How many times in the last ten years has Hollywood adapted a well-loved book only for the faithful and the critics to cry "it's not as good as..."? You could get a decent list out of it, and 'Murder On The Orient Express' is proof that it was happening as far back as the 70's.Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is on board the titular train when heavy snow causes it to stop. He's contacted by American Ratchett (Richard Widmark) who's convinced that someone is out to murder him. When later that night Ratchett indeed turns up stabbed 12 times Poirot turns his little grey matter to discovering just who is responsible.
Is it his butler Mr.Beddoes (John Gielgud)? Is it retired Army man Colonel Arbuthnot (Sean Connery)? Is it vampish Harriet Hubbard(Lauren Bacall)? Could it even be meek Greta Ohlson (Ingrid Bergman)?
Working from Agatha Christie's source material it's guaranteed that the material will be gripping. Christie's skill lay in the small details and how they all came together in the big picture to finger the culprit. Here, it works splendidly as Poirot skilfully weaves together several unconnected strands in perhaps Christie's most celebrated work.
It's good that the film has such strong material however as Sidney Lumet's direction is leaden and clumsy and the film suffers from an over-stuffed cast. With a setting such as a snowbound train in the middle of a mountain range the film should be ripe for tension and atmosphere. Lumet's direction is sadly lacking however and the atmosphere is more stifled than stifling.There's no real sense of a murderer on the loose and no pace to the whodunnit aspect of the case. When the atmosphere should be scary and oppressive, it's stiff and wooden. It's more like a stageplay than a film.
Lumet also has a problem translating the intricacies of the novel to the screen. It becomes predictable and exposition heavy as everyone takes it in turn to sit opposite Poirot and explain where they were and their relationship to Ratchett. It's a formula that becomes stale quickly and Lumet's attempt to liven it up with flashbacks just add confusion to the mix, particularly at the big revealing climax.
The cast don't help either.It's not that they're bad, it's just so over-cast with stars that it becomes distracting. So instead of focusing on the characters and their motives you're too busy paying attention to which star has got the biggest role. For example it may be a funny injoke to have Anthony Perkins playing a nervy knifing suspect, but it's an injoke that takes you right out of the movie.
There is some good acting however with Bacall, Bergman and Gielgud all managing to hide themselves in their characters.The same cannot be said of the usually great Finney however in a ridiculously over-the-top performance. He splutters his way through the film with such an outrageously bad accent that most of his dialogue becomes impossible to make out. Along the lines of "I put it to you zurr that you are the murderer because you and Ratchett were hurrrorder verderheads avooord zuttalos!". And to think he was Oscar nominated for this performance.It's very fitting that the one thing shining through in 'The Murder On The Orient Express' is the keen intelligence of Christie's writing. It seems that it can survive any lack of atmosphere and an attack of bad acting. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, perhaps the best crime writers should stay where they belong - the page.