Saturday, May 05, 2012

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

This review is something of a follow-up to my sarcastic play-by-play commentary on the atrocious 2001 TV adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. I wrote many of these comments a long time ago (at least in Internet minutes) when I first saw the episode in question. I have revisited some of these thoughts and edited some. Please let me know if you enjoy reading these articles, and if there's interest, the next time I do one of these I will attempt to prove that Suchet's version of Appointment With Death is really a thinly-veiled remake of The Mummy.

Murder on the Orient Express has been an episode looked forward to by Poirot fans for a very long time. And about the first 18 minutes are as close as you can get to a total mess. The movie begins with an uninspired and boring case to account for Poirot’s presence in Istanbul, which is extremely repetitive in insisting the perpetrator lied (How inconsiderate!). All Poirot does is shout about how much dishonour this man has brought—it’s basically a 1930s way of saying “You’re a disgrace to me, you’re a disgrace to your country, and you’re a disgrace to your momma!” It gets very boring, and the actor decides to commit suicide, which finally gets Poirot to shut up and look shocked for a few seconds. Unfortunately, he doesn’t stay silent for very long…

What annoys me most about this episode is that Poirot does a complete about-face in character with no warning. This is not the same man who showed great compassion to one of the suspects in The Hollow. This is not the same man who shared a touching scene with a woman whose dreams had been shattered in After the Funeral. He has suddenly turned into a religious fanatic—I mean, for crying out loud, how many references were there to his being a Catholic before this episode? Now, he does nothing but shout or deliver lengthy speeches on God’s justice, and even though I’m Catholic myself, it annoyed me intensely. This character is very inconsistent— he shows absolutely no human emotions after witnessing a stoning on the streets, and although he later says he was upset by it (no, really!), he laughs while saying this!!! (One other thing— if Poirot’s religion is so important to him, why in heaven’s name does he smoke while praying the Rosary? Oh for the love of pudding!)

But to get back to the disaster the film’s opening was. I mentioned I hated the credits. If you watch them, you’ll see that the film cannot decide which direction to take the music in. It starts with a solo vocalist singing random, mindless sounds, before fading out in favour of the music. None of this feels like it belongs together. It’s simply awful, and the music that plays is loud, mechanical, and heavy-handed—as though a deaf person was trying to play the Inception theme. It’s a very ugly way to open the movie, and the general atmosphere of ugliness continues for a good 18 minutes.

The first bit of praise I have is with acting, and I give Toby Jones full marks here. He is perfectly convincing as the Mafioso who commits a heinous crime, and now that his life is in danger, he suddenly begins to believe in God (which he thinks of as extra protection). The man is a full-out hypocrite—you can believe it when Masterman says he was no gentleman but a sewer rat with plenty of money. He’s intensely dislikeable, and this is very good when the nature of his (truly appalling) crime is revealed.

Generally speaking, the acting is good, except for two people whose acting was poor or very mediocre. These are Samuel West (Dr. Constantine) and Denis Menochet (Pierre Michel). Constantine, although being Greek, has no accent, which I discovered to my surprise when watching the same segment for the second time. For some reason I thought he had a bad one. But no, I was very much mistaken. His acting is just bad overall. This adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express changes several things, among them deleting the ‘private eye’ Hardman, and replacing his role with Constantine’s. Unfortunately, this was very poorly done. Was it the script or just West’s acting? I’m not sure. Anyways, Dr. Constantine is a dreadful doctor who can’t even count the number of stab wounds correctly, resulting in Poirot’s giving him a lecture on what the corpse really reveals (which actually isn’t too bad of a scene— until you realise Poirot was lecturing a doctor about medical evidence). He’s basically the Hastings of the adaptation, only more idiotic, and whose act of innocence wouldn’t have deceived a six year old. His guilt is obvious from the start, as he keeps trying to throw Poirot off track and making it apparent to anyone. His performance is the worst of the entire episode. Menochet, on the other hand, is very mediocre as Pierre Michel. Despite his clumsy use of English, he uses a lot of American slang in his dialogue, which just ends up sounding silly.

To get back to the film, things pick up as soon as Samuel Ratchett approaches Poirot and hires him for a job, automatically assuming Poirot will do it. Their confrontation is excellent and sets the tone for his murder wonderfully. Well, we go through the night of the murder, and the corpse is discovered. Poirot gives the idiot doctor a lesson in basic medical knowledge (I still refuse to believe that a doctor can’t count to 12), and he goes through a surprisingly good scene where he re-enacts the murder.

We blaze through the interviews and Poirot reveals the solution for a half hour.

OK, this was the adaptation’s worst problem. I thought the Albert Finney film drew things out too much, trying to give all its stars equal amounts of screen time. Here, Poirot barely even interviews the suspects. It’s entertaining viewing, but highly, highly rushed, so we can get to the half-hour drama where Poirot (who suddenly believes the law is flawless in all aspects—to hell with The Hollow or Five Little Pigs!) must decide whether or not to give away the killers. Here is what an interview of his might sound like:

Poirot: “Where, if you please, were you at the time of the murder?”
Dr. Sigmund von Hornswiggle: “I was admiring the landscape from the window in Mr. Ratchett’s compartment. It was the best compartment for doing so.”
P: “Ah, but did you not run into the murderer?”
S: “I’m afraid not.”
P: “Well, I apologise for bothering you, Monsieur. Do you believe in God?”

Poirot rushes through the interviews so he can get to the final half hour of drama, and the mystery suffers highly from it. But even worse is what happens during the final scene. All Poirot does is yell at how evil the culprits have been and how God should have been allowed to administer justice and bla bla bla bla bla. It’s very routine, boring stuff, and despite all of Poirot’s yelling, is relatively lifeless. The screenwriter, Stewart Harcourt, showed much more imagination in his script for “The Clocks”.

The final half hour gets very tedious. It’s basically (a) Poirot shouting (b) Poirot praying or (c) Poirot contemplating. It’s far too long, and it may have been better to simply chop ten minutes of that out and use those minutes to question the suspects more thoroughly.

Greta Ohlsson, one of the suspects, declares to Poirot that “Jesus said ‘Let those without sin cast the first stone’... Well I was without sin!!!” Now that is just horrendous dialogue, only serving to hit you over the head with the God element again. Other bad dialogue appears as well, such as when Mrs. Hubbard declares she wants to “kick someone up the ass” because the passengers are stranded on the train.

Now, I’m going to question the wisdom of the adaptation on a point. It emphasizes the whole theme of injustice of the original novel. Unfortunately, I think the novel had a better way of approaching injustice, as Samuel Ratchett is let off on a technicality. Perhaps the DA’s search warrant hurt his feelings. This seemed to be a clear comment from AC that “the law is an ass”. How could the law allow some really monstrous people to go free because of a minor detail that may not have been carried out to the letter? Well, the adaptation goes another way—Ratchett gets off because the DA is corrupt. I personally think AC’s way of commenting on the flaws of a justice system is far more effective.

There is a very effective final scene in the snow, in which the music finally redeems itself for its atrocious start, with some very nice notes to emphasize the situation. It’s also a good way to end it all.

Hey look-- it's what's-his-face! He contributed so much to the story!

Overall, Murder on the Orient Express proved to be quite disappointing. Its start is atrocious, its characterization of Poirot is inconsistent at best, and the screenwriter shows a distinct lack of inspiration. The whole thing ploughs through the suspect interviews at record speed so it can get to rather tedious and far-too-drawn-out drama. In addition, Poirot does practically nothing but yell when he confronts the culprit. Toby Jones is excellent as Samuel Ratchett, and is easily the brightest spot of the film. It’s entertaining enough for a viewing, but fails to deliver what I’d hoped. In a series of excellent adaptations, Orient Express is easily the worst.


  1. My dissenting opinion:

  2. We had freshmen in a writing seminar read Murder on the Orient Express and watch the David Souchet version. About 85% of the class (and this is consistent over several semesters) were offended by how Poirot is portrayed in the BBC version. They felt that the BBC version was not true to Poirot character. The really disliked the scene where Poirot and Ratchett are praying in a split screen scene. They didn't think that emphasizing religion added anything. We also had a student do a comparison of the BBC version and the film with the Albert Finney and everyone thought the film a better adaptation. I'd say you are spot on in your evaluation.

  3. @Christopher
    I'm afraid we'll have to disagree here. Poirot, the film incarnation, is not the exact same Poirot from the books. I can't remember his Catholicism playing much of a role in the Suchet series at any point in time, and there's only a handful of stories by Christie in which Poirot's Catholicism is important. But suddenly, he's not only a Catholic, he's nearly fanatic! The writers have completely retconned the Poirot who realizes with disgust that the murderer in FIVE LITTLE PIGS will never be brought to justice or the Poirot who decides to keep quiet about the true story at THE HOLLOW or the Poirot who decides not to pursue his case against the culprit in THE CHOCOLATE BOX. And what do we get from this? A badly-written Catholic who speaks entirely in cliches. It isn't well-written, and the effect the adaptation was going for is, as a result, more annoying than anything else. The idea behind the adaptation is interesting, but the execution is awful, from the writing to the acting.

    I can't say I hated the scene, nor was I offended by it. It actually does a good job juxtaposing Poirot's and Ratchett's approach to faith-- one is devout (albeit badly written), and the other considers it merely an extra form of insurance. Watch how Toby Jones looks around him as he prays, and how Poirot is focused-- the two performances do a nice job complementing each other, and it's one of the best "religion scenes". (Much of the credit goes to Toby Jones who is the lone bright spot. Eileen Atkins might have been another one if we got to see more of her, but the filmmakers were so obsessed over the theme of "God! God! God!" that you'll miss her if you blink.) I was far more offended by how badly written Poirot-the-Catholic is, or how he's a bloody imbecile who suddenly gets amnesia about many of his previous cases where he bent the supposedly cast-iron "rule of law". It makes no sense whatsoever-- the Mad Hatter's tea party looks sane by comparison!

  4. Wow, that Greta Ohlsson line you quote is phenomenally stupid. That shows a total incomprehension of that sort of character. I can see that, and I'm not even a theist!

    I honestly couldn't take this episode after the opening sequence, where Poirot was behaving so absurdly. I think the filmmakers were so desperate to do somethign "different" with this famous story that they ended up making a total fiasco out of it.

  5. This was truly an appalling adaptation. It's astonishing that the two weakest adaptations by far are the two really famous novels: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which was so awful I can't bring myself to comment further; and this one, which you - Patrick - have demolished brilliantly. Perhaps the adapters were overwhelmed with their task. Makes you fear for Curtain.

  6. One of the big problems with this production is that it had enormous shoes to fill. Everyone seems to have seen the Finney version and, even if you're not that taken with his performance, it's a text-book example of how to adapt a Christie whodunnit to the screen. The makers of the TV show were stuck with the problem of how to make a version of the story that was true to the book without simply copying the movie, and in this case they failed lamentably. One of the problems with the more recent POIROT adaptions is that the makers don't actually trust the original material. They look at the other TV period detective stuff (like FOYLE'S WAR for instance)and decide that the Christie stories aren't 'serious' enough. They don't have obvious political or sociological sub-texts, and they feel that they need to put them in. This approach reached its nadir with CARDS ON THE TABLE a few years ago, where the plot was twisted around in order to allow the adaptor to create the story that he wanted to tell. In this case we had Poirot behaving completely out of character in order to allow the adaption to explore stuff about religion and the rule of law. I don't mind watching stuff where this is dealt with, but here it's just applied over the original material like a thick coat of paint. Some of the more recent stuff has been quite fun, and I just hope that the remaining stories are dealt with more delicately than this.

    Toby Jones is great, isn't he? I've seen him in quite a few things recently, and he always turns in good performance. Shame that they couldn't give him his own detective series (but which famous detective could he play?)

    Mack May: I don't suppose that it really matters, but the Suchet Poirot series is not made by the BBC. In the UK there are 5 channels (BBC/BBC2/ITV/CHANNEL4/CHANNEL5).The two BBC channels are funded by a compulsory tax. The remaining are commercial channels carrying advertisements (although there is some government funding of CHANNEL4). Poirot is made by ITV in association with other production companies. The Jeremy Brett/Sherlock Holmes series, the original UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS, MIDSOMER MURDERS, FOYLE'S WAR are all ITV productions,whilst SHERLOCK, NEW TRICKS, DALZIEL AND PASCOE, DEATH IN PARADISE and many others are BBC. I have a number of American friends, and they all make the same assumption...if the actors have British accents, then it must be the BBC. It's good for the BBC, but it must annoy ITV an awful lot!

  7. Patrick, great to have you back bearing your teeth again - ROAR! And my goodness this lousy TV adaptation really deserve to get it in the neck (though as you say, Toby Jones is wonderful as the American - but then, he's fabulous in everything). I'm, on the whole, a big fan of the Poirot series made by ITV (not the BBC, as Sexton so rightly points out) starring David Suchet, but in fact there was a bit change in the making of the show circa 2003, which is when Japp, Hastings and Miss Lemon were removed, as was most of the production personnel that had been with the original show since 1989. These later movie-length adaptations are much more variable in terms of quality, much camper and theatrical and to my view a lot less successful, barring a few happy accidents.

  8. Actually, I knew that MOTOE wasn't a BBC production (Wikipedia told me) but when I wrote my comment I was thinking about what the students said and they have a tendency to associate all TV productions from the UK with the BBC and I slipped.

  9. Mack: That's okay! If the students make the BBC/ITV mistake, then I'm sure that a lot of British viewers don't really understand the difference between NBC/CBS/FOX/CABLE etc. In general, I've felt that Mark Gatiss is the best of the recent adaptors. He does make changes, but they tend to be in sympathy with the original stories. If they don't bring back someone like Anthony Horowitz to do CURTAIN, I hope that the job goes to Gatiss. What does everyone think?

  10. Fascinating. When I deigned to criticise the Suchet Poirot adaptations - and this is one of the ones that has constantly put me off them, I got it in the neck from some people. So glad I'm not alone. Like Curt, I couldn't make it past the first twenty minutes.

    Having said that, given the highly artificial set-up of the mystery - not one of my favourites by quite some distance - I'm not sure how one does a good film version of it.

  11. I do think the filmmakers seem daunted when there are earlier film versions form the 1970s and 1980s. They feel the need to do something "different." They botched Appointment with Death too and Death on the Nile, both Ustinov films. Death on the Nile was so gay-campy in the most artificial Noel Coward sense it just was ridiculous, in my view. Murder on the Orient Express, on the other hand, distorted Poirot's character with all the Catholic angst stuff.

    Sometimes the serious approach works. It worked very well with some of the the very late thirties/forties books, like The Hollow, Sad Cypress and Five Little Pigs, because Christie herself made these more serious. Even Mrs. McGinty's Dead and After the Funeral, which ere less serious books, were entertaining (although a lot of the humor of McGinty was lost).

    But some of them have been disasters, I think, like Express, Nile, Appointment, Flood, Blue Train, Cards. Even Suchet can't save them.

    At least we still have Suchet. With the Marples in my view they still haven't solved the problem of how to replace Joan Hickson. Miss Marple Mach II was misconceived (Bohemian sprite) and Miss Marple Mach Two is just boring. I mean no aspersions on the actresses, who are good actresses. They just don't "get" Miss Marple like Hickson did.

  12. @Curt:

    I honestly do not think previous adaptations forced the makers of Poirot to do things differently. It has just become a product of its time.

    When the series began, they were focused on the short stories (light hearted and fun) and the more famous movies, starring Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, were only a little over a decade old and I think recreating the Orient Express or the Karnak would've been too expensive, back then, for such a series.

    Unfortunately, when the time finally came to film these masterpieces, drab "realism" has become all the rage with these writers (as well as with Christie's current publishers with their dark, brooding covers and blown-up letter sizes to bloat-up the books to match an Elizabeth George or Ruth Rendell novel), but had they been filmed during the early 90s the result would've been entirely different.

    On a final note, I would've forgiven this botch of a movie if it had included the scene Patrick dreamed up with Dr. Sigmund von Hornswiggle.

    Or even better yet... they should’ve kept Poirot off-screen until after the murder when they suddenly remember that there's a world famous detective among the passenger and immediately go to his compartment to request his help until the proper authorities can take over the case. When they walk into the dim, candlelit room, air is filled with the smell of incense, and there, on the floor, cross-legged (full-lotus), sits Hercule Poirot – head and face completely shaved and only a white bedspread covering his naked body.

    Who cares if a story is good or bad, when Buddhist Poirot is on the case!

  13. I'm afraid I don't share your views of Toby Jones' performance in this film. I thought it was a bit overdone. And the idea of a Chicago mobster pulling off a kidnapping/murder in New York and using that state's legal system is ludicrous beyond belief. The major New York mobs would not stand for it, considering that organized criminal organizations went out of their way to commit the kidnapping of wealthy personages.

    The filmmakers used the wrong cars to make up the Orient Express. They had the car attendant Pierre Michel serving breakfast to Poirot in the dining car.

    And that final scene inside the Pullman car with half of the cast (Suchet included) hamming it to the ninth degree was embarrassing to watch.

  14. ["One of the problems with the more recent POIROT adaptions is that the makers don't actually trust the original material. They look at the other TV period detective stuff (like FOYLE'S WAR for instance)and decide that the Christie stories aren't 'serious' enough."]

    I cannot agree with this comment, because the "POIROT" producers were footlose and fancy free with the TV movie adaptations from the 1990s - the Hastings/Japp era.