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Paramount Studios presents
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

"The butler did it."
- Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: September 21, 2004

Stars: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York
Other Stars: Colin Blakely
Director: Sidney Lumet

MPAA Rating: PG for (mild violence)
Run Time: 02h:07m:47s
Release Date: September 07, 2004
UPC: 097360879049
Genre: mystery

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Dozens of Agatha Christie whodunits have been adapted for the screen, but few, if any, rival Murder on the Orient Express. With impeccable production values and an intoxicating mix of humor and intrigue, director Sidney Lumet captures the delectable flavor of Christie's novel while taking viewers on an unforgettable ride aboard the world's most luxurious train. Yet even the ritzy Orient Express isn't immune to violence, and when one of its passengers turns up dead, master detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) springs into action, interrogating an endless parade of Hollywood legends in his effort to expose the killer.

Sheer entertainment from start to finish, Murder on the Orient Express transports viewers back in time to the mid-1930s, when railway travel was sophisticated and dignified, when people dressed for dinner, wined and dined on gourmet delicacies, and retired to their well-appointed compartments. The Orient Express was swanky with a capital $, and only the most wealthy travelers could afford the trip. On this particular journey, however, the passengers in the Calais coach seem serious and preoccupied, exchanging significant glances and laboring to mask their true feelings. Especially concerned is Ratchett (Richard Widmark), an American "businessman" and recipient of several anonymous threatening notes. He endeavors to hire Poirot as his bodyguard, but the detective doesn't care for his crass manners and tough attitude, and turns him down.

Nobody likes Ratchett—not even his personal secretary (Anthony Perkins) or doting manservant (John Gielgud), and neither weep when he's found dead in his bed the next morning. A loquacious widow (Lauren Bacall) claims a strange man disturbed her sleep and might be the culprit, but Poirot remains suspicious. He soon learns Ratchett masterminded the sensational kidnapping and ultimate murder of Daisy Armstrong, the young daughter of a Long Island tycoon, five years before. (The direct link between this fictional incident and the real-life kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's son, which occurred during the same time period, is intentional.) Poirot wonders whether any of the passengers share a connection with the Armstrongs, and with the help of a railroad executive (Martin Balsam) on board, he conducts a private inquisition in an attempt to solve the crime before the train arrives at its next stop. Those he questions include a Swedish missionary (Ingrid Bergman), a Russian princess (Wendy Hiller) and her devoted maid (Rachel Roberts), a German count (Michael York) and his ravishing wife (Jacqueline Bisset), and a British colonel (Sean Connery) who hopes to keep his relationship with a comely stenographer (Vanessa Redgrave) a secret.

Murder on the Orient Express salutes the all-star dramas of yore, films like Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, where watching the personalities is as much fun as following the plot. And although the ego quotient on the Orient Express must have been astronomical, the stars nevertheless create a tight, comfortable ensemble. Sure, they often jockey about to grab our attention, but the inherent competition that surely existed on the set drives them all to craft finely detailed performances that never cease to delight. First and foremost is Finney, who files the definitive interpretation of Poirot. Unrecognizable under layers of makeup and hair so oily it almost drips, the 38-year-old actor takes the fastidious detective to new levels, expertly balancing his quick temper, sly wit, and gruff demeanor. Finney walks a fine line, dominating the film without overshadowing his fellow performers, and justly earned an Academy Award nomination for his travails.

Bergman, however, won the Oscar (her third) for her charming portrayal of the "backward" missionary who teaches "little brown babies." Bacall shines as a mouthy society broad unafraid to lock horns with Poirot, and Hiller nearly steals the show with her ultra-mannered but endlessly appealing turn as the sourpuss Princess Dragomiroff. Connery brings his typical machismo and stiff-upper-lip to Colonel Arbuthnot, while Perkins exhibits his typical neuroses as the twitchy secretary, Hector MacQueen. Redgrave, Bisset, York, and especially Gielgud also impress.

So do the sets and costumes, which perfectly evoke the period's outrageous glamour, and, along with the performances, add plenty of Golden Age luster to the film. The plot also ranks up there with Christie's best, as it intricately weaves the characters together and produces an ingenious climax even hardcore mystery devotees won't be able to predict. With her customary flair, Dame Agatha stumps us but good.

The film's enormous success spawned a series of all-star Christie whodunits, including Death on the Nile, Ten Little Indians, and The Mirror Crack'd, but none possess the style, substance, and complexity of Murder on the Orient Express. Like the legendary train, this is a bloody fine mystery in a class by itself.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Image quality is quite spotty—literally. The widescreen anamorphic transfer looks grainy, lacks sharpness, and is often littered with annoying white marks and blotches. As the film progresses, the transfer improves, but it never attains the superior levels Paramount has achieved with other films from the same period. Murder on the Orient Express recalls the lush Technicolor productions of Hollywood's Golden Age, but colors often fail to burst and pop like we hope. Blacks are rich and solid, and shadow detail is excellent, especially during the murky climax. It's just too bad Paramount didn't spring for the restoration this beloved film obviously deserves.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: A brand new DD 5.1 track offers mixed results as well. Richard Rodney Bennett's majestic, waltz-infused score (rightfully Oscar-nominated) nicely envelops and possesses marvelous fidelity, but tends to overpower the action on screen. Subtle ambient effects, though seldom employed, make good use of the rear speakers, and the various train noises—whistle, engine, steam—are crisply rendered and add essential atmosphere. Dialogue can be a bit muffled at times, but the various foreign dialects of the characters may be partially to blame.

A restored mono track is also included, and makes up in balance what it lacks in fidelity.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Featurette(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Am I dreaming? Is it Christmas? I had to pinch myself when I noticed Paramount actually included extras on one of its catalog classics. All I can say is—it's about time! Mine was only one in a chorus of voices begging, pleading, and cajoling the studio to add real special features (not just chapter stops, folks) to its catalog releases. And not only did those in charge finally listen, they also put together a substantive package that strongly competes with the supplements archrivals Fox and Warner add to their vintage discs.

First is a thoughtful and touching featurette, Agatha Christie: A Portrait by Her Grandson, Mathew Prichard. Prichard, a distinguished, silver-haired gentleman, reflects on Christie's life and work, relating how she became interested in writing, how a particular WWI Belgian refugee became the model for Hercule Poirot, and how her love of travel probably inspired her to set a mystery aboard the Orient Express. He also analyzes Poirot's character and idiosyncrasies, and touches upon Christie's love-hate relationship with the detective. Rare photos of Christie from different stages of her life augment the nine-and-a-half-minute film.

The disc's most noteworthy extra, however, is a four-part documentary (totaling 48 minutes) written, directed, and produced by DVD supplement specialist Laurent Bouzereau. Making Murder on the Orient Express takes an in-depth look at the film's production process and allows cast and crew members to fondly recall their experiences 30 years ago. All four segments can be watched individually or continuously using the Play All feature.

The first installment, All Aboard! examines the movie's genesis. Director Sidney Lumet and producer Richard Goodwin talk about convincing Christie to sell the rights to her book, securing financing, and the risky casting of 38-year-old Albert Finney to portray the much older Poirot. (First choice Alec Guinness turned them down.) We learn Ingrid Bergman was originally approached to play Princess Dragomiroff, but begged to play the Swedish missionary instead, while, according to Lumet, Richard Widmark signed on just so he could meet the other stars. Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York, and Sean Connery also offer their memories throughout the documentary. (Unfortunately, Finney, Lauren Bacall, and Vanessa Redgrave do not appear.)

The Ride focuses on the nuts and bolts of production, and begins by examining the connections between the Lindbergh kidnapping case and the plot of Murder on the Orient Express. (Rare footage of the Lindberghs and trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann enhances the segment.) Tony Walton, who nabbed a well-deserved Oscar nomination for costume design, discusses the film's opening montage and the recreation of the Orient Express interiors. He also recalls how Lumet instructed him to "make the costumes look like costumes rather than clothes" to lend the film the highest degree of glamour.

The Passengers looks at the interaction of the cast and how makeup and costuming transformed the actors into their various roles. York discusses Finney's intricate makeup, Bisset remembers lunching with the legends on the set, and Lumet dissects several key ensemble scenes and the challenges they posed. Finally, End of the Line examines the film's memorable music (also Oscar nominated), sound effects, and premiere, which included a rare public appearance by Agatha Christie herself.

The original theatrical trailer completes this highly entertaining extras package. Keep up the good work, Paramount!

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

All aboard! Even a disappointing transfer can't dampen enthusiasm for the DVD release of Murder on the Orient Express. This all-star whodunit captivates from beginning to end with top-notch production values, an ingenious plot, and terrific performances. So pop some corn, sharpen your wits, and revel in this classic (and very classy) mystery. Highly recommended.


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