Posts Tagged ‘David Suchet’

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.