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Category:    Home > Reviews > Mystery > Thriller > Murder On The Orient Express (1974/DVD-Video)

Murder On The Orient Express (1974/DVD-Video)


Picture: C+     Sound: B-     Extras: B+     Film: B



After all the theatrical follow-ups were issued on DVD by Anchor Bay, which were just reissued as a DVD boxed set, Paramount finally got around to issuing the first of the John Bradbourne/Richard Goodwin feature film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s detective novels.  Except for The Mirror Crack’d (1980) with Miss Jane Marple, all their features centered on Hercule Poirot and Sidney Lumet’s remarkable Murder On The Orient Express (1974) started it all.  This took so long to arrive that even the CD soundtrack of the great music score by Richard Rodney Bennett had already been issued and reviewed on this site.  This is a continuation of that coverage.


That CD score was a reissue by the DRG label of the old Capitol Records release.  If it was not enough that a new cycle of Mystery genre films had been launched, it became apparent in watching this film that it was one of the peaks of a new phenomenon in Hollywood at the time.  In reaction to the various new wave movements in American cinema, old school Hollywood successfully launched the idea of the all-star cast with a vengeance in the disaster film cycle, starting with the 1970 Airport with a cast so big, it had to be shot in Todd-AO 70mm film.  That was all fun and hype, but Paul Dehn’s screenplay adaptation is remarkable in that it spares no detail, lays out all the clues, develops the characters very well and offers up one of the greatest of all of Christie’s classics with a stunning cast that to this day is still unbelievably rich.  This would not be possible today, and that it happened then is still a shocker.


Albert Finney is Poirot for the only time, turning down future films because he did not want to repeat himself.  The supporting cast includes Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Anthony Perkins (the two reunited since their work in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho), Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Colin Blakely, George Coulouris, Denis Quilley and Ingrid Bergman winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress by nearly stealing the film from everyone.  It is not because she had the equivalent of Helen Hayes role in Airport by any means, but because it was another triumph by one of the greatest actresses of all time.


After a child kidnapping and murder case is shown so cleverly in almost silent form, Poirot meets up with an old friend (Balsam) and is convinced to ride with him on the Calais Coach (Murder On the Calais Coach was the novels other title).  He accepts, meets just about everyone on the train, then a hideous murder takes place.  There are some links to the child case, but some seem coincidence.  He must figure out who killed the victim and how many could be linked to it.  Even after seeing the film so many times, knowing the answers, the fun of getting there is so great and the film deservedly remains the classic it is.


This is one of the many great films from Lumet, who remains one of American’s most unsung directing heroes, in part because he has avoided the limelight so he could concentrate on his craft and give dozens of talents a chance to shine.  His love for the material and script is the equal of Dehn’s and for this cast to be working on such a high level of excellence is very rare for any large-cast film, but especially an all-star one.  In too many cases, the amount of star power has depressed the talent overall, making such assemblies not so impressive.  Even these producers would never equal this, though they very ambitiously tried with some good results.  If you have not seen this film for a long time, you will be surprised, and those who have never seen it must get it.


The anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image was shot by the great Geoffrey Unsworth, B.S.C., a legend just for his work alone on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  The transfer is problematic in the Video Black department, suggesting this is the same professional analog NTSC letterboxed transfer being used for cable TV, but Unsworth’s work is so exceptionally detailed and nuanced that only digital High Definition is going to capture most of what can only be seen on film otherwise.  Furthermore, the film was originally issued in three-strip, dye-transfer, imbibition Technicolor prints in the last year the company did such print runs until they revived the process in the late 1990s for a few years.  That is why the picture rating is lower than it usually would be.


On the other hand, the sound is here in its original monophonic sound, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 English and French dub Mono, as well as a hoped-for English 5.1 remix, even if it only in Dolby Digital.  With that said, the sound upgrade is terrific for a film this age and Paramount should have went DTS in this case, because Bennett’s score is exceptional and goes so incredibly well with this film that it is uncanny.  The CD may be a bit richer in sound, but this is one of the best 5.1 upgrades of its kind for an originally monophonic film this old or older.  Maybe the same will be done with the follow-up films now.  Extras include a fine featurettes on Christie, the original theatrical trailer and a great four-part documentary on the film’s production with all-new interviews.  That will make Christie fans particularly happy.  Murder On The Orient Express’ arrival is long overdue, but it is enough to make the stuffiest viewer yell “all aboard”!



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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