The Devils

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The Devils (1971)

When the Hollywood decency code lifted and opened way for the rating system we have today, the 70s became flooded with naked flesh. During that time, nudity used in an unsexy or unartful way often was the reason a movie was considered a horror film. The Devils is such a case.

The true story is a drama about the extent the Catholic church under Cardinal Richelieu went to remove a priest who also had control over the one town blocking the cardinal from taking over all of France in the 1630s. The only reason I can see the flick being relegated to the horror genre is because of scenes featuring a large number of nude nuns. The movie was considered, and perhaps still is, highly controversial because it also features the top sister at the church sexually fantasizing about Jesus/the priest.

The Devils is actually a very well made movie with fantastic sets and a wonderful performance by Oliver Reed as the priest, Father Grandier. At the picture’s start one cannot help but loathe his character. Although the head of the church in Loudon, Grandier is depicted as very lustful, with one of the town’s young women pregnant after an affair with him. Grandier dismisses her concerns and tells her to bear her sin with religious fortitude(Georgina Hale).

The man nevertheless finds a plain, pure woman that he marries in lieu of an affair. The girl, Madeline (Gemma Jones), is considering entering the nunhood, but he persuades her otherwise, hoping to find salvation in the love of a good woman. The marriage, however, enrages the head nun, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). This hunchbacked woman is highly sexually repressed and cannot stifle her love and obsession with Grandier.

Her rage leads her to tell authorities that Father Grandier has had a sexual relationship with her in her dreams, which leads to questions of possession of the nun by Satan. With all the women of the church now suspect of possession by the devil, they relish in the opportunity to run about naked, acting crazy and enduring exorcisms. The king calls Grandier to the capitol and is set on destroying him. Grandier became Loudon’s ruler when the governor died and has refused Richelieu’s demands to tear down its walls and forfeit its independence. Having been accused of outrageous crimes, Grandier can nevertheless not prove his innocence and he is put to death for his alleged crimes.

The story is a very frustrating one as Grandier becomes a largely sympathetic protagonist under a system of guilty until proven innocent. It is remarkable, however, that the plot is written to shift our character preferences around. Although at first Sister Jeanne seems like a sad character worth our affection, she soon becomes increasingly sinister while Grandier’s offensive lifestyle is shadowed by the wrongs committed against him.

The Devils is a great movie, but not a terrifying experience like those you might be seeking this time of year. It has its unsettling moments, but it is more a quality drama with a degree of controversial nudity.

Murder on the Orient Express

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Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

I love Agatha Christie mysteries. They are so convoluted and complex and rely on that oft-used plot ending during which the detective explains to us what happened –because there was no way we pieced it together ourselves. Murder on the Orient Express was finally made into a movie in 1974 with Christie being unwilling to allow a film version while the Production Code threatened to wipe out many essential plot elements.

Murder on the Orient Express enthralls us with a large, all-star cast, which is an approach repeated with Christie’s Death on the Nile that starred Bette Davis and Mia Farrow, to name a few. An almost unrecognizable Albert Finney plays our Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot who happens to board a train, the Orient Express, where a murder will take place with far too many suspects to deduce a simple solution.

Our victim is one Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark) who approaches Detective Poirot seeking protection hours before his death. The man, who is mysterious about his line of work, has been receiving threatening notes. He is killed in his bed in the cabin beside Poirot’s; although, no struggle is heard.

What Poirot soon deduces is that Ratchett was the man behind the kidnapping and killing of the daughter of a famous aviatrix. The abduction did not just result in one fatality, however. A maid was falsely accused of involvement in the crime and commited suicide. The distressed mother died in childbirth, during which the infant also passed. The father killed himself from grief.

On board the train car where the murder occurred are many seemingly unconnected passengers including: a meek missionary Greta (Ingrid Bergman); the obnoxiously talkative Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall); an elderly Russian Princess Draganoff (Wendy Hiller) and her companion Hildegarde (Rachel Roberts); Ratchett’s secretary McQueen (Anthony Perkins); Countess Andrenyi (Jaqueline Bisset) and her husband (Michael York); Colonel Arbuthnott (Sean Connery); the mysteriously sad Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave); a Chicago car salesman Fiscarelli (Denis Quilley); conductor Pierre Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel); Ratchett’s bodyguard Hardman (Colin Blakely); and Ratchett’s valet Beddoes (John Gielgud).

All passengers are ultimately discovered to have motive for the crime as their individual identities are revealed. In the end, however, Poirot will tell authorities that the mafia was involved in killing Ratchett and that the culprit departed the train during its lengthy stop awaiting the clearance of a snow drift, but that’s no spoiler.

The story of Murder on the Orient Express does a great job of supplying us with tidbits of information and a variety of clues, but not all of the evidence is actually related to the crime, making it impossible for us to form our own conclusion. The advantage movies have over books –and one not always employed in these types of mysteries– is that the flick can show us via flashback what actually happened rather than relying on us to make sense of a rambling written or spoken explanation. Murder on the Orient Express takes advantage of this to great dramatic end.

The flick is not without its laughs as Finney brings a good deal of humor to the silly detective who sleeps with hair nets on his oily black locks and stylized mustache. Bacall also stands out as the loud and flamboyant actress, and Bergman is surprising in such a plain, timid part. Hiller as the Russian Princess is frankly quite terrifying with her powdery white skin and her rolling, biting accent. Her manly maid played by Roberts is also intimidating.

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