Murders on the Orient Express

Firstly, a promise. I promise that nowhere in the following piece will I reveal, or even hint at, the solution to the mystery that is at the heart of Murder on the Orient Express. Should there be anyone unaware of what happens in this story, I can guarantee that the revelation is quite startling, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment.

Having said that, I will admit to not being much of an Agatha Christie fan. In my pre-teenage years, the very lurid illustrations that used then to appear on the covers of various paperback issues led me to believe she was a horror writer, but when I did finally come round to reading a few of them in my early teens, far from horror, I found an entirely unexpected cosiness. At the time – I was about thirteen or so – I quite enjoyed the few I read, but not enough, obviously, to want to read more. From what I remember, everything seems subordinate to the plot, and the plot in itself is something I have never found particularly interesting. However, these novels have most definitely passed the test of time quite triumphantly, so no doubt it is I who am missing something. And, after reading Sophie Hannah’s spirited appreciation, I am more than happy to accept that the problem is with me as a reader rather than with the novels themselves. After all, I’ve only read a few, and that many, many years ago, when I was not a very experienced reader: I may well have missed the point.

I can’t help feeling it a shame, though, that in order to praise Christie, Sophie Hannah denigrates Chandler; but I suppose it’s natural to take against someone who has been rude about your favourite writer; and, it must be admitted, Chandler has been quite unconscionably rude about Agatha Christie. In Chandler’s novels, unlike Christie’s, the plotting is very clearly not the point: it doesn’t really matter, for instance, who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. And neither is Chandler interested in the elements of mystery and of puzzles: the appeal of his novels lies elsewhere. Indeed, that is one of the reasons I like Chandler so much: he developed the detective story in directions where plotting becomes increasingly less relevant, and the focus is allowed to fall more fully upon other and – to my mind – more interesting matters. I remain, I must admit, very much on Chandler’s side of this divide.

But this is of course unfair given how limited my exposure has been to Agatha Christie’s novels. If these books can hold generations of readers in thrall for nearly a century now, she must have been doing something right. And I have, after all, enjoyed a great many adaptations of Christie’s novels, both on television and on the big screen, where actors can fill the characters out with their own personalities. So, before I pass further judgement, I felt it only right to try reading some Agatha Christie for myself; and, in view of the recent cinema release, Murder on the Orient Express seemed a good place to start my re-evaluation.

And it’s not just the recent release. This is one of that small handful of Agatha Christie books I read all those years ago, and I remember enjoying it at the  time. I remember particularly how struck I was by that ending. And then, a few days before Christmas 1974, we had a seasonal family outing to the ABC cinema (as it was then) on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow to see the newly released film version directed by Sidney Lumet, and with Albert Finney as Poirot heading a star-studded cast. It was a tremendously enjoyable night out, and remains vivid in the memory forty years and more afterwards. And what’s more, that film is a particular favourite of my wife’s, and watching the DVD version has become something of a Christmas tradition for us.

And here’s a puzzle, worthy of Agatha Christie herself: if the plot were the whole point of it, why can we (and many others) enjoy watching this film repeatedly, when we already know the story? What enjoyment can we possibly find in a whodunit when we know from the start who dun it? One obvious answer is the sense of cosiness. This is an element virtually all adaptations accentuate, and with good reason. I used to look down on cosiness: a thriller, I felt, deals with evil acts, and should be dark and troubling, sinister and edgy. However, it is wrong to judge anything by one’s pre-conceived rules: a thriller should be what the author set it out to be, and if it sets out to be cosy, then so be it: Agatha Christie was hardly under any compulsion to abide by my rules, after all. And in any case, with advancing years, I find that I am less insistent on the edgy, and, indeed, tire of various formulaic thrillers formulaically focussing on physical violence to achieve that all-purpose formulaic edginess. And at the same time, I find myself more tolerant of cosiness. After all, as the world hurtles madly to heaven knows where, a sense of comfort, I increasingly feel, is not something to be sneered at.

Or it’s possible that I have just got older.

But are the novels really cosy? Are her characters merely cardboard cut-outs, enlivened in adaptations only by the actors’ personalities? And is her prose, as I have so often maintained, merely plodding and bland? Sophie Hannah certainly doesn’t seem to think so:

Each of her novels demonstrates a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave – all delivered in her crisp, elegant, addictively readable style. While immersed in a Christie mystery, you might not notice the wisdom sprinkled throughout the pages because you’re having too much fun, growling with frustration because you’d love to be able to guess the solution but can’t.

To begin with, the story of Murder on  the Orient Express is superb. I don’t just mean the solution to the mystery – I mean the whole idea of the thing. (I have to be careful here to keep the promise I made at the start of this piece.) It has such resonance, that it has become a sort of modern myth. And it raises questions on all sorts of vitally important themes – themes that have been addressed in some of the most profound works of world literature. But Agatha Christie does not so much as touch upon any of them. In my younger days, when I was more prescriptive and censorious than I am now, I would have counted this as a serious flaw, but now I am inclined to think that she does not touch on these themes because she did not want to: she was writing an entertainment, after all, and not a serious Dostoyevskian novel. Indeed, so naturally do these serious issues arise from the plot, it required no small degree of skill and craftsmanship to lock these issues out.

In this respect, the 1974 film version, directed by Sidney Lumet, is faithful to the book. I heard on the radio once that the distinguished film composer Bernard Herrmann (most famous for his scores for many of Hitchcock’s finest films, including Psycho) objected to the delightful waltz composed by Richard Rodney Bennett for this film: this is the Train of Death, Herrmann insisted, and a delightful waltz is out of place. But I think Bennett understood what this film is about: it’s not about Death, and neither is it about psychological trauma, or about divine justice, or any of these things. It is a cosy, comfort film, just as Christie’s novel is a cosy, comfort novel.

Visually, it is superb. Sidney Lumet seemed to make a speciality of setting films within small, enclosed spaces: Twelve Angry Men is an obvious example. Lumet also made some very successful cinematic adaptations of plays set in enclosed locations – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, say, or The Seagull – and the visual variety he finds even in such restricted settings is often quite extraordinary. Lumet weaves his magic here also, conveying superbly a sense of cramped luxury. The setting here is no mere decoration: it helps create the drama.

The cast is superb, but it is when we come to Albert Finney, in the central role of Poirot, that we run into difficulties. I know there are those who simply cannot stand Finney’s singularly mannered performance, and I can understand why. But I can understand also why he chose to play it in this manner. He was surrounded by some of the finest of screen actors, some of the strongest of screen presences – Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, etc. – and he had to stand out from this distinguished gathering; and he decided to stand out by putting on a highly – one may almost say “grotesquely” – eccentric performance. I must say I rather enjoy it; and the final sequence, where he has the long speech explaining who dun it, and how, seems to me pulled off with a fine theatrical panache. But yes, I can understand why some would hate it also. Nothing so mannered and idiosyncratic can be universally liked. (I still find it difficult to come to terms, for instance, with Jeremy Brett’s highly mannered performance as Holmes, even though the consensus of opinion seems to regard this performance as well nigh definitive.)

Fine entertainment, yes, but light entertainment: Lumet does not allow the serious themes implicit in the storyline to come to the surface, any more than Christie did.

Now, of course, we have the much heralded remake directed by Kenneth Branagh. Some objected to remaking the film, but I don’t really see the objection: it is a very powerful story, after all, and why shouldn’t a contemporary director and a contemporary cast get a chance to reinterpret it?  I must admit, though, that I am rather old-fashioned in these matters, and there are some aspects of modern mainstream cinema that … how shall I put it? – that are not to my taste. For instance, when two characters are talking, I just want the camera in the same room as them, and pointing at them. Putting the camera outside so we can see them through the window, and then executing all kinds of intricate camera movements, does not enhance the drama. Worse, it distracts from what the characters are saying. I don’t really see why we should insist that everything must look like a video game.

And neither do I see why anyone should think that conversations lasting more than a minute or so at the most are dull and uncinematic. Some of the very finest and most iconic of films are full of long scenes of conversation. Much of Agatha Christie’s novel consists of conversations, as each of the suspects is interviewed in turn: fitting together all the various pieces of evidence is where the interest lies. But in this film, various of these interviews are intercut with each other, presumably in the belief that if any single conversation goes on for more than a few seconds the audience will lose interest. Sure, this kind of intercutting injects pace into the narrative, but does the narrative always need to be pacy? In effectively banishing from the narrative passages of repose or even of stillness, film-makers seem to me to be restricting their range, resulting all too often in an almost uni-paced, shapeless mass.

Yes, I know this is the modern way of film-making, and that things change, can’t keep still, new generation, and so on, and so forth. And when everyone seems happy with this, I have to accept that it is I who am out on a limb. But there it is, for what it’s worth: I find myself unsympathetic to modern styles. Living in the past, I am, and happy to be there.

There were a few other aspects in this latest film that, to my mind, didn’t work, including an obligatory action sequence, and another obligatory chase sequence, both of which seemed out of place in what is, after all, a cosy whodunit. It is also important for the audience in these whodunits to be always aware of the list of suspects, but the Hungarian couple were kept absent for so long that I had almost forgotten about them till they suddenly emerge some half way through. Sidney Lumet had been more successful, I think, in keeping all the characters constantly in the frame. Also, unlike the Lumet film, the cramped setting was not used here to any great effect: perhaps it was a mistake in taking some of the scenes outside the train.

However, having said all that, the film was entertaining enough on its own terms. The all-star cast is fine, and the story remains as startling as ever. And Kenneth Branagh, with facial hair so spectacular that I felt a mere amateur in this respect, made a strong impression as Poirot without having to go to the extremes of Albert Finney. (Although I must admit that I do still enjoy Finney’s theatrical gusto.) The scene where all is revealed was particularly well done, and the script here was quite happy to bring to the fore some of the more serious aspects of the story that both the novel and the earlier film had stayed away from: Branagh’s Poirot here speaks of “fractured souls”, and of the need for healing.

Between these two productions came two television adaptations – one in 2001 with Alfred Molina as Poirot (I have not seen this), and, in 2010, an adaptation of the novel as part of the long-running series, filmed and broadcast in Britain by ITV, starring David Suchet as Poirot. This particular episode (so imdb.com tells me), was scripted (quite superbly, I thought) by Stuart Harcourt, and directed (equally superbly) by Philip Martin. Here, we see Agatha Christie’s story turn into a modern myth: the story is here re-interpreted, and scriptwriter and director make of it something entirely new. Far from hiding away the serious aspects – ethical, psychological, even theological – they are given centre stage, and the effect is about as dark and as disturbing a drama as I think I have seen. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Christie, and while this may perhaps upset some fans of the original, the departure is entirely justified. Christie’s story, splendid though it is, is used here as a basis for something that is not even hinted at in  the novel. To say this is not to denigrate Christie’s work: indeed, it speaks for the strength of the original story that, despite the intense seriousness of the themes broached in this version, the plotline is strong enough to carry so heavy a burden.

And no, cosy it ain’t. Noticeably, the rather charming and whimsical theme tune used in the other episodes of this series is here absent. We are plunged, before the title sequence, straight into the midst of things: Poirot is wrapping up his previous case, and, in time-honoured fashion, is explaining (in this instance, to assembled military officers) the solution he has successfully arrived at. But in less than time-honoured fashion, he is here in a fit of passion. The details of the crime he had investigated are not given, but it appears from what he says that what had been thought to have been murder was, in fact, an accidental death; but Poirot’s wrathful indignation is directed at one of the officers present, who, through his lying, had impeded the investigation. And even as Poirot is denouncing him, a shot rings out, and Poirot’s face is splattered with blood. Only a few drops of blood – this is not gothic horror, after all – but enough to let us know that we are not here in the world of cosy whodunits. The officer Poirot was denouncing has shot himself.

As Poirot leaves afterwards, having completed the case successfully (in the sense that he has solved the mystery), one of the soldiers accompanying him breaks protocol to let him know that the man who had shot himself had not been a bad man: he had merely made an error of judgement. Poirot sticks to his guns: he had lied, and was morally culpable. But what precisely is going on in Poirot’s mind we cannot be sure.

In Istanbul, Poirot witnesses another horrible scene: he sees an adulterous woman stoned to death. Even this he seems to condone: it is horrible, yes, but the application of law is necessarily horrible, and the stoning is no more horrible than hangings in Britain. However horrible, the law must be applied, for, without the law, where are we? What are we? There is, of course, another question here, implied though not openly articulated: even when we do apply the law, what are we?

We are in very deep waters here, and those expecting the traditional cosy whodunit may well be tempted at this point to switch off. They would be well advised to do so, for this production does not let up: it is a dark and serious investigation into some of the most profound of themes – the nature of justice; the application of laws, both human and divine; how justice differs from mere retribution; the corrosive nature of evil, and how it spreads; our human need for justice, without which we cannot begin to heal; and our failure to heal even when justice is done, as each act of justice is a fresh crime in itself. Throughout, Poirot’s is a dark, brooding presence, exhibiting none of the quirkiness or whimsicality that had characterised him in previous episodes: he is here a tortured man, clinging dogmatically to what moral certainties he still possesses, because to lose these certainties would be to cast himself into moral chaos.

David Suchet’s performance is simply extraordinary. No theatrical grandstanding here: there is a time and a place for that kind of thing, but not here, where we find ourselves so deep in such turbulent moral waters. The other roles are not quite so demanding, perhaps, although I do find it quite astonishing just how great an intensity of emotion Eileen Atkins can communicate in just a few softly spoken lines. No sense here of dialogue being boring, or uncinematic; no scope here for intercutting with other dialogues to prevent the audience’s attention wandering.

This, like the two films, re-creates the murder in a flashback sequence towards the end. In the Sidney Lumet film, this sequence is very impressively staged, and is tense and sombre; in the more recent film, it is more frenzied; but neither can really compare with the murder scene in this television version, which really chills one’s blood. No hint here of formulaic edginess: the horror is moral at least as much as it is physical.

The whole thing, in short, is a triumph. It is as brilliant as it is audacious: never have I seen an episode of a well-established television drama that so relentlessly subverts audience expectations. And what we see here is the creation of mythology: although the plot keeps quite close to Christie’s novel, this is neither an “adaptation”, nor a “dramatization”: it takes the novel but as a starting point to create something entirely new. Yes, the profound and troubling themes it broaches are all latent in the original novel, but it takes something special not merely to bring them out, but also to explore them in such a way that the original material is left far, far behind.

For that original material is, in spirit if not in letter, very different indeed. When people speak of an adaptation being faithful, they usually mean “faithful” in terms of the plot: in that sense, this adaptation is indeed quite faithful. But it’s very unfaithful where it really matters. For when I read the novel over after watching the television version, I found myself in a completely different world. Had Agatha Christie envisaged that the story could take on such dark and serious hues? Possibly. But if she did, she used all her skill to keep these hues out. For the book is a romp. That is not to criticise it: a romp, light entertainment, cosy whodunit …these are not things to be looked down on. Well-crafted entertainment is admirable in itself. And Christie has, I’d contend, given us even more than well-crafted entertainment: she has given us one of the finest of all plots – a plot capable of bearing the burden of some of the most difficult and troubling of moral issues.

But does Christie, as Sophie Hannah contends, “demonstrate a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave”? I must admit that, on the basis of this novel alone, I’ll have to answer “no”. The characterisation only goes so far as to differentiate the characters from each other, and to render the murderer’s motives (or the suspected murderers’ motives) credible. There are times when she is not above crude stereotypes:

A big, swarthy Italian was picking his teeth with gusto. Opposite him a spare, neat Englishman had the expressionless, disapproving face of a well-trained servant. Next  to the Englishman was a big American in a loud suit  – possibly a commercial traveller.

“You have to put it over big,” he was saying in a loud, nasal voice.

And is the prose style really “crisp and elegant”? It is not clunky, admittedly, but I can’t say I found much trace of elegance either. Perhaps the best way to describe it is “functional”. Everything is geared towards the plot, and plot alone. And, of course, when the plot is so good, that is nothing to apologise for.

But I shouldn’t pass judgement based on just one of her many novels – although, admittedly, it’s one of her most famous novels. And neither should I – as I used to – look down my nose at the “cosy”. Some friends of mine, who have read more of Christie than I have, tell me that many of her early works were considerably darker, and advise me to read And Then There Were None. (That is not, by the way, the original title: that original title is now considered, for entirely understandable reasons, unacceptable in polite society, although it should be said that the book itself is not racist.) Perhaps I’ll read that too some day, for the plot of that, too, has taken on something of a mythical quality. And these books are very easy to read, after all: I do not regard that as a recommendation in literary terms, but it does mean that one can race through them fairly quickly.

I said at the start of this post that I shall not reveal, nor even hint at, the solution to the mystery. I trust that I have kept that promise. It was a promise that was important to keep: for, whatever the resonances of her stories, whatever the serious and profound themes that lie implicit in them, as far as Agatha Christie was concerned, the plot’s the thing. And yes, she did think up some rather fine ones.

25 responses to this post.

  1. Such a smart and interesting piece. Enjoyed tremendously. Now very curious about the Suchet Poirot.

    Reply

    • Thank you. The Suchet version is well worth seeking out, although it’s far from “light entertainment”.

      Reply

      • The David Suchet version of “Orient Express” makes more sense when seen as one part of the story arc of the TV series, a step along the way to the final episode, “Curtain.” Over the course of the season, Suchet’s Poirot increasingly accentuates the detective’s intolerance of evil and his outrage at being lied to; he increasingly sees himself as a tool of vengeance, a sort of holy warrior balancing the scales of justice (there’s an important theme of (misguided) Catholicism running through the last six or eight episodes of the series that is not in the books). That last season of “Poirot” is a long character development culminating in the detective finally taking the law into his own hands, a preposterous and unbelievable turn of events, frankly. Nobody buys that story, but the writer and director of this series worked hard over many episodes to make “Curtain” seem less preposterous. Results are mixed.

        A lot of the enjoyment to be had from Christie is the fun of watching a puppet show or a box of shiny spinning toys, the unfolding puzzle action of the story, etc. But there is also, in almost every Christie novel, some quite fine writing unrelated to the mystery plot (in one book–I forget the title–there’s some lovely stuff about landscape design, and in the Middle East novels there is some gorgeous travel writing). I also think that Christie was fairly groundbreaking (in popular writing, anyway) in her sense that crime and wickedness are part of the everyday, that criminals are not some lower class of humans, that we are all capable of terrible violence and selfishness. Criminals are not monsters, criminals are humans. Yes, Dostoevsky got there first, as did Chekhov (a favorite writer of Christie, who stole the plot twist of “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” from Chekhov’s “The Shooting Party”), but still. In later novels, Christie engages with ideas of sexuality, loss of innocence, erotic jealousy, and other adult themes. Though certainly none of these ideas are the central pillars of any of her books and she’s no Henry James, poring over the minutia of the inner world.

        I hesitate to see the latest “Orient Express.” Ken Branagh is a mediocre actor and the reviews of the film I’ve read lead me to think he’s got little understanding of this story. Action scenes? Chases? And really, WTF with that mustache?

      • Wow! Thanks for that – that really is illuminating. I now want to catch up on the later episodes of the Poirot series. If they are anywhere near as good as the Orient Express episode, they should be very good indeed.

        I must admit that moustache is one of the things I enjoyed about this film! I think the problem is that, given an all-star cast, it is hard for the actor playing Poirot to stand out from everyone else, and anything that helps him do so – even a silly moustache – helps. The action scene and the chase were completely out of place, but I am afraid this is what audiences want. While I was criticising the film for giving short shrift to the dialogue, other reviews I’ve seen on the net were complaining that there was too much dialogue, that it didn’t cut away soon enough, that it was “stagey”, and “stodgy”, etc. Films cost so much to make and to market these days, that film-makers really can’t afford to shut out the audiences who seem to want nothing more than constant action and spectacle. I am afraid cinema is a very different beast from what I have been used to.

  2. Fascinating post as always. The Finney film was actually my introduction to Christie and it engendered a lifelong love of her work. There *is* a darkness underlying her work to my mind – she had quite a cynical view of humanity I think – though nothing that approaches the Suchet Orient. The latter was remarkably powerful, and although it did take liberties with the book I thought his performance so outstanding that I forgave them. However, I have problems with the look of the new film – the trailer and the moustaches have put me off completely (Suchet is my idea of Poirot always) and I am no fan of modern film-making techniques either.

    As for the novel, I wouldn’t necessarily argue it’s Christie’s best – she wrote over such a long period that there is usually something in there for all tastes. Happy exploring! 🙂

    Reply

    • I think all adaptations have to take liberties with the original text. But the David Suchet version seems to me to go further – it departs very significantly from the spirit of the novel, and I think that’s just fine.Once a work is created, and is out there, it is entirely legitimate for others to take that work as a starting point, and create something new. This kind of thing has always been happening,

      I am not yet an Agatha Christie convert, I must admit, but I do have a respect for what she achieved. I have always objected to the expression “mere entertainment”: creating good entertainment requires great skill and craftsmanship, and the adjective “mere” seems out of place.

      Reply

  3. I’ve only read a few Christies but found them enjoyable as puzzles set within an otherwise stable and predictable (cosy?) background. A friend who has read them all told me that she did so because Christie was so reliable — she always takes you to a solution to the puzzle and does it well.

    Reply

    • I think what Christie did, she did superbly well, so the reader’s reaction will depend almost entirely on whether or not the reader is in sympathy with what she set out to do. I don’t pretend to be a fan, but i am wary of criticising her for not being something she never set out to be in the first place!

      Reply

  4. Sophie Hannah? A fan fiction writer so creative she has to borrow her protagonist from a more popular novelist’s oeuvre? No wonder she doesn’t like Chandler…

    Reply

    • To be fair, she has written a lot of other stuff as well. and even her Poirot novels are admired by those friends of mine who have read them, and are Agatha Christie fans.

      On the basis of Murder on the Orient Express alone, i don’t know that I’m entirely convinced by her appraisal of Agatha Christie, but I found it nonetheless a stimulating defence, and brought home to me how unfair many of my own criticisms of Christie are. As for her dislike of Chandler – well, if someone is rude about my favourite writers, I’d tend to dislike them as well. I’m not even sure I’d want to speak to someone who is rude about Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories! 🙂

      Reply

  5. I have yet to see the film but it is on the list. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is purported to be one of Christie’s best. Different points of view. I understand about returning to cozy mysteries from harder thrillers as one ages. I am veering that direction also🐧🐧🐧

    Reply

    • I certainly have a greater respect for Christie than I used to, but I remain still on the Hammett-Chandler-Cain side of the divide. If I were to name my favourite thriller novel, I think I’d name James M Cain’s Double Indemnity, which is far from cosy!

      Reply

  6. Posted by caromalc on November 15, 2017 at 11:17 pm

    I found David Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express somewhat out of character. He seems to be very judgemental when he’s usually quite sympathetic, if always on the side of the law. I seem to remember from the book a much softer attitude, even offering a more palatable ending if preferred. I am not very interested in seeing this film partly because it hasn’t had good reviews, but also because it has been done so often, and I know the ending. Though that didn’t stop millions going to see Titanic (I said to my son once that I must be the only person on the planet who hasn’t see Titanic, and he said he hadn’t. So that’s two of us, three counting my husband.

    Reply

    • Poirot in the television Murder on the Orient Express is certainly very different from Poirot in the rest of the series: it’s best seen as a one-off rather than part of the series. But I am so glad that, for this episode at least, the writer & director were so artistically ambitious.The others in this series (the ones that i have seen, at least) merely provide light entertainment: this provides an experience of a rather different nature.

      The latest film is pretty entertaining, and, whatever reservation I may have (which are reservations about modern filming styles in general), it does provide a diverting couple of hours. I don’t frankly trust the judgement of film critics, and in many cases, often wonder what their credentials are, and why I should trust their views any more than those of the next random person I meet in the pub.

      Reply

  7. I had only one requirement for the new film, and that was that it live up to that mustache! There is facial hair of the sort which both you and I, my dear Himadri, inhabit that is little more than a matter of creature comfort and perhaps, as it most definitely is for me, is a mild and at best ignoble, revolt against the daily demands of the razor; and there is, again remotely and inconsequentially, the beard and ‘stache that forms a hirsute, if vague, expression of character that cannot be called brave or stolid or, at least in my case, manly or charming or even socially demonstrative, but is rather a remote and equivocal muttering of our own self-sufficiency against the mildest of social forces, the family distaste for such ragged employment of our thus hidden visages.

    And then there is that nose beard supreme, that bristle fluff of magnificent proportions, that follicular declaration betraying the rabid growth one would only expect from a prodigious assemblage of jungle foliage on the face of an ancient stone deity. Branagh’s performance, so it seemed to me, and the context in which he set it as director and chief raconteur must either possess the superb whimisicality and strident seriousness, the emphatic elegance and ridiculous absurdity of that mustache, or it would fail and fail utterly.

    I rather think it passed the test for it need but entertain, and as you say, on that score it did, indeed, succeed. I have not read the book. Perhaps I should. And I could not remember the Finney version beyond a vague sense of having enjoyed it.

    Just a little while ago from watching the trailer I clicked upon the Suchet version which I found was available whole on YouTube, but not wanting to spoil the experience of the new one, I quit after the stoning sequence. But that was a bit I wondered at — I wondered if it was part of Christie’s novel. Not surprised it wasn’t. And that does lead me to one thing that bothered me a bit in the new one — although only a little bit. Penelope Cruz’s character seemed rather incomplete, and it being Penélope Cruz I really did want to know more. And I was delighted with Daisy Ridley’s performance — she will, one hopes, find life after Star Wars. But again I should have wished to know more. And likewise Dr. Arbuthnot. (Is that Christie stealing from Pope’s historical reality, or the current scripter?)

    Ah, but see how easy it is to want something deeper, but that glorious soup strainer promised us nothing of the sort. Mustaches are, after all, only skin deep. And this would be no exception. But I enjoyed it all the same.

    ********

    Tonight I went to see a retrospective showing of Casablanca. The most prominent mustaches were on Claude Rains’ inspector Renault — smart, elegant, witty, and no obstacle to good words — and on Conrad Veidt’s Major Stasser — a salt and pepper military-cut, that offered no hindrance to even the most bellicose observations; it was for the un-mustached faces of Bogart, Henreid, Bergman and Dooley Wilson to provide some depth — and that just enough to carry one away from the cynicism of facial hair toward the blank observance of a necessary declaration of something bright, clean, and obvious.

    Reply

    • The Christie novel sets out a puzzle, and then, at the end, gives the solution to the puzzle. That’s it, really. Nothing there that does not serve the plot, no real characterisation beyond what is required for the plot, not even a nod at the serious themes broached. Neither is there any description, either of Istanbul, of the snow, or of the train itself (other than the layout, which helps us understand the plot). I found it a bit dry, to be honest.

      Now Casablanca … I wonder if ours is the last generation that will love films such as this. This version of Murder on the Orient Express I criticised for cutting short the dialogue and focussing instead on action; but, looking around at various reviews around the net, most thought quite the opposite: they described this film as “stagey” and “stodgy” and having too much dialogue, and criticised it not cutting away fast enough. I fear this is a generational thing: entire generations has now grown up wanting their films to be constant stream of action and of spectacle – fairground rides rather than drama – and films cost so much to make and to market these days, such viewers (who, I guess, form the majority) need to be accommodated. So that really leaves old farts like us merely clutching on pathetically to our Casablanca DVDs. Can’t be helped, I guess.

      Reply

  8. What is an example of the “wisdom” the attentive reader will find throughout Christie?

    Reply

    • Yes, I was wondering that myself. I guess it relates to the “profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave” that she speaks of earlier, although, i must admit, I found precious little evidence of that in this particular novel.

      I don’t know that Christie requires any special pleading. She focussed solely on the plot, and she was very good at plotting. I don’t know that any further justification is required.

      Reply

  9. I’ve been rereading all of the Poirot/Marple novels recently (Christie is one author you will always find in Prague bookshops) and I find them quite addictive. Yes they are cosy in a sense, many of them being set in rich country homes with lashings of scones for tea, and it’s easy for a fuddy-duddy like me to think that the time she wrote about must have been a golden age (no terrorism, no Twitter, and none of the daft political machinations that define our age). There is the small matter of the war, though, and I’m always brought up short by sentences like “I’ve got some butter this week, so we can have a cake”. Those of our generation can have no idea what rationing must have been like.

    I enjoy them for what they are, i.e. fascinating murder mysteries. I have never correctly guessed whodunit – or rather WHYdunit – and usually read them in one sitting. We’re not here for detailed characterisation or beautiful prose – I like Sophie Hannah, but have to disagree with her about that – some of Christie’s writing is excellent, but in some of her later books I feel it is rather lazy and sloppy.

    Her greatest virtue for me is that she never cheats. All the clues are there, and there is never a deus ex machina. Even when the butler “dunit” there is a good reason which has been subtly indicated before (there are a couple of exceptions here, perhaps). She used the unreliable narrator device to great effect in one of her books – I won’t say which to avoid spoilers – although it is a shock ending, she never lies to the reader.

    I couldn’t stand David Suchet’s Poirot I’m afraid.

    Dame Agatha has added significantly to the joy of reading, and could teach me a thing or two about conciseness!

    Reply

    • I think there is absolutely no doubt about the ingenuity and cleverness of her plotting. And more than that: the plots of And Then there Were None or of Murder on the Orient Express have virtually become modern myths.

      Of course, the times she wrote about were far from cosy, and yes, there is certainly occasional references to this. But this is not what these novels are about – any more than, say, Wodehouse’s novels are about the General Strike or the Wall Street collapse. I can quite understand how her novels can become addictive.

      I do enjoy watching adaptations of her novels, I must admit. It’s interesting how the performances so radically split opinion: you can’t stand Suchet as Poirot, whereas another friend of mine loves Suchet in the role, but can’t stand Albert Finney. I suppose when you read the books, you get your own mental picture, and anything too radically different from that mental picture will grate. I still find it difficult to come to terms with Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance!

      What you say about Agatha Christie (“Dame Agatha has added significantly to the joy of reading”) has been said to me by many other readers. These things can, of course, be passing fads, but when something retains its popularity for nearly a century (as Agatha Christie’s novels have done), and enthrals new generaions of readers, then that is something that deserves respect.

      Reply

  10. You are right about the Suchet version being so much darker and more thoughtful than the much-loved by me as a child Lumet version. I think I loved all the big names and showiness of the earlier film, while the TV version was much more in keeping with my thoughts about the story. Now I suppose I will have to go and watch the Branagh version!

    Reply

    • Despite my reservations, I found it entertaining and diverting enough. It’s really the way modern films are made that i find myself taking issue with, but modern mainstream cinema is really a very different beast from what I am used to.

      Reply

  11. What an excellent assessment of the Suchet production, and I would also echo Scott Bailey’s comments about its place in the series. I do love the series very much, and I love that episode in particular, but in some ways I also prefer the earlier, cozier adaptations.

    I would also second the recommendation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as perhaps the “best” Poirot, but then again the ones narrated by Hastings are so much cozier!

    Reply

    • Thanks for that. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was actually one of those Agatha Christie novels I read when i was 13, so I do know the plot twist of that one.

      I enjoy the David Suchet series as well. A few years ago, the complete DVD box set was my Christmas present to my wife (who loves there adaptations) but they hadn’t made the last series then: I must hunt it out. I do enjoy the cosiness of the earlier episodes, but find myself fascinated by what new elements can be brought to material that, in its original form, didn’t possess them. This is what adaptation should ideally be, I think – taking the original material, and, rather than slavishly imitating it, re-imagining it into something new.

      Reply

  12. I remember seeing the Lumet version in Queenstown in 1979, at a government tourist hotel (that doubled as the town’s cinema when a portable projector was wheeled in to the conference room).
    This was before the modern multiplex became ubiquitous). Good value, too. I have mixed feelings about Agatha Christie, sometimes the plot can be a little plodding, but usually fairly clever I must admit.
    I gained new respect for the detective novel as a genre after a visit to Brecht’s apartment in East Berlin arranged by his daughter, a privelege indeed by any stretch, and noted shelves packed with novels by Hammett and Chandler et al. A defining moment for me.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: