Monday, November 24, 2014

Bringing Agatha Christie to the Big Screen

Bianchi (Martin Balsam): You mean you saw the man? You can identify the murderer?

Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall): I mean nothing of the kind. I mean there was a man in my compartment last night. It was pitch dark, of course, and my eyes were closed in terror ...

Bianchi: Then how did you know it was a man?

Mrs. Hubbard: Because I've enjoyed very warm relations with both my husbands.

Bianchi: With your eyes closed?

Mrs. Hubbard: That helped.

I remember the night my father took our family from our central Arkansas hometown to Little Rock to see "Murder on the Orient Express," which premiered on this day in 1974. I have read many Agatha Christie books in my life, and I have read the one upon which the movie was based, but I had not read it before I saw the movie.

So I was completely fished in by the solution — which I won't give away, in case someone reading this would like to read the book (which I recommend) or see the movie (which I also recommend). In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert reminded readers that "nothing is as it seems (and you knew that already about a movie based on an Agatha Christie book)."

"Murder on the Orient Express" wasn't the first Agatha Christie book to be brought to the big screen, but, to my knowledge, it was the first to do so with such a heavyweight cast.

My parents were Agatha Christie fans. They read most, if not all, of her books — and my memory of that night is that they were almost giddy with anticipation. Looking back, I realize they must have read articles about the movie — reviews, features about the cast members, that sort of thing — but my brother and I had not, and we were bewildered; we knew some of the stars in the movie, but we had no idea what to expect from the plot.

I had seen Ingrid Bergman in movies on TV, but she was young and beautiful in those movies. She was nearly 60 when she made "Murder on the Orient Express" — still beautiful, as I found out later, but the role she played required her to look even frumpier than many women look at that age.

Bergman actually chose the role she played, an old Swedish missionary, even though director Sidney Lumet wanted to give her a better role, a still older yet prettier and wittier character than the missionary, a more graceful role with which he felt she could win another Oscar. But Bergman was "sweetly stubborn" about the role she wanted to play, Lumet said, and he couldn't deny her. After all, she was Ingrid Bergman.

In the end, she won an Oscar, anyway. After all, she was Ingrid Bergman.
Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney): Mr. Ratchett, I have made enough money to satisfy both my needs and my caprices. I take only such cases now as interest me, and to be frank, my interest in your case is ... dwindling.

Really, it was an all–star cast, befitting a story that seemed to have randomly thrown together a dozen colorful characters — until a rather tenuous link between them all and the victim was established.

Personally, I found the story's solution to be a clever twist, the kind of thing that only Agatha Christie could conceive. She put all the characters on a train that had been stopped by a snowdrift. They were confined to the train, where Poirot interrogated them all and then revealed the two conclusions he had reached about how the victim had been killed.

Must have been a delight to be on the set with all those talented people.

Hercule Poirot: You never smile, madame la princesse?

Princess Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller): My doctor has advised against it.

For the quality of its production, "Murder on the Orient Express" was rewarded with half a dozen Oscar nominations — and one victory, Bergman's Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

But Bergman, when she accepted the award, apologized to the actresses she had beaten, especially Valentina Cortese, who was nominated for her performance in a film that was made in 1973. Bergman thought Cortese's performance was better.

"She gave the most beautiful performance," Bergman said admiringly as applause erupted from the audience.

Granted, but Bergman was pretty good, too. After all, she was Ingrid Bergman.