“Only by interrogating the other passengers could I hope to see the light. But when I began to question them, the light, as Macbeth would have said, thickened.”
A good mystery is not obvious, but neither is it impenetrable: it will give you all of the pieces of the puzzle in a jumbled mess, and then one of the characters will put them together. Most mystery movies fail on some level—they are either too obvious or, to get around this, will withhold key pieces of information until the end. Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is a true mystery, and it’s a good one. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) and starring Albert Finney and an all-star cast, this is a movie that won’t necessarily thrill you, but it will delight you as the pieces come together and the complex picture is revealed.
The movie opens with Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie’s recurring detective character) boarding a train to take a much-deserved vacation. A man named Ratchett approaches Poirot to ask for his services as a bodyguard, but Poirot turns him down. The next morning, the train is stuck in snow, Ratchett is found murdered in his room, and Poirot is convinced to take the case. As he interrogates the other passengers on the train, he discovers each of them is a serious suspect and the case becomes much more complicated than anyone anticipated. The ending, while not altogether shocking, is still somewhat surprising and fits the movie beautifully.
If all these people are not implicated in the crime, then why have they all told me, under interrogation, stupid and often unnecessary lies?
This is a bit of a period piece (set in the mid-1930s), and the production does a good job of reflecting that. The costumes, sets, soundtrack, and dialogue all feel like an old vintage movie, so the film feels much older than it is. (This came out the same year as The Godfather: Part II.) The setting doesn’t get in the way of the plot and doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself, but it’s a lovely piece of detail that enhances the charm of the movie.
Despite being a murder mystery and touching on some dark themes (like the kidnapping and murder of an infant), this is a surprisingly light movie—it’s fun to watch the characters interact, and there are some genuinely funny lines. The character of Hercule Poirot in particular is humorous as he defies traditional hero stereotypes and just wants to be left alone on his vacation. But by the end, Poirot and the plot show their brilliance. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will say that I found it extremely gratifying.
Murder on the Orient Express is one of the classic mystery films that all mystery fans would enjoy, not just for the mystery but also for the creative outcome, but it’s also accessible enough for the average movie-goer to enjoy more casually. I anticipate most viewers finding something to like in this movie. It’s a charming and competent mystery that would make for a great movie night or just a fun night alone.
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Director: Sidney Lumet