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Film / Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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This 1974 film is the first big-screen adaptation of Dame Agatha Christie's mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Sidney Lumet and featuring an All-Star Cast headed by Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot.

A murder happens aboard the Orient Express, shortly after the train is forced to stop due to heavy snow blocking the track. Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective who is among the passengers, starts unravelling the mystery, and comes to learn that everyone's a suspect.

Joining Finney in the cast are Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, and Michael York among others.

Another big-screen, All-Star Cast adaptation, directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also starred as Poirot), was released in 2017.

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This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion:
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: In the original novel, Poirot rather cavalierly lets the murderers go free, but in the film, he only does so after an immense amount of soul-searching. Even then it is clear from his expression that he is not sure if he has done the right thing.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Of a sort, and of course depends on one's definition of villainy here. In the novel, the Countess does not stab Cassetti, Poirot even comments that her husband takes her place in the conga line of death in proxy. In the film, she and her husband stab him together. However, though she did not stab Cassetti in the novel, she was still part of the conspiracy.
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  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: The change of Cassetti's fate from being caught but acquitted, to him just fleeing the country before he could be arrested and betraying his partner, who only admitted Cassetti's involvement on the eve of his execution.
  • Adaptational Nationality/Name Change:
    • The Italian director Signor Bianchi was a Belgian director named Monsieur Bouc in the novel (who ironically was prejudiced towards Italians).
    • The valet/butler is named Masterman in the novel but is changed to Beddoes in the film. Also, the French maid who killed herself after being falsely implicated was named Susanne in the novel, but Paulette in the movie.
  • And This Is for...: Each of the murderers — save for Foscarelli and Schmidt, who only curse him — announce the name of the person or people they lost as they take their turns stabbing Ratchett/Cassetti.
  • Arc Number: Twelve. Twelve stab wounds on the body. Twelve suspects. The threatening messages each contained twelve letters. All leading up to the final reveal: Everybody Did It, acting jointly as judge, executioner — and the twelve members of a jury.
  • Asshole Victim: Ratchett/Cassetti was a child murderer and a mobster whose kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong led to the deaths of Daisy's mother during childbirth which killed the baby as well, their maid who was Driven to Suicide by accusations of being the actual kidnapper, and Colonel Armstrong shot himself after being overwhelmed. This is one of the reasons why Poirot lets the murderers go.
  • As You Know: Poirot tells Colonel Arbuthnott that in his opinion the late Colonel Armstrong should have been awarded the VC, "which stands, as you may know, for Victoria Cross and is awarded for valor." (Possibly justified since this was during the summation, so it would have been for the benefit of those who were not British.)
  • Bad Liar: Colonel Arbuthnot is the most guilty of it. He cannot disguise his love for Mrs. Debenham when they have to pretend to be strangers, and denies knowing personally Colonel Armstrong but seems to have detailed knowledge of Armstrong's decorations and career.
  • Big Secret: Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham are not very forthcoming with Poirot at first because they try to hide a secret unrelated to the murder. Arbuthnot is filing for a divorce from his unfaithful wife, and wants to keep his relationship with Mary a secret.
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • Rather a Bilingual Spoiler way before the summation. Princess Dragomiroff mentions that the Armstrong maid's surname was Greenwood which made it obvious to anyone familiar with the German language that Countess Andrenyi (who was a Grünwald) must have had a connection to the Armstrong case.
    • The passage of Goethe read by the Princess' maid is from Kennst Du das Land and contains the line "What have they done, oh wretched child, to thee?"
  • Blood from the Mouth: Ratchett's body when found in the morning.
  • The Butler Did It: Double subverted. Beddoes, Ratchett/Cassetti's valet, is one of the first suspects. After Poirot questions him, Bianchi is sure that he killed his employer and says verbatim "The butler did it." However, Poirot quickly points out that it's not plausible. Nevertheless, it's revealed in the end that Beddoes is one of the murderers.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Subverted twice by both Beddoes (intentionally) and Foscarelli. Hilarity Ensues for Poirot.
    Foscarelli: Hey, what are you reading, Mr. Beddoes?
    Beddoes: Love's Captive, by Mrs. Arabella Richardson.
    Foscarelli: Is it about sex?
    Beddoes: No, it's about 10.30, Mr. Foscarelli.
  • Condensation Clue: Used by Poirot to explain a clue, as he writes the symbol "H" on a fogged-up windowpane as he reveals the true meaning of the handkerchief initial.
  • Dies Wide Open: The doctor has to close the murder victim's dead staring eyes the next morning.
  • Distant Prologue: The prologue is set five years before the main story.
  • Dramatic Drop: Beddoes drops his drink tray when the door is finally forced open and they find Ratchett dead in his bed.
  • Driven to Suicide: Colonel Armstrong shot himself after the death of his daughter, his wife and their unborn child. The family maid Paulette, wrongly accused of conspiring in Daisy's kidnapping, killed herself.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: The opening sequence showing the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong focuses on an abandoned teddy bear on the floor.
  • Everybody Did It: The novel was the Trope Maker. All the suspects were in on it together.
  • Evil Has a Bad Sense of Humor: Ratchett/Cassetti has made his fortune by kidnapping a child for ransom and then killing her. When asked by a yet clueless Poirot what his business was before retirement, his reply is "baby food". Also when Mrs. Hubbard accidentally walks into his cabin, he crassly lets her know that he would have asked her to stay, were she twenty years younger. This is part of the conspirators' plan to throw Poirot off.
  • Foreshadowing: There are a couple of implications that Poirot recognized Mrs. Hubbard as Linda Arden from the very beginning. He quotes Greta Garbo when they first meet, admits that he saw the actress perform twice as Lady Macbeth to the Princess, and in one scene pointedly thanks her for "playing your part". He even paraphrases her lines as Lady Macbeth when she shows up with the dagger.
    Poirot: Why did you take this dagger from the place?
  • Funny Foreigner: Poirot himself, of course. Then there's Greta, the missionary from Sweden. Also, Mrs. Hubbard is a walking Eagleland stereotype.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: One of the trademarks of Christie film adaptations.
  • Hand Gagging: Poirot covers Hildegarde's mouth when she starts screaming after finding a conductor's uniform in her suitcase.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: Poirot and Bianchi do this to some of the female passengers.
  • Implausible Deniability: Princess Dragomiroff's interrogation drowns in Blatant Lies. She denies knowing the names of the Armstrong employees while she was Mrs. Armstrong's godmother and a family friend. The peak on unlikelihood is reached when she claims to not remember the name of Mrs. Armstrong's younger sister (in fact Countess Andreyi). Poirot can't call her out on her lies due to her old age and extremely high social status, and they both know it.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Arbuthnot holds strong views on the future of British India.
    Col. Arbuthnot: I was yarning with young... What's his name? McQueen, in his compartment. He was interested in the future of India, a bit impractical. He thought the British ought to move out.
  • Just Train Wrong: This film's version of the Orient Express has a French steam locomotive (on a train snowbound in Yugoslavia) and a Pullman lounge coach, which the real Orient Express never featured.
    • A Wagon-Lits Pullman lounge car did operate in the Simplon-Orient-Express, but not on this part of the line.
  • Let Off by the Detective: Poirot allows the killers to go free because the murder victim had hurt all of the people who committed the murder with his own crimes.
  • Locked Room Mystery: When his body was found, the door to Ratchett's cabin was locked and chained from the inside. This detail isn't brought up again though.
  • Mama Bear: Linda Arden, a.k.a Mrs. Hubbard masterminded Cassetti's murder to avenge her granddaughter, who he kidnapped and murdered, and her daughter, who in her grief gave birth to a stillborn baby which also killed her.
  • Metaphorically True: Everything Princess Natalia Dragomiroff says to Hercule Poirot. They had to lie to throw him off the trail, but honor dictated they couldn't do it outright so they "merely" gave the nearest equivalent answer. For example; Mr. Whitehead became Mr. Snowpeak. Poirot, being Poirot, wasn't fooled for a minute.
  • Money Is Not Power: Ratchett/Cassetti tries paying Poirot thousands of dollars to find the person sending him death threats. Poirot senses the man is trouble, but he diplomatically states he is rich enough that only takes cases that interest him, and he doesn't have any interest in the case.
  • Necrocam: During Poirot's summation we get visuals of what he thought happened in the night of the murder.
  • Oh, Crap!: Pierre, the conductor, has one when he sees the famous detective boarding the train.
  • Omniglot: Pierre effortlessly switches between English, Russian, German, Swedish, Hungarian, and Italian - in one scene. Presumably he is also fluent in his native French. Truth in Television for Wagons-Lits staff; to even be considered for a job one had to be fluent in at least three languages.
  • The Oner:
    • The titular train's departure is shot in one take, from a crew member walking down the platform to the engine through to the tail lamp disappearing into the distance.
    • Poirot's interrogation of Greta is shot in one continuous, five-minute take.
  • Orgy of Evidence:
    • As Poirot put it, there were "too many clues" in Ratchett's room, cluing him in that some evidence was planted.
    • Inversely, as he learns more and more of the passengers have a connection to the Armstrong family, he realizes that they were in on it together.
  • Perpetual Frowner: Poirot notes that Princess Dragomiroff never smiles. She replies that her doctor had advised against it. She eventually does when she and the other 12 toast to their success and being let go by Poirot.
  • Pillow Pistol: Ratchett sleeps with a pistol under his pillow after getting threatening notes. It doesn't keep him from getting murdered due to the impact of a sedative.
  • Pinkerton Detective: Cyrus Hardman is a Pinkerton agent. This is a change from the book, which had him working for the fictional McNeil Detective Agency.
  • Pretty in Mink: Princess Dragomiroff, Countess Andrenyi and Mrs. Hubbard all wear furs at some point.
  • Red Herring: Poirot points out that false evidence was scattered around the train to mislead the investigation.
  • The Reveal: Each suspect is responsible for Ratchett's death, as each of them took a turn to stab him while he was drugged and helpless.
  • Running Gag: After each suspect Poirot interviews, Bianchi is sure that they have found the killer. Turns out he's right, since everyone was in on it.
  • Scenery Porn: While most of the action naturally takes place aboard the train (which was created on sets at Elstree Studios in London), cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth still managed to get in some truly spectacular French and Turkish location footage for a few exterior scenes.
  • Self-Deprecation: Princess Dragomiroff informs Poirot that she has to give up listening to her maid read of his investigations as they keep her awake, depriving her of her "beauty sleep".
  • Separated by a Common Language: How does Poirot know Mary Debenham spent time in America? Because she said "I could always call my lawyers long distance," when an Englishwoman would say "I could always make a trunk call to my solicitors."
  • Sherlock Scan: Poirot is somehow able to tell who the cook is because he "has, perhaps, a nose for fine dining".
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Count Rudolph Andrenyi and Countess Helena Andrenyi. They're almost never out of each other's sight, and when interviewed as suspects in the murder, Rudolph can hardly stop cradling Helena like a fragile doll. This is partially because she is addicted to the drug used to put Cassetti under, so they could murder him: she is constantly in a weak, vulnerable state.
  • Slipping a Mickey: It turns out Ratchett was drugged so he could be easily taken out. The drug was placed in the valerian which he drank before sleep.
  • Snowed-In: The train is stuck in a snowdrift, which gives Poirot a limited time frame to solve the case.
  • Spanner in the Works: The murder was actually very well planned out and meticulous. Too bad the killer could never have counted on A) a world-class detective boarding at the last minute and B) an avalanche stranding the train right after the killing, giving said detective enough time to piece it all together.
  • Spinning Paper: The prologue sequence, designed by Richard Williams' studio, features a montage of spinning and fading newspapers chronicling the kidnapping, and eventual murder, of Baby Daisy Armstrong.
  • Spiteful Spit: In Poirot's depiction of the crime, Foscarelli spits on the unconscious Ratchett before stabbing him.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: Ratchett takes the opportunity of the train entering a tunnel (and thus becoming dark) to leave unobserved after Poirot declines his offer.
  • Stop Being Stereotypical: Played for Drama. Bianchi, an Italian man, feels tremendous shame over Casetti, another Italian man, having committed such a vile crime.
  • Stopped Clock: A broken watch is found on Ratchett's body, which tells his time of death. Later, Poirot deduces that it was planted to throw the investigation off.
  • Summation Gathering: Poirot orders everyone into the dining car so he can deliver his summation.
  • Thriller on the Express: A murder occurs on a train stuck in a snowdrift.
  • Tranquil Fury: Michel enters this mode when he lays his eyes on Ratchett. He maintains his composure, but his eyes harden a bit and his voice gets stiff. Considering Ratchett drove his daughter to suicide, you can't really blame him .
  • Unusual Euphemism: Ratchett describes his "business" to Poirot taking babies hostage for ransom and killing them as "baby food".
  • Vehicle Title: The title comes from the name of the train where the action occurs.
  • What You Are in the Dark: When Poirot discovers that 12 of his fellow Passengers and the Conductor were the killers, he has a crisis of faith, even though the suspects are willing to accept the consequences of their actions - the man was dead, they didn't care about their fate afterward. Poirot decides to go with the simpler, false explanation and let them all go free, but is visibly shaken.
    Bianchi: Hercule. I thank you.
    Poirot: My friend. Now I must go and wrestle with my report to the police and with my conscience.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole: Ratchett is a through-and-through vile individual, but Poirot is still compelled to solve the man's death.

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