I’ve been a lifelong “Poirot” fan. I was raised on PBS’ Mystery! series in the 90s, and my mother has always been a great lover of Agatha Christie, having read more of her books than I can even think of. I’ve seen the original 1974 film version of “Murder on the Orient Express” a few years ago, and with much anticipation, tonight I was able to see the very recent 2010 version with the television series’ star, David Suchet.
The story itself is dark. In fact, my reaction to the 1974 version at its conclusion was “….that was weird.” But then again, what wasn’t weird in the 1970s. It is not a “usual” Poirot piece by any means, though it’s among the most famous. Poirot usually stays within the realms of lightness and the glamour of the Art Decco period. Even when dealing with murder most foul, Poirot is not without its lighter points, usually with help from one of his many compatriots; Captain Hastings, Chief Inspector Jap or Ms. Lemon, usually. This doesn’t mean it isn’t ever dark. The television movie “The ABC Murders” was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in the detective genre (seriously. It is not for the faint of heart).
“Murder on the Orient Express” is none of these light things, though the 1974 version certainly tried. And in many ways, it succeeded. Albert Finney’s funny facial pieces to keep the famous Poirot mustache from being ruffled is always good for a laugh. Lauren Bacall as a blustery American upsetting the delicacy of her fellow, European travelers deserves accolades and chuckles. This version did not bother with any of that. I did not laugh a single time during the hour and a half I spent watching it. NEVER. This isn’t a BAD thing. It makes for heavy watching, but I’m not saying that is bad by any means. Just be prepared for that.
For the record, the 2010 version is sort of “panned” by most amateur reviewers online as not nearly as good as the film version. Well, in a sense, that’s true. But it’s also kind of a “Well, duh” moment. The 1974 film had some of the greatest actors of their decade, or ANY decade of film making. Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave – I’m not even going to bother continuing to list them. IT’S TOO MANY. The 2010 version basically has David Suchet going for it. That’s enough for me to prefer it, or at least give it a pass for two reasons: the primary reason is that David Suchet is the best actor to have ever played Poirot, ever. There are no ifs, there are no ands, there are no buts. No one else can play him in the same way Suchet can, and no one ever, EVER will be as good after him (until we meet a race of super fabulous, inter-planetary acting aliens, but they probably prefer doing their own plays). The secondary reason it doesn’t matter is this was not a feature-length film. It was not shot on location (though its scenery and CGI effects ARE beautiful). It was made for television, and it fits its format. Really, comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges, where you bite into one and say “Well, this apple is crisper, so it must be better.” Or something, I suck at metaphors.
The two start very differently. The 1974 version streams through all of the drama off the Daisy Armstrong case, mainly through newspaper clippings and montages (the kidnapping was based on the case of the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping). 2010 skips through all that later, and I think that’s okay if you’re acquainted with the story. If not, your 12 fairly important characters are going to get very confusing in an hour and a half. That’s another limitation of the television version, it really is made for fans. Fans who already know the story. Heck, I know the story and I got a bit confused. Cause I only saw it once, and it is one of the more confusing mysteries.
What 2010 does instead, and what I appreciate it for, is the darkness and grey of matters of justice, and showing a personal side of Poirot we rarely see. For example, I had no freaking clue he was a practicing Catholic. Mom’s read practically all the books and she had no idea. I mean, he’s Belgian, it makes SENSE. But whaaaaa? And they made it WORK, the notion of God’s justice is a theme repeated throughout the television version. The comparison of Poirot and Rachett praying was also like, woah, totally deep, man. It was a COOL piece of film making. 2010’s opening is of Poirot interrogating and verbally abusing a young leftenant (lieutenant to we uneducated Americans). Not-very-long-story short, it results in his suicide, and we can see the effect this has had on Poirot throughout the film. I don’t think he ever, EVER did that cute little smile you always see on the boxes of the DVD collections. He was BROODING, man.
(SPOILERS ARE AHEAD! STOP NOW IF YOU CARE!)
The television version brings up LARGE themes I don’t recall in the feature film. Whether God is just, and the law going too far and also not far enough. These are weighty, deep issues, reaffirmed with the scene of the adulteress being stoned to death in Istanbul, as well as Poirot’s rather cold reaction to it. Societies mores cannot be broken, and Poirot becomes the last bastion for what the rule of law stands for on the Orient Express. From his reluctance NOT to involve the police in Yugoslavia at his friend’s request, and to his passionate speech on the necessity of upholding the modern Western system of justice, whether it fails or not. “You had no right to take the law into your own hands!” Poirot admonishes the freezing, spoiled and emotionally sullied passengers of the train. “No, you behave like this and we become just… savages in the street! The juries and executioners, they elect themselves! No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high and if it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all of society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed!” Gone is the glamour of 1974. The snow drift is no mild inconvenience weathered in style aboard Europe’s premier inter-continental train. The freezing, desperate passengers are in survival mode…and whether they were right or wrong in their decision to destroy the man who, through a domino effect, destroyed them is never fully answered.
That is what I like about the 2010 version. Poirot was too willing to let them go in the film. The brutality of their actions allowed to pass as though there was nothing. Even when Poirot upbraids them, many still claim their actions were right. I, for one, agree more with Suchet’s Poirot. I cannot abide this act of savage disregard for a system that the rest of a Western society rests upon. And yet even so….the gentler, more noble characters of this tragic drama express a hunger, a pain within that could not be addressed when the justice system failed at the most critical moment for them. When the character John appears about ready to murder Poirot as well to keep from being caught, his lover stops him – as do other members of the conspiracy. For while they feel that in murdering Ratchett they were justified, destroying Poirot would make them just as hellish as the man they hated. And the character Mary, at least, expresses to Poirot that she did what she felt was right….but that does not mean her pain has gone away. Or even a certainty that it WAS right.
Poirot has let his caught culprits go before. Whether out of love, as with a jewel thief countess in “The Double Clue,” or otherwise, it DOES happen. But in this version of “Orient Express,” we see him truly grapple with the issues of right and wrong, of justice and injustice. In the rule of law, Poirot would be totally justified in handing over all twelve rather cold-blooded killers. He does not do it, though. I think it would be wrong to call it a sense of “higher” justice. There was no way to make such a situation right. I cannot even begin to verbalize all the reasons he does not do this. But his handling of his rosary suggests the second grand question of the story: when do we let the Ultimate Judgment make these decisions….And what do we do if we feel our prayers for justice have gone unanswered? Can we ever claim to act in its stead? Having friends who share this pain of loss, people close to them murdered in horrible ways, I cannot dare to claim that vengeance is not ever right. But was it right on the Orient Express?
I’d recommend both versions, one for its cast and clarity, and the other for its deeply complicated moral questions. Of course, I’d recommend the whole Poirot series, as it is entertainment in the highest order. But I lean on the 2010 version for those who are familiar with Poirot and the story of the “Orient Express.” The questions it raises are ones we deal with as part of the human condition. And it offers us a rare glimpse into the soul of a man who so often shares only “the little grey cells.” For those who are willing to grapple with questions that may not have an answer….a trip on the Orient Express is in order.
So much for that being brief. If you don’t want to read all that, how about this anecdote from my not very well-read uncle on seeing the original film. “Nothing happened! They just stayed on the train!”