Double-feature review: Agatha Christie 's Murder on the Orient Express

The 2015 book cover of Murder on the Orient Express

By Charlie Simonton|North Birmingham Library 

Prominent Belgian detective Hercule Poirot must unexpectedly cut his holiday in Istanbul short and head to London, so he boards the famed Orient Express along the Simplon route.

Traveling aboard the Calais coach in first class luxury with thirteen other passengers, the last thing Poirot expects is to work a new case, stumbling upon one of the strangest cases of his illustrious career—Cassetti, an American businessman with a shady past, is dead in his locked compartment, baring dozens of brutal stab wounds.

Then the train stops.

The Orient Express is stuck in a snowbank.

The murderer is still on the train.

Monsieur Bouc, Poirot’s friend and owner of the train, convinces the detective to take the case.

But as he unravels layer after layer of deception, Poirot finds himself in the midst of a sinister plot, a tragedy from many years ago, and the lives left shattered in its wake.

Only Hercule Poirot can bring this nightmare to an end, allowing the dead to rest in peace at last.

There are many iterations of Murder on the Orient Express, including this 2011 book cover

From its first publication in 1934, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express captivated readers with a crime unique in its execution and enthralling in its solution.

The novel has so struck readers that it is one of Christie's most adapted works, including tv shows, made-for-tv movies, radio programs, and even graphic novel and video game adaptations.

Most notably, however, are the two feature length film adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express.

While each of these adaptations brings their own flare to the story—a result of when the films were filmed as well as the director’s personal touch—both films do Christie’s work remarkable justice and make excellent use of a star-studded cast, too.

If you’d rather watch the movie than read the book or listen to the audiobook, either film is sure to delight.

1974 film cover

The first film adaptation, released in 1974 (now on Blu-ray and DVD), saw director Sidney Lumet at the helm of a no-frills whodunit. Its tone appropriately dark with just enough humor sprinkled throughout to relieve the tension.

Albert Finney receives top billing as the famed detective, though he is certainly not the only star among the cast.

Lauren Bacall steals the spotlight as the loud, opinionated American widow, Mrs. Hubbard, and the rest of the suspects include:

  • Sean Connery as the English Colonel Arbuthnot
  • Ingrid Berghman as timid Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson
  • Anthony Perkins as American secretary Henry Macqueen
  • Vanessa Redgrave as English governess Mary Debenham

The cast comes together under Lumet’s direction to give captivating performances, though some scenes do not carry the emotional weight one might expect of the circumstances the characters find themselves in.

This version also does not explore the prejudices of nationality, class, and gender that are absolutely central to the investigation in the novel.

There are several familiar faces on the 2017 cover 

2017 sees British actor and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh both behind the camera as director of a new adaptation and in front of the camera in the starring role.

Branagh’s direction sees several updates to the story for a modern audience.

One update is changing some of the characters' races and national origins to translate the prejudices of the 1930s into something more familiar to modern audiences.

For instance, Arbuthnot—now a doctor as well as an army veteran, combining his role with Dr. Constantine from the novel—is portrayed by African American actor Leslie Odom Jr.

Arbuthnot's interactions with the majority-white cast—particularly with Austrian university professor and apparent Nazi sympathizer Hardman (played by Willem Dafoe)—display racial prejudices that modern audiences can understand but still being accurate for the time period, too.

Swedish nurse Greta Ohlsson becomes Spanish nurse Pilar Estravados (played by Penélope Cruz), and Italian car salesman Antonio Foscarelli is turned into Latino car salesman Biniamino Marquez (played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).

These casting choices bring a modern spin to the racial prejudices of the original story, considering the drastic rise of prejudice against Latin Americans since 2016.

In addition to a change in cast, Branagh brings a change in tone. He opts for a much more action-filled script.

Chase sequences, gun fights, hand to hand brawls, and the train’s violent derailment by a snowstorm add thrills for the modern audience.

The cast is no less star-studded to its audience than the 1974 version was to its.

Joining the aforementioned actors, other notable cast members includes:

  • Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs. Hubbard
  • Josh Gad as Henry Macqueen
  • Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham
  • Dame Judi Dench as Princess Natalia Dragomiroff
  • Olivia Colman as German maid Hildegarde Schmidt
  • Derek Jacobi as English valet Edward Masterman
  • Johnny Depp as sinister American gangster Mr. Ratchett

While the 2017 film takes more artistic liberties, both film adaptations remain overall faithful to the original source material.

Personally, I feel where both films fall short is in their portrayal of Hercule Poirot.

The Belgian detective is certainly eccentric and methodical, but the version of him in the novel is more sympathetic and understanding when the truth of the crime comes to light.

Albert Finney and Kenneth Branagh both play Poirot as a man with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, for whom everything must be just so.

Branagh’s Poirot even goes so far as to refuse his breakfast of boiled eggs if the two eggs are not exactly even with one another, nor can he allow justice and the truth to remain unbalanced without a great personal struggle despite the circumstances.

Drastic character changes aside, both films are as wonderfully enjoyable as the novel—even when one already knows how the story plays out.

If you’re looking for a great crime novel that will keep you guessing, or a detective thriller to enjoy with a bowl of popcorn on movie night, Murder on the Orient Express is a perfect choice.

You can find a copy of either film adaptation and multiple formats of the novel at your Birmingham Public Library.