The 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s controversial mystery Murder on the Orient Express spawned a string of theatrical and made-for-TV films based on her works. I recently revisited Orient Express and, for comparison purposes, also watched the 2010 version starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. It was an interesting exercise in which each film boasted certain strengths. In the end, though, it came down to which Poirot was the best and, for me, the choice between Suchet and Albert Finney is a no-contest.
The plots of each version closely mirror Christie’s 1934 novel. While aboard the Orient Express en route back to England, Poirot is approached by a wealthy, distasteful man named Ratchett, who fears for his life. Ratchett tries to hire Poirot to protect him, but the Belgian detective refuses. Two nights later, Ratchett’s bloody corpse–which features, significantly, twelve knife wounds–is found in his compartment. The obvious solution is that the murderer disposed of Ratchett, then departed the train. However, Poirot quickly makes a connection to the kidnapping and subsequent death of young Daisy Armstrong, which occurred five years earlier (an obvious nod to the real-life Lindbergh Baby case).
1974’s Murder on the Orient Express boasts a running time of 128 minutes, which surprisingly works to the plot’s advantage. First, it allows director Sidney Lumet to open the film with a well-constructed montage that encapsulates the Armstrong kidnapping and its aftermath. This sequence not only piques the viewer’s interest from the beginning, but its eliminates the need for lengthy flashbacks later or incorporation into Poirot’s explanation. The second advantage of the long running time is it affords Poirot time to reveal the mystery’s solution in detail (indeed, the “reveal” scene lasts almost 25 minutes).
The casting of big-name stars as the suspects may be entertaining, but it actually adds little to the mystery. I suppose one could argue that it’s easier to tell the suspects apart, because they’re played by performers such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman, and others. However, with the exception of Wendy Hiller as the elusive and deathly pale Princess Dragomiroff, no one has enough screen time to add any depth to their character.
Albert Finney, as Poirot, dominates Murder on the Orient Express and that’s unfortunate because he’s a poor choice to portray Christie’s sleuth. Finney may have mastered Poirot’s manners, but there’s no passion in his interpretation. I also have no idea what accent he was using–it certainly didn’t sound French. Apparently, I hold a minority opinion of Finney’s portrayal; he received both Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Actor. (Incidentally, Ingrid Bergman won those two awards for supporting actress, though I think it was more for her career than for her performance in this picture.)
2010’s Murder on the Orient Express, made by Britain’s ITV network, lacks the grand scale of the 1974 version. Still, it looks expensive for a made-for-TV movie. In lieu of an all-star cast, many of the suspects are played by actors familiar to fans of British drama: Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Eileen Atkins (Doc Martin), and Toby Jones (Midsomer Murders). Perhaps, the most recognizable face for U.S. audiences is Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), who was still relatively unknown in 2010.
At a zippy 89 minutes, this adaptation moves almost too quickly, making it difficult for viewers to differentiate among the large number of suspects. In lieu of the 1974 film’s opening montage, Poirot explains the connection to the Daisy Armstrong case as part of his climatic “reveal.” It’s a lot of information to absorb at one time and I wonder if individuals unfamiliar with Christie’s plot will be able to fully follow Poirot’s explanation.
Despite these minor misgivings, I probably prefer this version for one reason alone. David Suchet is–as always–superb as Hercule Poirot. One of Suchet’s great gifts was being able to find the humor in the Poirot character, while never mocking the detective nor making him intentionally funny. Thus, we may smile when Suchet’s Poirot measures his eggs to ensure they’re the same size, but we never laugh at him. (In contrast, when Finney races down a train car to question a suspect, he looks like Charlie Chaplin).
The 2010 version also ends on a stronger note with the religious Poirot pondering the impacts of a personal moral dilemma. Interestingly, the same theme is explored at the conclusion of Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, the excellent 2014 film that marked the last of Suchet’s 70 appearances as Hercule Poirot.
This article originally ran on MovieFanFare in 2015 and is being republished as we continue to celebrate the life of Albert Finney.