot. He turned out to be very good although there was no attempt to emulate the exact description of the detective from the novels as had been done with Albert Finney. There was a moustache and the Belgian accent, no problem for the multilingual Ustinov.

It was not until the ITV television series that aired from 1989 to 2013 that Poirot as written appeared on screen. (I suspect when Charles Laughton played the detective on stage in an adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd he would also have been close to the original.) David Suchet, who was Poirot in all the episodes for over twenty years, has described how he read all the novels featuring the Belgian detective, noting every description. This was necessary because understandably Christie doesn’t describe him completely in each book.

I have not been able to view the whole series but have been able to sample several earlier and later episodes. At first Suchet and the writers relished the detective’s eccentricities: the breakfast eggs that have to be exactly the same size, his impossible vanity, the way he refers to himself in the third person and the immaculate 1930s tailoring. Everyone working on the series was careful not to make Poirot a figure of fun. He is always formidable and audiences simply enjoyed his idiosyncrasies. In the later episodes when the film-makers began to explore the darkness sometimes only inherent in the original novels, Poirot is given greater moral authority and compassion.

In 2000 ITV, who had taken over production of the Poirot series, tackled Murder on the Orient Express. The director, Philip Martin, and the screenwriter, Stewart Harcourt, created a strikingly different version of both the puzzle plot invented by Christie and the lavish earlier film.

The novel had been inspired by two real events. The Orient Express had been stranded in the snow by a landslide in 1928 and had to be dug out; and two years before the book was published in 1934 there had been the Lindbergh case when the aviator’s child had been kidnapped from his New Jersey home. Clearly Christie was dissatisfied with the so-called solution to the baby’s murder with the execution of Richard Hauptman, as are most experts on the tragedy. For her novel she created an alternative narrative. The real murderer escapes: twelve people affected by the crime track him to the Orient Express and kill him in the night. The novelist treated their actions when uncovered by Poirot as yet another ingenious solution to one of her puzzles.

For Harcourt and Martin, and almost certainly Suchet himself, this was not enough. Poirot has aged; the old mannerisms are only suggested, and his morality has become rigid. We first see him driving a young officer (who has lied in a court case) to suicide. Poirot tries to explain away a stoning for adultery he and some of the other passengers witness in the streets of Istanbul. Even he becomes apologetic when challenged by a fierce Mary Debenham (Jessica Chastain). Poirot has become a devout Catholic. He prays that any good he can do can be offered to God. The villain—a kidnapper and child murderer played by Toby Jones—is shown praying too, desperately trying to bargain his way into some kind of atonement as the net closes.

Appropriately this is rendered in film noir style. Shadows fill the corridors of their replica Orient Express carriage. The heating on the train fails—another new incident—so the characters are huddled in their coats as Poirot propounds his solution, and the messiness and cruelty of the killing are portrayed in full. In contrast to the book, Poirot solves the case quite swiftly once he identifies the victim. Quite plausibly, he has acquired for this episode an encyclopedic memory for news clippings.

The real issues in this telling become moral and religious. Are there sins beyond forgiveness that justify a cruel revenge? Poirot is at first outraged by this appalling vengeance and wants to hand them all over to the authorities. He is persuaded to show mercy, at considerable personal cost. Just how, I’ll let you find out in front of your television screens; there are limits even in an article as full of spoilers—and warnings—as this one.

This dark Orient Express is an extraordinary achievement. This artificial form has been trans­formed into a religious drama of justice, revenge and mercy. Fascinatingly, it anticipates another masterpiece of the series, “Curtain”, Hercule Poirot’s last case.

There is nothing dark, at least visually, about Kenneth Branagh’s new feature film version of Dame Agatha’s tale. Reportedly Branagh wanted the film to sparkle and hoped that audiences would imagine they smelt the steam. There are spectacular aerial shots of the train making its way through snow-covered mountains, and the director, who is known to relish playing with the medium, achieves some spectacular travelling shots. To achieve this look Branagh, as he has done before, shot in 65mm and suggested that at some screenings they project at 90mm. This seems to have gone for nothing for many Australian exhibitors. Far too often the projected images are slightly out of focus and inferior to a good Blu-Ray DVD at home.

Branagh makes a flamboyant, active Poirot. The eccentricities are on full display—identical eggs again! And of course there is the spectacular moustache. This is justified by the novel, where the only piece of description Christie offers is the moustache. The plot is given a little more room to breathe than in the more compressed telemovie. Michael Green’s screenplay concentrates on the enormity of the crime that might justify the group murder but retains some of Agatha Christie’s playfulness. Who else on the train is going to be connected to the crime, we wonder?

But perhaps the best thing about Branagh’s version is that Murder on the Orient Express remains a tale of revenge, atonement and redemption, and the composition echoing Da Vinci’s Last Supper is entirely appropriate. Like its predecessor the film is very good drama; the confrontations between Branagh’s Poirot and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Mrs Hubbard are particularly memorable, as is the detective’s clash with Johnny Depp’s wonderfully repulsive villain.

In 1950 Raymond Chandler’s complaint about Agatha Christie’s novel was justified. But if he saw these last two films I believe the creator of Philip Marlowe would agree that the film-makers have given a dramatic and moral depth to what was originally a clever puzzle.

Neil McDonald’s most recent book, Valiant for Truth: The Life of Chester Wilmot, War Correspondent (reviewed in the November issue), was shortlisted for the Prize for Australian History in the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.


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