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19Feb/111

Hard Boiled Poirot: Three Murders on the Orient Express

Recently, I decided to start watching some of the David Suchet performances as Poirot. Of obvious was that famous title, Murder on the Orient Express which Suchet made in 2010.

It was different, different than anything I'd seen, heard, or read featuring Poirot. Starkly different. The story as done by Suchet reminded me more of The Dark Knight than a cozy Agatha Christie mystery. Checking IMDB, I found an interesting phenomena which would also apply to another Poirot TV movie, Appointment with Death. Viewers rate this version of Murder on the Orient Express a solid 7.9, but fan reviewers take a more negative view. I decided to begin an investigation to find which was the best adaptation of the story. So, in addition to having watched the 2010 David Suchet version, I viewed the 1970s movie and purchased the BBC Radio 4 version from Audible.

Some spoiler warnings below follow for those who haven't seen, heard, or read Murder on the Orient Express.

The basic story:

After finishing a case in the Middle East, Poirot is recalled to London. He's told that there should be no problem getting a berth on the Orient Express in the middle of Winter. But instead when he gets to the station, he finds the train full. However, a friend who works for the railroad gets Poirot into a berth.

On board, the train, Poirot is offered a job by a Mr. Ratchet to provide him protection. Poirot declines the job and Ratchet is found murdered after the train is snowed in in Yugoslavia. The railroad executive asks Poirot to solve the case for fear that the Yugoslav government will massively delay the train.

Through a clue of a burned piece of paper, Poirot deduces that Ratchet is  an assumed name and that the murdered man was really Cassetti, a notorious criminal who had kidnapped young Daisy Armstrong, received a large ransom for her return, and then killed her.

Poirot, thorugh a series of interviews and after setting aside a lot of red-herring clues discovers that the murder was a conspiracy involving twelve passengers and crew aboard the Orient Express had ties to the Armstrong family. The plot had been upset by the arrival of Poirot on the train and clues were concocted to throw him off the trail. In the end, Poirot reports a false conclusion to the Yugoslav police using the false evidence left by the murderers to tell the police that the killer had snuck on the train wearing a crew member's uniform.

One could obsess over all the differences between the three adaptations, but here are the key ones:

Poirot: The 1974 film version of Poirot starred Albert Finney, the BBC Radio version starred John Moffatt, and of course, the 2010 version starred David Suchet.

Finney made a somewhat awkward Poirot, and it took a few scenes for me to really to be at all comfortable with Finney in the role as he seemed a little stiff.  Christie was alive during the making of the film and didn't care for Finney for another reason, "It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn't in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn't he?"

Moffatt played Poirot perfectly, matching expectations of Poirot based on what I'd seen Poirot in other adaptations.

Finally, Suchet's portrayl of Poirot was odd. It was a departure from past portrayals, including his own portrayals of Poirot. Poirot is agitated and edgy throughout the movie. The movie opens with a man committing suicide while Poiriot is making an accusation. This serves, perhaps as an explanation of why the congenial Belgian isn't so congenial. Instead Suchet's portrayal calls to mind a world-weary shamus rather than the Poirot we're used to. To me, this was probably the chief defect in the Suchet version. Had Poirot become upset and unsettled after finding the killing was tied to the emotionally-charged Armstrong case, I would have bought it. But from the beginning, Poirot was not himself.

Why Poirot Refused to Protect Ratchet: In the radio version and the 2010 version, Poirot refused the case because of a personal distate for Ratchet, though it was much more politely refused. In the 2010 version in particular, Ratchet was particularly nasty. In the 1974 version, Ratchett isn't all that diagreeable around Poirot, but Poirot declines the case because it does not interest him. This lessens our sympathy somewhat for Poirot and is only touched on briefly later in the film.

Bouc/Biachi:  In the 1974 and radio versions,  Bouc (Biachi in the 1974 film) is an old friend of Poirot's who helps him get on the train and insists the investigation begins. In 2010, Bouc is much more of a fan of the famous detective than actual friend, and he clearly annoys Poirot throughout the film.

The All-Star Cast: The 1974 film featured one of the finest collections of stars you'll find with Lauren Becall, Ingrid Bergmann, Sir Sean Connery, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, and Anthony Perkins among the cast. However, all this star pwer had two consequences. The first was that the movie was slow getting started. It took 20 minutes for the train to get underway as we got to see minutes on end of our cast moving through railway stations and boarding the train. The second is that the interrogations felt a lot like tryouts for a best-supporting Oscar. (Ingrid Bergmann actually won it.) Because of this, both the radio and 2010 version were more quickly paced.

How Thoroughly had Casetti Gotten Away With the Crime: In the 1974 version, Casetti was the mastermind of the crime and the actual perpetrator had been convicted while Casetti had fled justice. In radio version, Casetti had committed the crime and then fled the country. In the 2010 version, Casetti had committed the crime and bought an acquittal in court. The 2010 version deepens our sympathy for the murderers somewhat. In previous versions, it would have been possible to return Casetti to the U.S. for trial. In the 2010 version, the criminal justice system had failed.

The Method of the Murder: In both the 1974 and Radio versions, the method of the killing was pretty straightforward, drugging Casetti and then killing the unconscious man. The murder was carried about by twelve people whose lives were destroyed by Casetti's crimes. In the 2010 version, this is changed somewhat, as the drug given Casetti was only strong enough to immobilize him and keep him quiet as the crime was committed. The murderers wanted to ensure he was conscious of what was being done to him and why.

This method has been roundly criticized by some of the reviews as being cruel. I think this is probably a case of modern consciousness working its way into Poirot stories, just as it did in the 2008 Poirot movie,  Appointment with Death where the cruelty of the murder of a truly abusive mother was ratcheted up. I think that there's a wide sense in the public that child abuse and child murder are not treated with the severity that they deserve. There's something cathartic for a 21st Century audience to see a punishment meted out that seems to fit the crime.  However, it's not quite in keeping with the cozy mystery tradition.

The Denoument: In the radio and 1974 versions, Poirot offers the railroad executive and the Greek Doctor, the choice of two solutions, the real one and the one the murderers wanted them to believe.

At the end of the BBC Radio 7 play, John Moffatt's Poirot does a good job with the denoument though he kind of fades towards the end and receives the verdict of the Greek Doctor and the railroad executive to provide the false solution with deadpan resignation.

At the end of the 1974 movie, discussion of what type of scandal and incovenience as a result of the true solution, and the false one is chosen instead. Poirot heads back to his compartment as the murderers break out into celebration while Poirot mentions to his old friend that his conscience will be bothered by the case.

The 2010 version saw Poirot own the case and confront the murderers for what they had done in turning aside from the rule of law to Vigilante justice. He told them:

“The rule of law, it must be held high! And, if it falls, you pick it up and hold it even higher. For all society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed.”

Colonel Arbuthnot called for the murderers to kill Poirot to keep their secret, but everyone else refused. Some fans have noted this as an inconsistency with Arbuthnot's character as Arbuthnot had insisted that the jury system with twelve good men rendering a just decision was best. However, what I think the producers were trying to show was that the road to vigilantism can lead to a degradation of character and of civilization itself.

Having little respect for Bouc in this version, Poirot ordered the murderers locked up in the car, as he deliberated what to do. In the end, the decision is the same.  In the last scene, we see Poirot handing over the evidence planted by the murderers and walking away. As he does so, he fingers his rosary.  The murderers are relieved but not celebratory. You get the sense that the muirder of Casetti has done nothing to heal their pain.

To me, the 2010 ending was the most believable and satisfying. For a former police officer such as Poirot  to be indifferent to vigilantism and throw the whole thing into the lap of a railroad executive seemed far-fetched. Poirot in the 2010 version took responsibility for the decision, he didn't pass the buck.

Whether he made the right one is a matter of debate. What exactly was meant by his use of the rosary was a matter of debate. In this way, the 2010 film succeeds in engaging the audience and making them think. 

However,  not everyone wants a detective story to be an incisive social commentary with a great moral dilemma's presented to the audience. Some just want a cozy mystery.  So that leaves a question as to which version was the best.

There are three possible solutions to this case:

1) The 1974 version with its all-star cast and great cinematography was the best.

2) The BBC radio 4's unpretentious version with its faithfulness to Christie's original vision was the best version.

3) The 2010 version starring David Suchet with its harder-edged Poirot and distinct moral dilemmas was the best version.

I will let you choose the solution in the comments and retire from the case.

Both movies are also available through Netflix and the BBC Radio 4 version of Poirot is available through Audible.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchaser.

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Comments (1) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I was very, very disappointed with the Suchet “Orient Express.” Rather than a complex puzzle about whodunnit — which is what the original tale is really about — it’s instead Poirot being moody, other characters being annoying, murderers being actively evil as opposed to acting out of a sense of thwarted justice.
    I thought the star power of the Finney film worked in its favor by making the various suspects stand apart more. With a dozen possible murderers, it can be really hard for the movie audience to remember who is who, but nobody mixes up Vanessa Redgrave and Ingrid Bergmann!


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