Rewatching Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

[Content warning: murder of a child] I decided to re-watch this classic film because of a joke I’d made on Twitter about it being a Christmas movie. It isn’t set at Christmas but there is snow and travellers from the East. I’d also forgotten that it was directed by Sidney Lumet, a director I associate more with gritty films set in American cities rather than cosy mysteries with novelty detectives and celebrity casting. Sandwiched between Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon it looks incongruous in his filmography but many of his films focus on crime and claustrophobic settings.

It’s also a slow movie to get started by modern standards. The movie opens with an extended montage of headlines and clips detailing a sensational kidnap and murder of the child of a wealthy family, modelled partly on the real-life Lindbergh kidnapping. After that, the film introduces Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney immersing himself completely into the role) who is currently in transit from Istanbul. Before the eponymous train departs, each of the celebrity subjects gets a brief visual introduction, either on a boat across the Bosphorus or arriving at the train station. It’s not this sequence is dull but when the train’s engine finally switches on its headlamps and pulls out of the station and the music swells up, you feel ready for the start of the film proper.

Before I continue, some things to note. I have read some Agatha Christie but if I ever read Murder on the Orient Express then I don’t recall having done so. I don’t know if this movie was faithful to the book or an improvement on it but do know that Agatha Christie was disappointed in Poirot’s moustache. Based on the trailers, the moustache was remedied in the recent Kenneth Branagh version of the story but I haven’t watched that version. Lastly, spoilers. After the fold, I will openly discuss the “who” of the “whodunnit” because it is the structural core of the film. I assume everybody knows the twist but I did rewatch the film with some younger people who had no idea — it was fun to see at which point they realised the solution.

All aboard!

Speaking of spoilers, even Lumet’s filmography has an accidental one: Twelve Angry Men. Stylistically very different but it is another film with people locked in small rooms arguing about clues. However, where Twelve Angry Men takes a central question (is the accused guilty or innocent) and uses that to examine disparate ideas about truth, justice and personal integrity, Murder on the Orient Express creates multiple opportunities for deeper themes and leaves them unexamined.

It is 1935 and thirteen passengers join the sleeping car on a train that will travel from Istanbul to Calais (from where it will connect to a ferry to Britain). Joining them at the last minute is celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who has recently solved a mystery for the British Army in Jordan. Also on board the train are the conductor Pierre, the director of the train line and Poirot’s friend Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam) and a Greek doctor who is traveling in the Pullman carriage. On the second night of the journey there is much commotion in the night and also the train finds itself trapped in a snow drift. Also, one of the passengers, the misanthropic Ratchett (Richard Widmark) has been stabbed to death.

If you know the solution to the mystery it unravels very quickly. Poirot already knows Ratchett has received death threats. He recovers a partially destroyed note and from the remaining letters, intuits that they refer to “Daisy Armstrong” the victim of an infamous kidnap-murder five years earlier. From there he surmises that Ratchett’s real identity is the Mafia boss Cassetti — the man who had commissioned and profited from the kidnap-murder but who had escaped justice. This is not a big surprise to the viewer as we’ve already been cued to expect a connection.

Poirot is commissioned by Bianchi to investigate the crime so that when the train escapes the snow drift and reaches the next station, the police will not need to delay the passengers much further. More or less straight away the plot to kill Ratchett/Casetti unravels. Poirot interviews Ratchett’s secretary Hector McQueen (a twitchy nervous Anthony Perkins) who feigns ignorance of Ratchett’s true identity but then quickly (and unnecessarily) reveals a close personal connection to the bereaved Armstrong family. Short of confessing, McQueen really couldn’t do more to establish his guilt. That he coincidentally ended up being the private secretary of the disguised mob-boss who caused huge harm to people he loved is just too implausible.

Having given away the solution in the first interview (underlined by both Bianchi and the doctor affirming that it clearly must have been McQueen who was the murderer), the rest of the story is mainly escalating misdirection. The waters must be muddied otherwise there is no story and hence there are a series of red herrings as well as implausibly coincidental connections between the passengers and the murdered man.

Eventually the weight of coincidence collapses and the real-real solution becomes obvious: they all did it. The twist is delightful by extending the range of possible outcomes to a mystery. It’s highly implausible as an actual solution to a murder case but works by playing with audience assumptions about the genre. Having seen or read the resolution to the murder on the Orient Express, the genre-savvy consumer of mysteries will extend the range of possible solutions.

I’ll come back to that because the reasoning is interesting. Before I do I want to talk about what goes un-examined in the film.

The film has all the pieces for a film about social class, empire and the end of an old order. It is reasonable to say those themes exist in the film but they are simply a backdrop to the puzzle. The puzzle takes pre-eminence which is one reason why this film seems older than Lumet’s 1957 film Twelve Angry Men.

What do I mean when I say the themes exist but aren’t examined? For a start the setting of a train departing the remains of the Ottoman Empire, crossing the Balkans and Europe in 1935 is loaded with significance for anybody with a basic grasp of world history. Sandwiched between two world wars and on the eve of the second one, the train’s route is one across the flashpoints of Twentieth Century history.

On the train is a sample of the wealthy citizens of the Western world and their employees but it’s a curious collection. Despite the more obvious signifiers of wealth and social class, only two characters are actual aristocrats: Princess Dragomiroff (an ageing Russian) and Count Rudolf Andrenyi (a Hungarian diplomat) — both of whom are from ex-Empires (one of which is a communist republic at time and one of which will become one later).

The overtly British characters are each presented as people who live within the sphere of aristocracy and wealth but are not quite of it. Miss Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave — who apparently lobbied the film workers with communist leaflets) claims to be a teacher by is revealed to have been the private secretary to the Armstrong family, Beddoes (John Gielgud) is a butler and former military batman, Colonel Arbuthnot (Sean Connery) is an officer in the Indian Army (and who in an extra bit of dramatic irony scoffs at the notion of Indian independence).

The Americans are presented from a much wider range of social class, car salesman, rich widow, ex-police officer/theatrical agent and likewise other Europeans — who either are presented as or are revealed to be, people who emigrated to the USA and took up work as domestic servants.

The wealth at the centre of the family drama is the Armstrong family and rather than being based on aristocracy, the film reveals that the underlying connection to show biz.

In other words, the characters are presented across geography, social class to present a world in transition: old empires giving way to America’s new role in the world and old aristocracies giving way to new aristocracies of fame and glamour. It’s all there but it is simply background.

Partly these potential dynamics can’t play out in the film itself because each character themselves is playing a secondary role. Few of them are entirely who they appear to be, although none are very far from themselves. Secondly, the core act of the film (the ritual murder/execution of Ratchet/Casetti) doesn’t map onto any of these dynamics. I suppose if Ratchet could have been made into some sort of analogue for Nazism or Hitler but even that would be confused as these disparate people band together to avenge a death not stop a tyrant. Further, the murder of Ratchet and the convoluted cover-up of the conspiracy requires cooperation from all the participants and the sequence of interviews by Poriot gives little room to explore any conflict or dynamics between the conspirators.

So despite having all the pieces of a psychodrama about the changing dynamics of wealth and privilege between the two World Wars, Murder on the Orient Express can’t really be said to be that kind of film at all.

Puzzle on the Orient Express

What the film is instead, is a film about puzzles but one richly decorated. The decoration of puzzles is a key part of their nature, not just as a means to hide the solution but in ways that change ho we think about the puzzle. In 1977 a clever study was done of the Tower of Hanoi puzzle (that thing with the sticks and the discs) in which people were presented with an isomorphic puzzle that was dressed very differently (a thing with monsters that had to carry globes). Despite the underlying puzzles being the same, it is no surprise to find that people approached the two puzzles very differently. This is not a flaw in our thinking because in most cases it makes sense to use the full context of a situation to manage our reactions to it. However, a capacity to see, separate from context, abstract connections is also useful.

The hidden protagonist of the film, Mrs Harriet Hubbard (Lauren Bacall) appears to be well aware of such layers. Hubbard (actually the grandmother of the murdered child) is the organiser of the whole performance and the ritual murder. She intersperses Poirot’s investigation with physical evidence and false leads, while maintaining the role of a gauche over-privileged American tourist. Her efforts are all directed to distraction. There is a kind of narrative to the fake evidence she concocts (a man disguised in a conductor’s uniform) but the main purpose is to attempt to overwhelm Poirot with false contexts.

Poirot, on the other hand, has the task of sorting everything into what is relevant and what is not. I’ve talked before about how scientific models and maps share a feature of throwing away information that is true and even relevant so that the connection between other information can be more clearly seen. This is doubly true of false and irrelevant information.

Poirot uses a number of puzzle-solving techniques. Some are practical (such as revealing the writing on a burnt message) but most are cognitive. Not all are types of reasoning or psychological insights. For example, he makes use of crossword-puzzle-like wordplay to spot Princess Dragomiroff’s misdirection about the names of key players and he also makes use of extensive general knowledge to spot half-truths from the passengers (Miss Debenham’s use of ‘long distance’ and understanding the difference between the British Army in India and the Indian Army with British officers).

Like many detectives of the genre, Poirot makes extensive use of abductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning is a technique of creatively arriving at a plausible explanation for events and then looking for confirmation. Like inductive reasoning, it can be seen both as a formal fallacy and a very productive technique. Late in the piece, he demonstrates this in the final interview with Hardman (Colin Blakely). By this point, Poirot is already fully convinced as to what has really occurred. Hardman presents Poirot with a cover story within a cover story (that he’s not a theatrical agent but a detective with the Pinkerton agency). Poirot presents Hardman with a picture (from where I forget but surprisingly handy) of the maid who was falsely accused of being part of the murder of the child and who later committed suicide. Hardman immediately breaks down and confirms that he was, in fact, a police officer who had been in love with the maid. He uses the same photo to confirm that Pierre the conductor was the maid’s father.

Poirot himself makes clear the weakness of some of his inductive reasoning. In the big reveal, he asserts that the Italian-American Foscarelli was the Armstrong’s chauffeur and then immediately admits that he is simply assuming that as it appears EVERYBODY is connected to the Armstrongs, Foscarelli must be also and chauffeur seems to fit (there is a space for fan-fic there where Foscarelli was on the train by chance and wasn’t involved in the murder and sues Poirot for defamation and in the process reveals the murder/execution plot to the whole world).

Which brings me to one of this blog’s favourite topics: Ockham’s razor.

Poirot presents the assembled suspect with two scenarios and implicitly evokes Ockham’s razor. He contrasts the two solutions as the simple one and the much more complex one. The simple one is that a rival mafioso entered the train and murdered Ratchett in his sleep for Mafia reasons. The complex one is that the passengers (and one conductor) conspired to ritually murder Ratchett. In the end, he asserts that it is the simpler scenario that he will present to the police. We can assume that his reason for presenting the first scenario to the police is simply that he sympathises with the conspirators who killed an evil man who would have otherwise escaped justice. However, Poirot presents his choice as if it were a choice between the simpler and the more complex.

Ostensibly, Ockham’s Razor should favour a solution that does not multiply entities. A murder requires a murderer, it does not require 12/13 murderers (the exact number of murderers is debatable as one stab is done by two people and some stabs are mere scratches — although all 13 are part of the conspiracy).

However, this is where context and assessing all evidence comes back into play. A single murderer is a reasonable initial hypothesis but ‘there was a murder’ is not the only pertinent fact. The fact that is revealed in the investigation is that the ostensible strangers on the train are actually all closely connected to the murdered man. (Oddly this is normally unremarkable for an Agatha Christie style murder — the stereotype of the genre is a murder in a country house in which the suspects are naturally connected but in this scenario this is initially subverted and then re-asserted.) Poirot doesn’t make any statement about significance testing but his reasoning for the more complex scenario can be thought of in that sense. It is simply too unlikely that all 13 of these people gathered together on the same train with Ratchet — indeed it would be improbable whether he was murdered or not. Consequently, the first scenario is too simple and leaves relevant facts unexplained. So as presented, Ockham’s Razor actually favours the second scenario.

The second scenario is implausible though. Once we step out of the text and consider whether a gangster is more likely to be murdered by a fellow gangster or an avenging conspiracy of wealthy people and their domestic servants, then the answer becomes clear. Nor is it likely that this set of conspirators would enact a plan that even without the world’s greatest detective could unravel so easily. Conspiracies are inherently implausible but by virtue of the contrived circumstance of fiction, the circumstances as presented point to the conspiracy.

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27 thoughts on “Rewatching Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

  1. One thing I have always meant to do, but never got round to, is to take the train-leaving-the-station music and try to sync it up to the Enterprise-leaving-Spacedock sequence in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. (I figured on the big dramatic chord, as the train’s headlight goes on, should match up to the running lights illuminating the “USS Enterprise” on the saucer section….)

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  2. In the interest of historical accuracy, I want to point out that the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, so the story doesn’t really start in the remains of the Ottoman empire.

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  3. I was just wondering whether you’ve read and then there were none, another book by Christie and with a similarly tricky plot.
    The book has been renamed from it’s more unsavoury title, and there’s also a pretty good Soviet film version, though in Russian.

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  4. You’ve pretty much summed up why I’m not particularly fond of Agatha Christie–her works are the most utterly empty things imaginable.

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    1. I’m not the world’s biggest Christie fan either. Her status as one of the greats of the mystery genre is assured, because pretty much every possible permutation of whodunnit (the narrator did it, one of us did it, everybody did it, the kid did it, etc…) has been pioneered by Agatha Christie with the exception of “The Orang Utan did it”, which goes back to Edgar Allan Poe.

      The emptiness and constructed artificiality of Christie’s plots I can tolerate, because I very much grew up with very artificial and covoluted mysteries in the British tradition. Though the more down to Earth plots and realistic tone of hardboiled mysteries and noir thrillers was a direct reaction to the artificiality of the traditional British mystery and its American imitators like Ellery Queen and S.S. van Dine. And these in turn led to the social criticism laced mysteries of the Northern Noir tradition.

      Though what really bothers me about Christie are her classist attitudes and her nasty moralism. Christie really seems to have disliked people, particularly people she considered “the wrong kind”, and it comes through in her fiction. I didn’t notice it as much when I was younger, probably because I encountered the somewhat softened film adaptations of her works (the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple movies, Peter Ustinov as Poirot, umpteen variations of “Ten Little racists slurs”) before I read the actual books. The newer film adaptations (and the BBC seems to adapt a Christie novel for every public holiday) stick closer to the books and the unpleasantness comes out more, which is probably why I cannot watch them anymore. Either that or I’ve aged out of them.

      Though Agatha Christie’s moralism had nothing on G.K. Chesterton. Father Brown (whom I also first encountered via watered down film adaptations) is actively unpleasant.

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      1. You actually said much of my feelings on the matter. Still, I’m a reader who can… well, not forgive, but handle racism and classism in an older author if there’s more there to make it interesting. (Which is why despite Father Brown–and GK Chesteron in general–frequently being downright grating, I can still read him.) But with Christie–there’s nothing. Just Piece A being moved to Slot B while she pats herself on the back for doing it so cleverly.

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      2. As a child I had access to a large collection of mystery paperbacks and read a number of Christies, but became disenchanted with the way so many of the solutions were pulled out of things the reader couldn’t have possibly figured out by reading the story, which never seemed particularly clever to me. “Clever” is showing all of the clues in such a way that the reader has the possibility of figuring out what’s going on but not an easy time of doing so, not palming a bunch of cards and then pulling them out at the end and saying “Aha!”.

        And a lot of the characters’ behavior and motivations seemed bizarre and didn’t make sense to me — something which I later realized when I got old enough to recognize it was because, as Cora says, they were due to Christie’s classist and moralist takes on things, attitudes which had never been instilled in me the way that they had been in her.

        I do think that this particular mystery of hers is one of the more interesting ones for its “Everybody did it” plot, but as Cam points out, there was potential for so much more than a simple Whodunnit, which was left unexplored.

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      3. Yeah. My #1 problem with Christie’s stories is that every one that I ever read was “unfair,” in that there is no way the reader could have ever anticipated the outcome. They’re not quite deus ex machina stories, but they definitely suffer from poor foreshadowing.

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    2. A thing I don’t like about Christie (and many other so-called “cosies”) is the way that body count is ratcheted up as the detective bumbles around and the killer attempts to eliminate the witnesses. The sub-genre has less respect for human life than several supposedly darker forms.

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      1. ““Clever” is showing all of the clues in such a way that the reader has the possibility of figuring out what’s going on but not an easy time of doing so, not palming a bunch of cards and then pulling them out at the end and saying “Aha!”. ”
        I’ve never agreed with that standard. A lot of mysteries that fit it perfectly would require me to sit and actually map out whether Professor Plum was in the conservatory at the time Mr. Boddy was nobbled with the spanner in the drawing room; I honestly never cared enough to track those details.
        I’ve never cottoned to Christie. I do enjoy Father Brown and a few other detectives of that era (Gervaise Fen, Peter Wimsey).

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      2. These days cozy mysteries means stories about cupcake bakers, witches or amateur historians in quirky small towns with unusually high murder rates stumbling over bodies and solving crimes, while Christie and the like are referred to as traditional mysteries (crime fiction/mystery classifications in the anglophone world are very weird). But yes, the supposedly so harmless traditional mysteries, whether Agatha Christie or modern variations on the theme like Midsomer Murders have a higher body count than many other subgenres. Even the cupcake cozies kill off a whole lot of people, but heavens beware someone utter a bad word.

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  5. My favorite detail is that Pierre greets all of the 1st class passengers in their own language. This would have to include maybe Italian, Norwegian, Russian, Magyar, German, English and others.

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  6. I watch Hercule Poirot’s Christmas every year as part of my holidays.

    I must vehemently disagree with the charge that Christie plays unfair. My example: One of my high school buddies hated that I often correctly guessed murder mysteries. Curtain came out around that time, and when he found out I hadn’t read it yet, he got a copy and rigged an envelope to the book in such a way to close off the last chunk of the book. Be bet me that I coulnd’t possible guess the ending. Our agreement was I would stop when I reached the spot, and tell him whodunnit.

    I did. He got really angry at me at first, accused me of cheating. But he said the way I said, “Oh! So I am right, then?” convinced him that I hadn’t. (I really hadn’t). He removed the envelope and I sat down to enjoy reading the rest.

    I have to confess that I do have a leg up. As an infant and toddler I was read to daily by my Mom from her (then) two favorite authors” Agathe Christie and Robert Heinlein. I blame her for being a sci fi fan and sometimes writer who has written a lot of sci fi mysteries.

    But I certainly understand that cozy mysteries in general and Christie’s in particular aren’t some people’s cuppa. Maybe my brain was warped by those infant readings. *shrug*

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    1. It’s been many years, but I recall Curtain being one of the Christies where there were actually clues to what was going on, and I had the main points of who killed who and why figured out before the end. The solution in that one didn’t rely on peoples’ unrevealed pasts. Likewise, I had the ABC Murders figured out before the end. It was the ones where the wealthy married murder victim had previously been the young nanny whose charge drowned under her care decades before, and the murderer the child’s aunt or somesuch ridiculous background which the reader had no way of knowing, where Christie didn’t play fair. And there were far too many of those.

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      1. It’s depressing that there are several Christies that come to mind for “the victim was a former nanny who let a kid die in her care and the killer wanted revenge”. Christie did seem to have a thing about neglectful nannies.

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    2. I also infuriate people in my family for figuring out whodunnit for murder mysteries on TV halfway through. But that’s because most of those, particularly US and German crime dramas, are terribly formulaic. Once you know the formula, they’re easy enough to figure it.

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      1. TV mysteries are also easier to solve b/c odds are that the most well-known guest star is whodunnit. Did the actor have their own TV series and lines of product in the 80s or 90s? That’s your killer, or occasionally the chief suspect for most of the episode who didn’t dunnit.

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      2. It used to be easy to tell when TV GUIDE was a thing. They practically gave it away any number of times. They may as well have given a cast list and said “Surprise Murderer: Ricardo Montalban.” There were also times when a totally insignificant-seeming character gets too much billing, and that was a giveaway too.

        Paperback book covers are also a great source of information I didn’t really want to have that soon, or sometimes the flyleaf blurb. I have a Nero Wolfe that blew the ending pretty well. I’ve blacked out the blabbing part, so now when I re-read it, I’ll see the blacked out bits and remember exactly who did it and how.

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      3. Hence the inevitability of the Columbo style plot, where the guest star is always the murderer and is revealed as such in the first scene.

        Columbo starts to walk away and then turns to the suspect: “Just one more thing. I can’t help noticing that your character is being played by Patrick Mcgoohan”
        Suspect: “Dammit! Yes, I confess!”

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    3. There’s a weird sameness to Christie’s plots — the murderers are, of course, the least likely suspect, but they’re the least likely suspect in a way that keeps you from even thinking of them as a suspect at all. In one book, for example, they’re thought to be already dead. Once I figured that out, coming up with who the murderer is was pretty easy. Of course, after that I had to figure out the motive, which sometimes wasn’t easy at all.

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