Playing Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Albert Finney leads this cast in an enjoyable, ridiculous murder mystery set in the 1935. Finney is in just about every scene and dominates the movie. I’ve never read a Christie novel or anything at all related with Poirot, but this character reminded me of Peter Falk’s TV detective Columbo. A quirky, eccentric detective solves convoluted crimes that no person in their right mind should be able to comprehend.
Boarding the Orient Express after receiving orders to return to London, famed detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) is given a berth on the crowded train thanks to a railroad official (Martin Balsam) and long-time friend. But on the second night out, a mysterious American passenger, Ratchett (Richard Widmark), is murdered, stabbed through the midsection 12 times. The railroad official turns to Poirot to solve the murder before the train reaches the next station. A snow-covered pass blocks the train’s way, giving Poirot free range to go about solving the mystery. The detective quickly figures out that Ratchett was involved in a well-known kidnapping case. So was it a hired killer, or was one of the many passengers onboard the murderer?
The murder mystery itself is an interesting one that unfolds quickly in the first 30 minutes or so. The whole next hour is devoted to a series of interrogations/interviews as Finney’s Poirot and Balsam’s Bianchi assemble the evidence concerning Ratchett’s murder. With a dialogue-heavy movie, the story sinks or swims on these scenes. In that sense, it swims long and hard. Finney earned an Oscar nomination for his performance, and it’s a treat to watch him interact with his supporting cast.
The cast is a who’s who of Hollywood stars from the Golden Age and then a newer wave of younger stars making a name for themselves and then a few in between. Describing all these characters would require a whole other review in itself so I’ll try and keep it shorter. Along with Finney, Balsam, and Widmark, there’s a list of names that include Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman (Oscar-nominated supporting part), Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and John Gielgud. Most of them are given a brief intro and then their interrogations with Poirot. Basically that amounts to a cameo-like role for all of them, but it’s great just to see all those big-names working together.
SPOILERS Don’t read anymore if you want to know who the murderer is SPOILERS. Poirot does his detective work and then confronts all the train’s passengers. His conclusion? They all murdered Ratchett, each stabbing him once with the same knife. Each passenger has a connection to an infamous kidnapping case that Widmark’s Ratchett masterminded, resulting in the death of five people. So working together, the murdering dozen or so have planned this murder to a fault…they just didn’t plan on Poirot being onboard. This twist is stupid, ridiculous, over the top, and somehow…it works. The ending itself is a bit of a letdown, but that’s a minor complaint.
The reveal itself is well-handled in an almost 30-minute scene where all the clues and evidence comes together. Lumet handles it perfectly with quick flashbacks to Poirot’s questioning as Finney seemingly lose his mind only to figure everything out. And that’s why this is a movie worth watching, the performances from Finney to the long list of A-list actors making the most of their supporting roles. More than a little beyond the limits of believability, but still fun from beginning to end.
Murder on the Orient Express <----trailer (1974): ***/****