The remake was fun, but can't compare to director Sidney Lumet's original adaptation of Agatha Christie's classic whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express. Nominated for six Oscars and featuring an all-star cast of glamorous suspects, this absorbing, elegant, jovial, and oh-so-ingenious mystery still holds us spellbound almost half a century after its premiere. Though Paramount should have included Murder on the Orient Express in its classy Paramount Presents series or on 4K, film fans will rejoice over this long-overdue Blu-ray release, which boasts both a much-improved video transfer and terrific lossless audio track. Highly Recommended.
Dozens of Agatha Christie whodunits have been adapted for the screen, but few, if any, rival Murder on the Orient Express. The first one. The one directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet. The one that received six well-deserved Oscar nominations and earned Ingrid Bergman her third gold statuette. The one with an all-star - make that all-icon - cast led by Best Actor nominee Albert Finney and including Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, John Gielgud, Richard Widmark, Wendy Hiller, Rachel Roberts, Jacqueline Bisset, and Michael York. The one that's the most faithful to Christie's 1934 novel. The one that's, quite simply, the best of all the film and TV adaptations of this classic, timeless tale.
With impeccable production values, a snappy, literate script that mixes humor with intrigue, and top-notch, colorful performances, Lumet's film captures the distinctive flavor of Christie's book while taking viewers on an unforgettable ride aboard the world's most luxurious train. Even without the titular murder that propels the narrative while the train itself is stalled, the movie stands on its own as an elegantly crafted piece of entertainment and reverent homage to a bygone era.
Murder on the Orient Express transports viewers back in time to the mid-1930s, when railway travel was sophisticated and dignified, when people dressed for dinner, feasted on gourmet delicacies in an opulent dining car, drank the finest wines, and then retired to their well-appointed compartments. The Orient Express was swanky with a capital $, and only the most wealthy travelers could afford the trip.
On this particular journey, though, the passengers in the Calais coach seem anxious and preoccupied, exchanging significant glances and laboring to mask their true feelings. Especially concerned is Ratchett (Widmark), an American "businessman" and recipient of several anonymous threatening notes. He endeavors to hire one of the passengers, master detective Hercule Poirot (Finney), as his bodyguard, but the fastidious Belgian with a curled handlebar mustache and hyper-suspicious nature doesn't care for Ratchett's crass manners and tough attitude and turns him down.
Nobody likes Ratchett - not even his sycophantic personal secretary (Perkins) or doting manservant (Gielgud), and neither of them weeps when he's found dead in his bed the next morning. A loquacious widow (Bacall) claims a strange man disturbed her sleep and might be the culprit, but Poirot remains skeptical. He soon learns Ratchett masterminded the sensational kidnapping and ultimate murder of Daisy Armstrong, the young daughter of a Long Island tycoon, five years before. (The direct link between this fictional incident and the real-life abduction and subsequent killing of aviator Charles Lindbergh's son, which occurred during the same time period, is intentional.)
Poirot wonders whether any of the passengers share a connection with the Armstrongs, and with the help of a railroad executive (Balsam) on board, he conducts a private inquisition in an attempt to solve the crime before the train arrives at its next stop. In addition to those mentioned above, he questions a shy Swedish missionary (Bergman), a glowering Russian princess (Hiller) and her protective maid (Roberts), a Hungarian count (York) and his ravishing wife (Bisset), and a British colonel (Connery) who hopes to keep his relationship with a comely stenographer (Redgrave) a secret.
In addition to its atmosphere and intrigue, Murder on the Orient Express salutes the all-star dramas of Hollywood's Golden Age, films like Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, where the interactions of the lofty, on-screen personalities are almost as entertaining as the plot. Although the ego quotient on the Orient Express must have been astronomical, the stars nevertheless align to create a tight, comfortable ensemble. Sure, they often jockey about to grab our attention, but the inherent competition that surely existed drives them all to craft finely detailed performances that never cease to delight. First and foremost is Finney, who files the definitive interpretation of Poirot. Unrecognizable under layers of makeup and hair so oily it almost drips, the 38-year-old actor takes the idiosyncratic detective to new levels, expertly balancing his quick temper, sly wit, and gruff demeanor. Finney walks a fine line, dominating the film without overshadowing his fellow performers, and his work is a joy to behold.
Bergman also delights as the "backward" missionary who teaches "little brown babies," Bacall shines as a mouthy society broad who goes on and on about her second husband when she's not locking horns with Poirot, and Hiller nearly steals the show with her ultra-mannered but endlessly appealing turn as the sourpuss Princess Dragomiroff. Connery brings his typical machismo and stiff-upper-lip to Colonel Arbuthnot, while Perkins brings his patented Norman Bates stuttering and neuroses to Ratchitt's twitchy secretary, albeit with a Chicago accent. Redgrave, Bisset, York, and especially Gielgud, who previews his future Oscar-winning turn as the droll, disdainful manservant in Arthur, also impress.
So do the sets and costumes, which beautifully evoke the period's glamor and sophistication. Tony Walton had a hand in both, doing double duty as production designer and costume designer. (The latter job nabbed him an Oscar nod.) Geoffrey Unsworth's lush cinematography also earned an Academy Award nomination, as did Richard Rodney Bennett's glorious, memorable music score and Paul Dehn's superior screenplay. Credit Christie, though, for the brilliant premise and ingenious resolution. Like a virtuoso seamstress, Dame Agatha stitches together the intriguing crime and motley group of characters, producing an airtight mystery that holds up under microscopic review.
The movie's blockbuster success spawned a series of all-star Christie whodunits over the next several years, including Death on the Nile, Ten Little Indians, and The Mirror Crack'd, but none possess the style, substance, and complexity of Murder on the Orient Express. Nor does Kenneth Branagh's well-intentioned 2017 remake, which begins with an event alluded to but not depicted in the 1974 film. Though Branagh's adaptation follows the novel more closely than its predecessor in a couple of instances, it strays way off the track - literally and figuratively - in a brazen attempt to open up the story and infuse it with more physical action. Lumet made his film in a far different era, but astutely recognizes the cerebral nature of whodunits and how effectively a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment heightens tension. He makes us feel as cramped as the passengers in the train's narrow corridors and stifling compartments, and his penchant for extreme close-ups and cramming three or more actors into a tight frame thickens the uneasy, confrontational, and stuffy air swirling about the proceedings.
It's a shame Paramount didn't deem Murder on the Orient Express worthy of inclusion in its upscale, high-profile Paramount Presents series. With its flurry of Oscar nominations, elegant style, a riveting plot, expert direction, and an all-star cast of fascinating characters, Lumet's film certainly deserves admittance to the exclusive club, but whether packaged in a slick fold-out sleeve or flimsy, standard Blu-ray case, Murder on the Orient Express remains as fresh and fun today as when I first saw it as a wide-eyed 12-year-old upon its release in 1974. Like the legendary train that takes us on a thrilling adventure with all the luxurious trimmings, this film is in a class by itself.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, at last, arrives on Blu-ray in the U.S. packaged in one of those flimsy, standard cases alluded to above. A leaflet containing the digital copy code is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. (The restored original mono track is also included but in lossy Dolby Digital.) Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Though there's no mention of any restoration on the packaging, it's instantly obvious Paramount has done some work on Murder on the Orient Express since its DVD release 15 years ago...and that's good news indeed. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer isn't perfect, but it's a huge step up from the DVD, which suffered from copious print damage, excessive grain, and a dull color palette. All of that has been corrected, so what we have now is a bright, vibrant picture that bursts with fine details and immerses us in the elegance and opulence of the famed Orient Express. The opening scenes in Istanbul still exhibit heavier texture, but once the train leaves the station, the grain resolves and for the rest of the ride the image flaunts a lovely, warm, very film-like feel. Clarity and contrast are quite good, but there's a faint gauzy look to the movie that enhances the period flavor while softening the appearances of the largely aged cast.
Bursts of color perk up the frame - red fez caps, verdant foliage, carts of oranges and lemons - during the more temperate Istanbul scenes, but once the train gets stuck in the icy mountains, the picture adopts a colder look. The cool blues of the compartment nightlights, crisp whites of the dense snowscape, and deep blacks of Poirot's jacket and slicked-back hair dominate the image, but the bold red lipstick on Bisset and Redgrave, a tiny glass of crème de menthe, and the fuchsia-toned sleeping draught provide colorful accents. Billowing steam and falling snowflakes are well defined, as are the close-ups that showcase such distinctive elements as Finney's greasy mustache, Hiller's pasty, wrinkled complexion, Bisset's alabaster skin, and the crow's feet around the eyes of Bacall, Bergman, and Roberts. Excellent shadow delineation heightens the eeriness of the climax, and all the annoying marks and blotches that plague the DVD have been meticulously erased.
It's high time Murder on the Orient Express made its Blu-ray debut, and despite a few minor flaws, this transfer outclasses every other home video rendering of this classic whodunit.
This seems to be the same 5.1 mix that appeared on the 2004 DVD, but the upgrade to DTS-HD Master Audio makes it sound like a whole new track. Terrific fidelity and tonal depth distinguish the bright, crisp, and lush audio that makes us feel as if we're riding the Orient Express along with the cast. Surprisingly, the surrounds kick in frequently, delivering an expansive, enveloping soundscape that maximizes the impact of Richard Rodney Bennett's lilting and majestic Oscar-nominated score. Train atmospherics also bleed into the rears, while palpable stereo separation across the front channels adds further nuances to the mix. Sonic accents like high-pitched train whistles, bursts of steam, ringing bells, and the sound of a knife plunging into flesh are distinct, and solid bass frequencies enhance the rumble of the plow as it crashes into the packed snow on the railroad tracks. A wide dynamic scale handles all of these elements without a hint of distortion, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude. Some of the dialogue is slightly muffled, as it was on the DVD, and Finney's excellent accent makes a handful of his lines difficult to comprehend, but if you rewind and listen closely you'll catch all his clever quips and intelligent musings. I wasn't prepared for such an active surround mix from an almost 50-year-old movie, but this track really delivers the goods, especially with regard to the glorious music that will surely play in your head long after the film is over.
Paramount also includes the original mono track, which was restored years ago, but sadly it's presented in lossy Dolby Digital, not DTS-MA.
All the supplements from the 2004 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Featurette: "Agatha Christie: A Portrait by Her Grandson, Mathew Prichard" (SD, 10 minutes) - Prichard, a distinguished, silver-haired gentleman, reflects on Christie's life and work, relating how she became interested in writing, how a particular WWI Belgian refugee became the model for Hercule Poirot, and how her love of travel probably inspired her to set a mystery aboard the Orient Express. He also analyzes Poirot's character and idiosyncrasies and touches upon Christie's love-hate relationship with the detective. Rare photos of Christie from different stages of her life augment this thoughtful and touching short film.
Documentary: "Making Murder on the Orient Express" (SD, 49 minutes) - Written, directed, and produced by DVD supplement specialist Laurent Bouzereau, this four-part 2004 documentary takes an in-depth look at the film's production process and allows cast and crew members the chance to fondly recall their on-set experiences. The first installment, "All Aboard!," examines the movie's genesis. Director Sidney Lumet and producer Richard Goodwin talk about convincing Christie to sell the rights to her book, how they secured financing, and the risky casting of 38-year-old Albert Finney to portray the much older Poirot. (First choice Alec Guinness turned them down.) We learn Ingrid Bergman was originally approached to play Princess Dragomiroff, but begged to play the Swedish missionary instead, while, according to Lumet, Richard Widmark signed on just so he could meet the other stars. Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York, and Sean Connery also offer their memories throughout the documentary. (Unfortunately, Finney, Lauren Bacall, and Vanessa Redgrave do not appear.) "The Ride" focuses on the nuts and bolts of production, and begins by examining the connections between the Lindbergh kidnapping case and the plot of Murder on the Orient Express. (Rare footage of the Lindberghs and trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann enhances the segment.) Tony Walton, who nabbed a well-deserved Oscar nomination for costume design, discusses the film's opening montage and the recreation of the Orient Express interiors. He also recalls how Lumet instructed him to "make the costumes look like costumes rather than clothes" to lend the film the highest degree of glamor. "The Passengers" looks at the interaction of the cast and how makeup and costuming transformed the actors into their various roles. York discusses Finney's intricate makeup, Bisset remembers lunching with the legends on the set, and Lumet dissects several key ensemble scenes and the challenges they posed. Finally, "End of the Line" examines the film's memorable music (also Oscar nominated), sound effects, and premiere, which included a rare public appearance by Agatha Christie herself.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The original theatrical preview focuses on “the who’s who in the whodunit.”
All aboard! The original Murder on the Orient Express at last comes to Blu-ray, and almost 50 years after its premiere, director Sidney Lumet's crackling adaptation of Agatha Christie's classic whodunit is still quite a trip. The all-star cast, led by such luminaries as Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Sean Connery, adds delicious spice to this fascinating mystery that still outclasses the 2017 remake and remains fresh and involving no matter how many times you see it. Paramount's Blu-ray presentation significantly improves upon the 2004 DVD, with spruced up video and a lossless multi-channel audio track adding loads of atmosphere to an elegant, impeccably crafted film. Highly Recommended.