The famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is in Istanbul to board the Orient Express, having recently completed a case there, although he has caught a cold in the process. As he waits for the ship taking him to the European part of the country, he notices a couple embracing on the lower deck, and idly stores away the observation as they embark. Once he has met his old friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), he is ready to board the train, and takes note of the other passengers arriving, not realising he will soon be using his powers of deduction to solve a mystery that appears to incriminate them all...
Agatha Christie, author of the book Murder on the Orient Express, was very pleased with this prestige production of one of her most celebrated works, but then any author would have been delighted with the cast the producers had assembled here, as they had brought in a big name star for practically every role. Therefore the film was a success in its day almost purely for the names associated with it, from Christie herself and that ringing endorsement, to the likes of Sean Connery and Ingrid Bergman (harnessing an Oscar for her trouble) all getting a scene to themselves to strut their thespian stuff - with this array of talent it was sure to be something special, right?
Well, not quite, as while star fanciers were thoroughly catered for, what was so effortlessly effective on the page tended to lie stagnantly on the screen, particularly when the locomotive ends up stranded in the snow about half an hour in. There's nothing that director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paul Dehn (then doing well off Planet of the Apes sequels) could do to disguise the static nature of the piece, and once you got past the fact that all those well-kent faces had turned up to entertain you, there was little to amuse. Not least because by now, the ending of the film, and the book, are so infamous that neither hold many surprises, even if you've never seen it before.
Not helping was a frankly bizarre performance from Albert Finney, who looked to be trying to rename himself Albert Funny as in peculiar judging by the manner he went about squeezing himself into the role. Not that he didn't try manfully, but the effort was all too plain to see, and it was pretty exhausting watching him contort himself into the version of the detective that people who knew the source would have wanted to watch. Nowadays, his rasping accent makes him sound like Papa Lazarou from the League of Gentlemen which only enhances the outright grotesquerie of the reading here, and with his fellow cast doing their best to make themselves heard over each other, Finney wins but for the wrong reasons.
As it transpires, nobody in support truly stands out as they're all about as good as each other, with each taking advantage of their opportunities when they are interrogated by Poirot. Why are they being quizzed? That's because the night before the Express got stuck in the snow one of the passengers was murdered (hence the title), and the more the Belgian delves into their pasts the more it appears they had a connection to the dead man, and also the kidnapping and murder sensation of five years before that ended with the culprit getting away scot free. Could the victim have been the gangster who ordered the killing of the kidnapped child? Was this a revenge killing? Poirot does his thing, it all finishes much as you'd expect, and everyone goes home after a very long two hours. This isn't a dead loss, but for one of the most famous movies of the seventies its reputation far outweighs its entertainment value. Good music by Richard Rodney Bennett, mind you.
Esteemed American director who after a background in theatre moved into television from where he went on to be the five times Oscar nominated filmmaker behind some of the most intelligent films ever to come out of America. His 1957 debut for the big screen, 12 Angry Men, is still a landmark, and he proceeded to electrify and engross cinema audiences with The Fugitive Kind, The Pawnbroker, Cold War drama Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, The Offence, definitive cop corruption drama Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (another great Al Pacino role), Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running On Empty and his final film, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Often working in the UK, he also brought his adopted home town of New York to films, an indelible part of its movies for the best part of fifty years.