Movie review: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Agatha Christie’s murder mystery Murder on the Orient Express has been made into several movies—another one is even in the works.

I watched the original movie adaptation made in 1974 and which starred notables of the time such as Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, and Sean Connery, to name a few. Bergman won Best Supporting Actress for her role in this movie.

The plot is involved but not overly reliant on twists and turns seen in modern mysteries that befuddle and confound. The audience is led down a path of assumptions by being privy to what Agatha Christie’s Inspector Pirot observes. Things are not completely what they seem. Or perhaps they are. In the end, two possible solutions to the murder are presented.

The train the Orient Express is uncharacteristically full for this time of year. Inspector Pirot who suddenly needs to return to London is unable to secure a private sleeping compartment. The train departs from Istanbul in the winter and subsequently becomes stuck in snow drifts in Yugoslavia.

Overnight a member of the train is murdered. The director of the train begs Inspector Pirot to investigate rather than have local police do so. Pirot begins his interviews of the passengers, muddied by things that he saw and heard the night of the murder, things that ultimately are meant to throw him (and us) off track.

The movie oddly starts with clips from a sensational murder and kidnapping in 1930, reminiscent in some ways to the case of the Lindbergh baby. Then the movie cuts to Istanbul five years later, when people are gathering to board the Orient Express.

The tragedy of the Armstrong case wasn’t just the kidnapping and murder of the young daughter, but deaths that followed from it—the suicide of a maid falsely accused, the death of the mother during the premature birth of a second child, the death of the second child in childbirth, and the suicide of the father.

In turns out that all the passengers (and one crew member) have connections to the Lindbergh case—sister of Mrs. Armstrong, godmother of the murdered child, mother of Mrs. Armstrong, friend of Mr. Armstrong, butler in the Armstrong household, etc.

With these connections and motives for the killing, who did it? From the assumed identity of the murderer comes the how and when for the murder. It didn’t occur when assumed but later than Pirot was led to believe.

The 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express is considered one of the best film adaptations of Agatha Christi’s novels. It definitely makes a compelling watch to see the famous Belgian inspector piece together the mystery….and several famous actors in action.

Movie review: Dial M for Murder (1954)

No such thing as the perfect murder. So said Margot’s lover in Dial M for Murder. He happens to be an author of detective novels.

Mark was responding to a question by Margot’s husband Tony. Tony was pondering the perfect murder. This wasn’t academic. Tony was planning on murdering his wife Margot.

Or rather have her murdered.

But, as Mark said, there are only perfect murders on paper. Things never go as planned. And they certainly didn’t for Tony.

Tony had found out about Mark and Margot’s affair. But that wasn’t the motivation for murder. The real motivation was money. Margot came from money. Tony was accustomed to living off of it. If Margot were to leave, so goes any money Tony lives on. But if Margot dies, as beneficiary to her will, he would be left with plenty to live on for the rest of his days.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder is masterfully done. At first I wondered at a bit of the acting. But either it became polished as the movie went on or I became enchanted with the plot. The audience is in the know the entire time.

We watch as Tony explains his plan to the guy he hires to kill Margot. Then we watch as the plot goes terribly awry and Tony improvises and alters the story, landing Margot on death row for killing the would-be murderer.

Mark would do anything for Margot, including trying to convince Tony to tell the police a story that would save her life—that Tony plotted her murder (after all, he would go to prison for only a few years for hiring someone to murder his wife—a small price to pay to save his wife from death).

Eerily, the story that Mark concocts is almost the exact plot that Tony had hatched. In the end, Tony is done in by a simple detail—the key that the killer was supposed to leave under the carpeting on the front stairs.

It was the perfect murder—on paper.

Movie review: Citizen Kane (1941)

Orson Welles co-wrote, directed, starred in, and produced this classic, often considered the finest film ever made. He was a mere twenty-five years old and Citizen Kane was the first film he directed.

Citizen Kane starts with the death of a newspaper tycoon, isolated and alone on his estate in Florida. A newspaper seeks to cover the news of his death but need a fresh angle. They latch onto his final words—Rosebud—and seek to uncover what it meant.

To get to the bottom of the final word spoken, a newspaperman interviews various people who were important at some point in Charles Foster Kane’s life—the guardian who raised him until he came of age, the general manager of his newspaper, his best friend from college and his early work life, his first and second wives. With each interview, the film plays out what the newspaperman learns about Kane.

We learn about his entire life, from his early childhood when he was taken from his parents to when his second wife left him. Kane uttered the word that he would again speak before dying—Rosebud—just as he picked up a snow globe when his second wife left him. The newspaperman comes to the end of his investigation none the wiser about what Rosebud meant.

However, as the audience, we are privy to more information.

Kane was an immensely wealth man who collected art and, well, stuff. After his death, all of his possessions were crated and categorized, enough to fill several museums. What was not considered worth anything was thrown into a furnace by workers. It is here that we learn the providence of Rosebud.

Rosebud was the name written on the sled that little Charlie was playing with in Colorado when he was suddenly taken from his parents to be raised by a guardian. Rosebud represented his youth, happy days, the love of his mother. He spent his whole life looking for love from everyone around him, but died alone and lonely, a narcissist who could never think of anyone but himself and his needs.

Citizen Kane was innovative in many ways (cinematography, editing, sound) for the time period and included solid performances. The narrative structure works and survives the decades well. I couldn’t help but think of William Randolph Hearst as I watched it. In fact, Hearst noticed the parallels too. His power was enough to limit and delay the release of the picture but not prevent it from ultimately being released.

Despite Hearst’s attempt to block the film, Citizen Kane was well received though not initially a commercial success. The movie holds a special place in filmography, influencing many movies that followed.

Movie review: The Third Man (1949)

Considered one of the best film noir, The Third Man is set in the ideal film noir location: post-World War II Vienna. With its cobblestone streets and bombed buildings lying in rubbles, Vienna was the perfect backdrop for such a movie.

Famous author Graham Greene initially visited Vienna to conjure up ideas for a film. In Vienna, he heard tales about post-WW II deprivation, the flourishing black market, and the sewer system that allowed one to move from sector to sector without showing papers. (Vienna was divided into four quadrants—British, American, French, and Russian—as well as a shared international sector.) He was told tales of racketeering and stories about men who inspired two of his characters.

From his experiences in Vienna, the story of The Third Man was born. Holly Martins, an American author, arrives in Vienna, invited by a friend for a job. At it turns out, he arrives just in time for the end of his friend’s funeral. Harry Lime died under mysterious circumstances and Holly digs around to try to understand the contradictions in the stories he hears.

Like most film noir of the time period, The Third Man contains some witty repartee.

“I was going to stay with [Harry Lime] but he died.” “Oh dear, that’s awkward.”

“It’s a shame.” “What?” “Him dying like that.” “Best thing that ever happened to him.”

The policeman to Holly, warning him to be careful, “I don’t want another murder. And you were born to be murdered.”

Many of the actors in the movie are Austrian who knew and spoke little or no English. Many scenes are spoken in German without subtitles, an intentional tactic to recreate what the scene must have felt like to the American Holly Martins who knew no German.

The leading lady, Alida Valli, distinctly reminds me of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Or perhaps her acting and manner of speaking are just stereotypical of women in film noir.

Orson Welles, who plays Harry Lime—the third man at the scene of his “death”—first appears two-thirds of the way through the movie. His character is discussed at length up to that point, building suspense about who this elusive Harry Lime is.

In some scenes, Orson Welles is only visible by his (or more aptly, his stunt double’s) shadow in the dark Vienna streets due to the fact that Welles arrived several weeks late for the filming. However, viewing the character only as a shadow increases the film noir-ness of the movie and heightens the sense of intrigue.

Now I feel the urge to see film noir movies that I haven’t seen and to revisit ones I have seen to discover what bits and pieces may have influenced The Third Man…and what bits of The Third Man influenced later film noir.

Movie review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder is considered one of the most realistic treatments of a trial—over two-thirds of the movie takes place in the courtroom. The suspense is gripping. I kept waiting for the truth to come out. But of course, it never did. Only conjecture. Only coincidence.

Anatomy of a Murder is based on a novel, which is based on an actual murder that happened on the Michigan peninsula. Jimmy Stewart plays a small town lawyer, originally a district attorney but asked to defend a soldier charged with murdering the man who raped his wife.

Jimmy Stewart’s character is a bit down on his luck, more interested in fishing and playing jazz than actually earning a living. He finagles his long-time partner in nighttime discussions about law to be his partner on the case—as long as he renounces the bottle. He does, even finding key information that led to a witness who clinched the case for the defense.

Duke Ellington is responsible for the score, even showing up as a piano player accompanied by Stewart in one scene! The jury was mostly composed of the jury members from the actual trial (except for those who had passed away).

Anatomy of a Murder is a well-structured and well-acted movie that reveals how lawyers develop cases—in other words, it is not riveting by today’s standards but offers interesting glimpses into a real murder trial. In the end though, once again, justice is not served.