The ’70s version of Murder on the Orient Express, starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, hardly invented the “all star movie,” but it would be difficult to think of a film with a more stellar cast. A lush, extravagant adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, the film never fails to entertain, even as it always disappoints. If the source of that pleasure is easy to locate in the incomparable cast, solid script, opalescent cinematography and superb design, it is just as easy to pinpoint the cause of the disappointment. With a cast this top heavy, and with a script this complicated, the movie cries out for a light, graceful touch. Sidney Lumet, the director, is best known for exactly the opposite. His best films have a slapdash energy produced by his well known gift with actors and an undeniable technical flair. But that “flair” is usually a matter of ramming home a point more forcefully than anyone else. Delicate shadings of tone or emotion, or the wry understatement of Christie’s clever concoctions are not in Lumet’s kit.
I have often thought that the Alain Resnais of Stavisky… would have been the ideal director for this pastiche of Art Deco elegance. Resnais’s visual sophistication and gift for handling the juxtaposition of different times and places with seemingly effortless ease, his ability effectively to choreograph his films could have worked wonders with Murder’s script. Be that as it may, Lumet manages to handle the temporal jumble with enough skill that there’s never any doubt about what we’re seeing, or when it happened. He achieves that basic requirement, however, with no finesse, choosing techniques that work for their simple, expository tasks, but which fall far short of the gentle wink of style this material demands.
For example, during the recapitulation of the night of the murder narrated by Poirot, Lumet repeatedly cuts back to actions we have seen. In order to make it clear that these are retrospective events, he stylizes the flashbacks with wider angle lenses and unusual camera positions that call attention to themselves. The flashbacks are thus immediately recognizable as “different,” but they also mar the overall visual texture, undercutting the polished veneer of the scenes in the present. Having gone to the expensive effort of recreating the surface of ’30s glamor, Lumet’s crude execution undercuts his own achievements.
To be sure, such criticism focuses on details that may not be apparent to most viewers. It is nonetheless exactly in the delicate edges of execution that the style of such an elaborately contrived confection is achieved. When a film like Murder has so much going for it, it’s a pity that witty insouciance does not permeate every frame, cut and gesture. We can certainly enjoy what the film does provide. It is just that the occasionally clumsy effort to evoke the casual assurance of a by-gone cinematic era inevitably reminds us we are not experiencing it.