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Sidney Lumet
Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave
Writing Credits:
Agatha Christie (novel), Paul Dehn, Anthony Shaffer

The Who's Who in the Whodunnit!

Elegant, escapist entertainment at its stylishly European best. This Agatha Christie whodunit boasts an incredible international cast as some of the most wonderfully eccentric characters ever created. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her slightly dim-witted, Bible-quoting Swedish missionary. Albert Finney is the dapper detective Hercule Poirot, for whom murder-solving is a precise, intellectual exercise. Poirot agrees to interview all aboard the famous train's Calais coach, hoping to find the killer of an American millionaire before the local police arrive. Packed with sparkling dialogue and visually rich in texture, this incomparable thriller received six Academy Award nominations.

Rated PG

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Monaural
French Monaural

Runtime: 127 min.
Price: $14.99
Release Date: 9/7/2004

• “Agatha Christie: A Portrait”
• “Making Murder on the Orient Express” 4-Part Documentary
• Trailer


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 3, 2004)

Agatha Christie remains arguably the most recognizable name in the world of mystery writers, and 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express may be her most famous work. Surprisingly, we’ve only seen two filmed adaptations of this story. 2001 brought a TV version, and 1974 offered the only cinematic take on the tale to date. The latter seems to be the better-regarded of the two and now makes it debut on DVD.

At the film’s opening, we see a montage that relates the 1930 kidnapping of baby Daisy Armstrong from her family’s mansion in Long Island. The daughter of pilot Colonel Hamish Armstrong and wife Sonia, they eventually pay the ransom but the kidnappers slay Daisy anyway.

After that downer, we head to 1935 and go to the Asian side of Istanbul. There we encounter a multitude of characters who plan to take the Orient Express train from Istanbul to France. Chief among them is famous detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney). We also get to know his friend and railroad honcho Bianchi (Martin Balsam) as well as a slew of passengers. This list includes lovers Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave) and Colonel Arbuthnott (Sean Connery), loudmouthed widow Mrs. Harriet Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), skittish religious zealot Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), hard-edged Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark), private manservant Beddoes (John Gielgud), suspicious Hector McQueen (Anthony Perkins), garrulous Dick Hardman (Colin Blakely) and Gino Foscarelli (Denis Quilley), haughty Princess Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts), and jealous Hungarian diplomat Count Andrenyi (Michael York) and wife Elena (Jacqueline Bisset). The tight confines of the train force these folks to get to know each other, whether they like it or not.

Ratchett wants to hire Poirot to be his bodyguard, but the detective declines. That night, a series of disturbances disrupts Poirot’s sleep, and when he awakes the next day, he finds Ratchett dead. Bianchi and Poirot bring in passenger Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris) to consult, and they try to establish the cause and time of death. Bianchi implores Poirot to solve the mystery, which he initially resists but ultimately accepts. The rest of the film follows the investigation and also gets into how it connects to the Armstrong kidnapping.

Does anyone else miss the era of the all-star cast? Escalating salaries make them difficult these days. Yeah, some folks pull them off occasionally, such as with Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven and its upcoming sequel, but they’re rather rare.

Casts with multiple prominent actors work especially well for mysteries like Express. If the film included only a couple of prominent names, we’d be able to whittle down the list of suspects too easily. Since we so many well-known folks, it keeps matters more wide-open. Any could be the culprit, and any could get knocked off at a moment’s notice.

Express also succeeds due to its concise exploration of its subject. With all those characters, it could easily become bogged down in unnecessary subplots and complications. Those don’t occur here, as the movie always remains focused on its main theme.

Granted, a little more breadth might have been nice. We don’t get to know much about the various passengers. We see them as basic personalities and that’s it. However, when compared with the alternative - a three-hour movie with better fleshed out characters - I definitely prefer the film as constructed.

Besides, the story works just fine as it is. The actors manage to embrace their personalities well enough to make sure that they give us what we need from the characters. We never get a great sense for their background and personalities, but we learn enough, and the actors help bring the roles to life. Occasionally the acting veers toward hamminess, but this suits the style of the movie and its period setting.

Too many movies follow unnecessary tangents and fail to concentrate on their basic stories. That doesn’t happen with the concise and tightly-paced Murder on the Orient Express. The movie moves briskly and explores its mystery well to make this an engaging and involving story.

The DVD Grades: Picture C-/ Audio B+/ Bonus B

Murder on the Orient Express appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Express often showed its age with this disappointingly erratic transfer.

Some of the concerns came from the style of photography used for the film. Express sported a gauzy, diffuse look that often rendered it somewhat fuzzy. I think the filmmakers also favored mildly soft focus to better compliment the many aging actors in the cast, and it also gave the flick the appropriate period look. In any case, sharpness usually seemed adequate outside of the stylized softness, though it never appeared terrible well-defined. I didn’t notice any issues with jagged edges or shimmering, and only a little light edge enhancement popped up at times.

Again, the photographic choices affected the film’s colors. Not that it would’ve looked bright and vibrant anyway, since the train setting portrayed mostly a series of brown, earthy tones to match the subdued décor. The hues seemed average, as they presented fairly accurate colors without great depth. Blacks came across as nicely firm and rich, but shadows tended to appear murky. Some of that came from the occasional use of day for night photography, but even interiors exhibited a bit too much density to the low-light images.

Where Express lost most of its points connected to print flaws. Both the opening credits and Armstrong prologue demonstrated lots of grain, specks, marks and splotches. I hoped these would subside once the meat of the movie began, but they didn’t. Throughout the flick, I saw lots of instances of these concerns along with occasional nicks and other debris. The image wasn’t absurdly dirty, but it seemed excessively rough for a 30-year-old movie. All of this meant that Express remained watchable but too flawed to merit a grade above a “C-“.

On the other hand, the remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Murder on the Orient Express presented something of a revelation. I didn’t expect much from this rejiggered mono work, but the results sounded excellent. The soundfield didn’t go bonkers, but it opened up matters nicely. The score fared very well, as it offered strong stereo imaging. Other effects also broadened across the front speakers to create a good sense of environment, and elements moved smoothly across the channels. The surrounds mainly supported the front material, but they helped form a solid sense of place with some unique information as well.

Where the audio fared best related to its quality. Speech sounded a little dated and flat but not badly so, and the lines came across as reasonably natural and firm, without any edginess or issues with intelligibility. Effects also occasionally showed their age, but they were more than adequately clean and concise, and they demonstrated good dimensionality. In particular, the train pushed along with nice force and heft. Best of all, the score sounded just terrific. The music was bright and dynamic and offered surprisingly strong range. All of those factors combined to make the audio of Express memorable and worthy of a “B+”.

Despite its very low list price, Murder on the Orient Express comes with a decent roster of extras. First among the DVD’s supplements, we get Agatha Christie: A Portrait. This nine-minute and 36-second featurette features remarks from her grandson Matthew Prichard. He relates his grandmother’s origins as a mystery writer, her influences for the Poirot character and his personality, influences for Express itself, and his thoughts about her. It’s a short look at the author that offers some basic details and little more.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, we also find Making Murder on the Orient Express. Split into four parts, this 48-minute and 33-second documentary offers movie clips, archival materials, and comments from Prichard, director Sidney Lumet, producers Richard Goodwin and Lord John Brabourne, filmmaker/author/Express appreciator Nicholas Meyer, production designer/costume designer Tony Walton, composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, and actors Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, and Michael York.

The program goes into the story’s path to the screen and difficulties getting consent from Christie, casting and rehearsal, Lumet’s style and dealing with such a large and prominent cast, the influence of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, various stylistic decisions, locations and the train set, the Poirot makeup, various production challenges and anecdotes, approaches to the characters and the actors’ interactions, translating the mystery to the screen, the film’s score and its audio, and the film’s reception. The program moves through the various elements of the production smoothly and concisely, and it covers the appropriate bases well. Lots of interesting material pops up, and we get fascinating footnotes like Bernard Herrmann’s negative reaction to Bennett’s score. “Making” gives us a fine look at the film’s creation.

A classic murder mystery told in a fine manner, Murder on the Orient Express provides a satisfying experience. The movie moves briskly and uses its all-star cast well to create an engaging and entertaining throwback. Picture quality seems disappointing, but the audio excels and the set includes some good extras. Despite the erratic visuals, this set merits your attention, especially given its surprisingly cheap list price of less than $15.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2285 Stars Number of Votes: 35
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