[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.
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.