Behind the Scenes: Murder on the Orient Express
By Susan Doll
Sidney Lumet’s career autobiography, Making Movies, is my favorite bio about a director. His insightful but unpretentious account offers no salacious stories about wild parties and loose women, no vindictive recollections about past slights, and no sad stories of a woeful childhood. Instead, Lumet recalled the production of his movies in great detail, providing insight into the process of film production.
Lumet, who was part of the Film School Generation, is acclaimed for his pointed social dramas in which society’s institutions brutalize, betray, or forsake the characters, including Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Serpico. While Lumet did describe the production and meaning of these films in detail, he was equally forthcoming with a much lighter movie — Murder on the Orient Express.
An adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s wildly popular Hercule Poirot mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express was released in 1974, which was the height of the Film School Generation’s innovation and exploration into film form and content. Murder on the Orient Express was a throwback to the glamour and fantasy of old Hollywood, which the Film School Generation generally eschewed. As much as I love the films of the 1960s-1970s, I remember just how serious, difficult, and downright pessimistic they could be. After a steady diet of dark dramas, unheroic protagonists, and unresolved endings, Murder on the Orient Express was like a welcome breeze in an overheated room.
Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 version of Christie’s novel is currently making the rounds of cable and streaming services, and while I like his interpretation, Lumet’s film has a timeless quality that makes it a true classic. This timeless quality results from Lumet’s decision to steep his adaptation in nostalgia. It was the guiding word for all departments working on the movie, from the period set design by Tony Walton to the satiny Art Deco titles in the opening credits. Nostalgia was behind Lumet’s decision to use an all-star cast of glamorous, old-school Hollywood icons and established British actors. The cast included Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Richard Widmark, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Rachel Roberts, Jacqueline Bisset, and Michael York. Lumet decided that even the supporting players should be treated as larger than life, so small roles were given to big-league actors such as Jean-Pierre Cassel and Colin Blakely. Old-timer George Coulouris, who played Thatcher in Citizen Kane, made the most of a bit role as the doctor who examines the body of the victim.
The star-studded cast of Hollywood stars and British stage actors were tossed together in a Grand Hotel-type story that could have resulted in a clash of styles and egos. But Lumet reminded each member of the cast that all acting styles have something in common, which is the art of truly listening to their fellow actors as their characters and then responding in kind in character. According to Lumet, the stage actors were star-struck by the movie stars, and the movie people were impressed with the stage performers, particularly Finney, Gielgud, and Redgrave who were acting on the London stage in the evenings and working on Murder on the Orient Express during the day. Ultimately, the cast worked extremely well together. Lumet decided to echo the more melodramatic acting of the Golden Age, particularly for those archetypal characters with less screen time, such as Bergman’s Swedish missionary or Connery’s British soldier. Even Finney played Hercule Poirot broadly, exaggerating his fussiness and aloof manner. Lumet’s decision to heighten the melodrama turned stereotypes into memorable characters through the efforts of seasoned actors and old-school stars.
Ingrid Bergman, already a legend, was showcased in a key scene that finds her timid character interrogated by the determined Poirot, a scene that Lumet captured in a single continuous take of about five minutes. Finney is impressive in the concluding sequence when Poirot discloses the truth to the other characters while key scenes of the murder are re-played under his voice-over. Finney’s monologue runs 17 minutes. His character becomes increasingly agitated as his narration continues, illustrating Finney’s ability to control and sustain the emotion of the scene. Bergman won an Oscar for her performance as the meek missionary while Finney was nominated for his turn as Poirot.
Lumet worked closely with cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth to create “the sheer physical beauty” that was the director’s goal for the look of Murder on the Orient Express. Unsworth used a long lens to soften the image in general; sometimes, he opted for backlighting to highlight the mystery, glamour, and romantic nostalgia of the material. But the cinematography is more than just an appealing, romanticized vision of the past; it subtly guides the viewer’s perception of events. For example, some events are depicted twice. The characters’ participation in the murder is depicted early in the film, but we don’t understand the significance of their actions. Later, during Poirot’s lengthy revelation, we see their same actions in context of the truth. Unsworth shot the first version of the events with a normal lens, which approximates the normal vision of humans; he shot the second version in a wide angle lens, which subtly distorts the image. Viewers may not be able to recall or articulate why, but the scenes shot with the wide-angle lens will seem different, or “off.”
The opening scene of the characters boarding the Orient Express in the Istanbul station was shot inside a shed in a railroad yard outside Paris. Inside the shed, a six-car train consisting of antique cars from Brussels and an old-fashioned engine from the Swiss Alps masqueraded as the luxurious Orient Express. The most stress-inducing shot was the last one in the scene in which the train leaves the station, because Lumet and Unsworth had only one chance to nail it. As the train leaves the station, it moves toward the stationary camera, gradually increasing speed until it rolls past. The camera pans slightly left on the Wagon Lits logo on one of the cars, then stops to catch the rest of train as it flies by. (Wagon Lits constructed the luxury cars for European railroads.) The shot ends on the tail lights of the last car as it disappears into the darkness.
The opening scene was scheduled to be completed on a Sunday night, including the final shot. Finney, Redgrave, and Gielgud were flown in on Saturday night after their stage performances in London on the condition that they be back in London on Monday. In addition, the cast and crew were supposed to vacate the shed by 8:00am Monday morning when the railroad company needed the space. After the actors were finished around midnight, it was time for the final shot. Lumet had till 5:10am to complete the final shot, because that was the time the sun would start to rise. The hours ticked by as Unsworth and his crew worked to light the cavernous space. He completed the lighting at 4:30am, which gave them 40 minutes to get the shot. Fortunately, the careful preparation paid off, and the shot went off without a hitch. The success of the shot was dependent on camera assistant Peter McDonald, who racked focus on the Wagon Lits logo as the train rolled past the camera.
Lumet confessed that the production of the film was exhausting, recalling, “You’ve never seen anyone work so intensely on something meant to be light in spirit.”
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).