With the help of a hat box.
If the way in which Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) manipulates his suspects into perfectly incriminating themselves upon inquisition—often unbeknownst to us until the final reveal—infers that he has a photographic memory, we the audience need a bit more exposition as it concerns yet unseen connections than perhaps the film would like to share. This is why director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paul Dehn provide an opening montage of newspaper clippings and shadowy reenactments of young Daisy Armstrong’s kidnapping and subsequent murder. Because it was obviously not Poirot’s case (we’d have seen his showboating investigator mugging for the cameras), our minds begin hypothesizing context before we’re whisked away to Turkey five years later. It’s here that Poirot and fourteen strangers board their train to London.
Agatha Christie—upon whose novel Murder on the Orient Express was based—knows the Armstrong family’s tragedy will weigh heavily on our minds during her cursory introductions towards Poirot and his traveling companions, so she must make a connection that assuages our curiosity quickly. The easiest way to do so is making the victim of the titular murder a person of interest in that case. So when Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark) turns up dead after an evening full of noise and distraction, it isn’t long before Poirot (who’s asked to solve the mystery by Martin Balsam‘s Bianchi, the express line’s owner and a “close personal friend”) discovers he was the man who orchestrated Daisy’s demise. Even if Ratchett deserved this comeuppance, however, his assailant was still guilty him/herself.
So everyone becomes a suspect save Poirot (it’s his vantage point that we experience the night of the crime), Bianchi (who’d have no motive to invite the world’s foremost detective onto the train if he planned to commit a murder), and a doctor (George Coulouris) for whom we bestow innocence based solely on his Hippocratic Oath. That leaves Ratchett’s secretary (Anthony Perkins‘ McQueen), his butler Beddoes (John Gielgud), Mrs. Hubbard’s (Lauren Bacall) loquacious bore, Greta’s (Ingrid Bergman) Swedish missionary, the stoic Count (Michael York) and Countess (Jacqueline Bisset) Andrenyi, Princess Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) and her maid Hildegarde (Rachel Roberts), secretive lovebirds Colonel Arbuthnot (Sean Connery) and Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), periphery players Hardman (Colin Blakely) and Foscarelli (Denis Quilley), and the train’s conductor Pierre (Jean-Pierre Cassel).
Poirot is cocky and effective in equal measure. Whenever some new revelation arises, he’s quick to assume (correctly) the who, why, or how of its meaning. Every interview he conducts appears incomplete to us because his mind holds a picture we cannot even begin to start unraveling from the seemingly innocuous images seen during that aforementioned prologue. While he receives the exact tidbit necessary to both give him an idea of who the interviewee is and who he should talk to next, we merely marvel at his efficiency and patience to ignore Bianchi and the doctor’s constant declarations of each subsequent suspect being the killer. It’s a cute gimmick to watch these laymen gravitate towards surface details, their amateur sleuths bolstering just how detail-oriented and intelligent Poirot is.
These two are also fun to laugh at because they’re doing what we are: putting half-truths and out-of-context facts together to make our own accusations. But as we learn that more than one person on the train had a connection to Daisy Armstrong, simple process of elimination proves impossible. Suddenly a handful of people have motive and another have ability. Christie baits us with coincidence, providing frustrating convenience in a way we probably won’t assume. And while the search continues—the suspects left alone in one train car as Poirot interrogates one-by-one in another—a heavy snowdrift grounds the Orient Express in-place. Once a steel plow arrives to free them from stasis, policemen with jurisdiction will takeover the case. So Poirot is working against the clock for answers.
We must therefore pay close attention to everything that’s said and also everything that’s not. The dialogue is rapid and often deceptive with word games and deflection deftly thrown in rhythmically to never seem out-of-place until Poirot’s pompous declaration at the climax singles them each out. The result is our discovering that we know much more than we think, Christie’s writing and Lumet’s directing ensuring every bit of minutiae possesses meaning beyond our capacity to unpack it. There’s a reason Poirot keeps getting awoken the night of the murder. There’s a reason he is made to hear and see what he does. Whether that reason is to throw us off the scent of a secretive player or sow confusion about those in plain sight becomes the payoff.
Lumet is as careful in showing things we don’t know are important yet as he is hiding those we know are. Some clues are therefore dismissed as red herrings while others present Poirot insight that would ruin our “surprise.” Even the angle to which he presents certain characters in specific scenes is carefully blocked to incite others onscreen, Poirot’s ability to play these men and women like puppets on strings inevitably too good to believe. I won’t lie and say I didn’t wish his master investigator would slip up just once. No one is that lucky or skillful; no one so boisterous and assured to not be supplied with his own just deserts at some point. It’s unfortunately difficult to see him as three-dimensionally as the others.
But that’s okay in the long run because the pace is so brisk—despite a two-plus hour runtime. Poirot is rendered flat because he’s only here to put pieces together that we cannot. Murder on the Orient Express isn’t about his solving the crime as much as it is about the perpetrator(s) covering his/her tracks. Our enjoyment comes from watching the suspects shift from blank stares and pat answers to animated emotion that blows their cover where it concerns the case or other unrelated secrets. To watch Bergman (in a tiny yet potent role) wrestle with guilt is to understand why she earned an Oscar. To see Gielgud’s measured regality and Perkins’ unabashed duplicity is to see performances that simultaneously serve as plot device and diversion.
Those three were my favorites, but the others prove no less brilliant. Cassel is a consummate mystery, Connery a hothead ready to punch someone as easily as kiss Redgrave, and Hiller a delight chewing scenery with an insatiable appetite. Bacall is set-up as the person to hate just as she provides Poirot evidence conveniently left in her possession and Balsam is the sycophant drawn into his web to vicariously absorb the energy of the hunt. Finney’s Poirot is the only true hollow character—because of how he’s written, not performed—yet profoundly necessary nonetheless. He’s so flashy because he’s meant to lure our attention to his reactions rather than the others’ actions. There can be no better distraction than the colorful man seeking to brush all distractions aside.