Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Curious Case of the Unnecessary Butchering of Murder on the Orient Express

Yeah... That was my reaction too.
A new post from Bill at Traditional Mysteries inspired me to dig through my old reviews and take a look at adaptations of classic detective stories that themselves fall into the “alternative classic” category. There have been many bad adaptations of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple— but I contest that none have ever approached the travesty that is Murder on the Orient Express, a 2001-TV movie starring Alfred Molina. To prove it, I’ve adapted and expanded my old review of this atrocity.

Basically, for those of you who were lucky enough not to see this version of Murder on the Orient Express, I will sum it up as best as I can. Those who have seen it won’t find anything new in this post, but you might want to read it so that you know that I feel your pain. Obviously this post contains spoilers.

The movie opens as Poirot solves a murder case in Istanbul. He comes to the conclusion that a linguistics scholar committed a murder because the threatening note the victim received was also a palindrome. (gasp!) There follows a far-too-long scene between Poirot and Vera Rossakoff, during which I’m tempted to cry out “Sexual tension! Sexual tension!” Basically, Vera asks Poirot to marry her and settle in Istanbul. Poirot refuses to settle in Istanbul. They part. As Poirot walks through a marketplace, he sees Mary Debenham and (Mister!?!) Arbuthnot talking, a conversation he overheard at a completely different time in the novel.

Poirot comes to his hotel, and meets Wolfgang Bouc, who convinces him to take the Orient Express to London instead of a plane. Poirot accepts, and it is conveniently at this time that Mr. Ratchett gets a threatening phone call at the front desk. He throws a little temper tantrum, and life goes on.

Poirot and Bouc then board the Orient Express. The cabin reserved for Mr. Harris is given to Poirot without any issues, mainly because there are now only nine passengers on board. (There is the puzzling question of why a businessman like Ratchett would go anywhere near a train with the fast transportation aviation offers in the modern world. It’s a question this movie never attempts to answer. Maybe it's just as well. Its explanations for everything else are silly.) Ratchett gets a videotape delivered to his compartment. Meanwhile, Poirot discusses Vera with Bouc, lamenting that they are complete opposites. (And I thought the bathtub scene in The Sittaford Mystery was a bad ‘romantic’ scene!) Meanwhile, Ratchett specifically brings the videotape he received to the dining car, so that he can throw a tantrum in front of everyone. He obliterates the videotape in front of practically all the passengers, when he could’ve done it far more conveniently in the privacy of his own cabin. Funny. If I was marked down for murder I wouldn’t advertise my presence in front of everyone. But we all have our foibles.

Next, Mr. Ratchett tries hiring Poirot, who refuses. We are then confused immensely as we plunge straight into everyone’s alibi— we don’t know who half the people are. Did I mention all this is excruciatingly boring? Ratchett prepares for bed by loading a gun (Foreshadowing!). In the night, a gunshot sounds. Poirot gets up and hears an exchange between Pierre Michel and Ratchett. (But hold on! The door remained closed! It just screams “A clue, Sherlock! A clue!”) Poirot goes right back to bed. He is later woken up again, and this time speaks with Pierre, who informs him of Mrs. Hubbard’s hysterical declarations that there was a man in her room.

But hold on! The train has been stopped by a landslide! Sacré! The next morning, the obligatory corpse is found, and Poirot comes to the conclusion that the killer must be on the train. (Wonderful! Something finally happened!) The cause of Ratchett’s death: nine stab wounds (the horror!). Anyhow, there follows a conversation between Poirot and Mr. MacQueen. Afterwards, Poirot speaks with Pierre Michel, and then Mrs. Hubbard (and she gives away half the plot then and there by describing herself as an actress). She found a button! (Cue the dramatic music.)

There follows a talk with Mr. Arbuthnot, CEO of some software company. Although Poirot annoys him no end, Arbuthnot still allows him to borrow his laptop. Poirot then uses the computer to research the Daisy Armstrong case. (He played the destroyed tape earlier, and for the seven seconds that worked, conveniently found out it was a news broadcast over the Armstrong case.) In another mind-boggling move from the screenwriters, Poirot reveals that Arbuthnot was involved in the case. He then outlines the case's other participants, clues that simply scream out the solution even to the most dim-witted viewers. Why would anyone in their right senses reveal half the solution midway through the story? This is the part where we’re not supposed to know where anything is headed!

By now, Alfred Molina realizes what a mess of a movie he’s in, and chats with MacQueen. After that, it’s a talk with Foscarelli, who has decided to go and help clear the landslide. Foscarelli is no longer a car salesman— he sells an exercise machine of sorts, and is the most stereotypical Italian you’ll ever see. Watch the actor prepare himself for about 15 seconds to do the classic “kiss the fingers saying ‘muah!’”. His accent is over the top, and he is like the rest of the characters: a bore.

Suddenly a scream rings out! Poirot and Bouc rush away from Foscarelli (who goes back to clearing the landslide instead of following them, although he’s expressed admiration of Poirot and an interest in the case) and find Mrs. Hubbard, who reached for her moisturizer and pulled out a knife. (Shocking.)
The entire movie goes like this. Poirot interviews a bunch of suspects that it is impossible to tell apart. (We are never properly introduced and they are so bland they just tend to mix with each other. I still have no idea who was on board. I just know whodunnit.) The screenwriter makes the stupid choice of revealing bits and pieces of the solution along the way— by the time you find out that a third person was connected to the Armstrong kidnapping case, the twist becomes painfully obvious. Give Christie’s original book some credit— it isn’t her finest work but at least it does a good job hiding the twist! The adaptation has taken all the shreds of cleverness and magically turned them into stupidity.

The modernisation aspects of the film are terrible. Why would Ratchett, a prominent businessman, travel aboard the Orient Express when aviation is so much faster and more convenient? Why does he advertise his presence so publicly and practically target himself for everybody? Why would Arbuthnot lend his laptop to Poirot when literally 15 seconds ago he was angry at him and refused to have anything further to do with him? Why does Poirot need to use the laptop when he remembers the entire case anyhow?

I respect Alfred Molina as an actor— he can be a charming fellow, a scoundrel, or a good man turned to evil for the wrong reasons. In fact, he’s done all three in movies as different as Spider-Man 2 and Chocolat. However, he is the worst Hercule Poirot of all-time. He is completely miscast; he channels none of the original character in his role. His accent is ridiculously fake. His mannerisms, which (let’s be honest) is almost all there is to Hercule Poirot, are non-existent. And, worst of all: when the movie ends, Poirot and Vera Rossakoff reunite. Aww, isn’t romance wonderful? (Baloney!)

All things considered, this is one of the worst Agatha Christie adaptations of all-time. I complain frequently about the more recent adaptations, but really, we should all thank our lucky stars that none of these ever descend to the level of Murder on the Orient Express. It isn't even bad enough to fall into the "alternative classic" domain. It needed to be a lot worse to be entertaining. As it is, it's a dull, dull, dull 90 minutes.


  1. I almost feel like I have to watch this one now, just to revel in the awfulness of it. In the meantime I just taped a Tom and Jerry episode in which they meet up with Holmes and Watson. Can't wait.

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  3. I think I must have purposely wiped my memory of this one. Because the actors all look eerily familiar in the poses and pictures that you've posted...but I can't actually recall having seen this adaptation. Sounds like that's a very good thing indeed. Faulty memory to the rescue for once!

    The one good thing about this movie? It produced your very entertaining review! [Had to fix my very obvious typo...]

  4. Do you really think Christie "does a good job of hiding the twist?" I think it's one of her most obvious ones. Of course these things are highly personal/contextual and it's impossible to forget the solution and imagine what it would be like to not know it etc. etc., but I think she doesn't make much effort at all. (Or rather, I think Christie might think that the solution hides itself by being so strange, so she can present clues quite blatantly. I disagree. But then I think I've always been on Christie's wavelength, because I solved most of her stuff. Maybe I'm one of those "halfwits" Chandler was talking about in his criticism!)

    So I didn't really think this was much more obvious than any of the other adaptations. But I agree with everything else. It's so bad it's actually quite instructional: it shows what happens if you blindly follow screenwriting advice from books without actually thinking about the reasoning behind it.

    It's maybe not the absolute worst Christie adaptation (The Alphabet Murders, anyone?) but I think maybe there's a certain level of awfulness below which we can agree to call it a tie and try to pretend they don't exist!

  5. Crikey, and I thought the Albert Finney film was poor(ish). Is there an explanation as to why there are nine people in the carriage?

  6. I remember you ranting and raving about this movie before, but this (note that I point at the screenshot of "Poirot" as I type this) looks even more horrendous than I imagined. Shame should hang like a noose on everyone who worked on this movie!

    By the way, could you drop me a line on how to get those spoilers to work correctly? I tried it several times, but it keeps messing up my post.

  7. @TomCat
    I used the HTML coding suggested at this page, and slightly tweaked it. As it was encoded, the text was black and the blur was somewhat too small for my liking-- you could make out the words if you looked at it hard enough.

    You can get in touch with me via e-mail to find out what changes I made to the code. It's a bit technical to get into here on the comments section.

    It is explained by using the excuse "well, there are nine judges in the Supreme Court". Which isn't as terrible an explanation as most of the movie's other ones.

  8. @Rich
    I do think this is one of Christie's better twists, although the characterisations are far from great. I think she does a fine job hiding it; I confess I did tumble to the solution, though. I always resented Chandler calling me a half-wit!

    Thanks for the kind comment-- and trust me, you're so much better off forgetting this movie existed! I wish I could slip into such a state of mind! I mean, the frames I took from the movie simply *demanded* to be made fun of... I probably could have done that with just about any frame in this abomination.

    Tom and Jerry are always fun, but this abomination is more dull than entertaining. THE ALPHABET MURDERS, as bad as it was, was at least hilariously bad. This is the kind of movie that's on the lowest level of bad for me: it's so bad that it should be entertaining but it really isn't, not in the slightest.

  9. Hysterical! I have no interest in what Bill is tempted to do. If a movie is laughably bad and I can be entertained sometimes I'll give in, but I'd be so angry watching this I'd probably throw a shoe at my very expensive TV. And I am too poor to replace it.

    I think the other reason for only nine passengers is: CHEAP BUDGET!

    Have you thought of turning this kind of tirade into a regular feature? I suggest the most recent adaptation of MURDER IS EASY starring Jane Marple who, of course, does not appear in the book - the latest trend in Christie TV movies. There's an example of a TV writer letting his imagination run away with him into the 21st century. Ugh.

  10. I *have* thought of doing so, John, but there are very few productions no matter where you stop the movie, you can take a picture and add subtitles to mock the frame. It would probably be semi-regular if I decided to try this kind of thing again.