Legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie became a hot property in the 1970s, much as E.M. Forster would become in the ’80s and Jane Austen in the ’90s. Though Christie’s murder tales had been filmed before, director Sidney Lumet’s film version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974) started a franchise of all-star cast adaptations of Christie’s work that would lead to DEATH ON THE NILE (1978) and THE MIRROR CRACK’D (1980).
In addition to the unrecognizable Albert Finney’s Oscar-nominated turn as detective Hercule Poirot, the all-star cast includes Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Martin Balsam, Richard Widmark, Wendy Hiller, Michael York, Jacqueline Bissett, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins and Ingrid Bergman’s inexplicable Oscar-winning performance as a mousy, fearful, Bible-toting former maid.
The film’s title says it all as Poirot attempts to solve the murder of an American millionaire (Widmark) aboard the Orient Express bound from Istanbul to London in 1935. The film is too long and too talky but it’s fun for awhile to watch the gaggle of stars pass by. And when all else fails, just kick back and listen to Richard Rodney Bennett‘s sublime music.
Originally Lumet wanted the score based on famous 1930’s popular songs, but Bennett begged him to do a “real” score. As Bennett says in the CD liner notes, “I felt very strongly that the opening of the film, the main titles, should give one the sense of excitement and anticipation that one felt at the theatre, as a child, before the curtain went up. I remember saying to Sidney, ‘No one’s frightened by Agatha Christie, in 1974…we have to give them the feeling that they’re about to see a terrific entertainment.'”
The main titles combine the sound of one of Bennett’s childhood heroes, Eddy Duchin, with the sound of those great movie piano concertos (e.g., Warsaw Concerto) from the 40s. In an interesting side note, Bennett said, “Incidentally, I had the words of the film title itself in my head when I wrote the trashy main theme. Nevertheless, the music publishers, in a moment of aberration, had a lyric written to it which began, ‘Silky, there is murder in your eyes.'”
After the bright and breezy overture, things turn immediately more serious as we see the kidnapping of the Armstrong baby and the accompanying newspaper headlines, each one punctuated by forceful chords over the undulating high strings. The mystery is also complemented in the music during the murder and flashback scenes, providing suitable contrast to the upper-class lightness of the two main themes. Bennett even uses the bass clarinet to ominously turn the main salon theme on its ear.
My favorite musical cue occurs with bells, tremolo strings, an orchestral flourish and a puff of steam as the Orient Express waltzes out of the Istanbul station with With an orchestral flourish and a puff of steam, the Orient Express waltzes out of the Istanbul station with the most memorable theme in the entire score. For that particular scene, Bennett was inspired by Stephen Sondheim A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. (Sondheim had recommended Bennett for MURDER.) Bennett remembers: “There was a certain amount of moaning from train aficionados over the fact that the sounds of the train were minimal because of all this music, and a loud cry from Bernard Herrmann—‘Bennett has got it all wrong! This was a TRAIN OF DEATH!'”
I’m thankful that he got it “wrong.” Bennett went on to win a BAFTA (the British version of the Academy Awards) and should have won the Oscar as well.