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Murder on the Orient Express

Ring a Ding Ding

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.



Ring a Ding Ding

Cabaret (1972)

     I was a bit blown away by Cabaret as I engaged in my first viewing last night. I had avoided the musical despite is obviously jazzy style and music because of a … we’ll call it fear of Liza Minnelli. I will attempt not to delve too deeply into my opinions of her as the film itself warrants much discussion, but being this was my first Minnelli exposure (outside Arrested Development) I was highly distracted by the woman herself.

     Given that Minnelli in her more recent years has become a seeming lunatic and butt of jokes, I had no particular desire to see any of her films. However, any young person could say the same about Elizabeth Taylor and be forever ignorant of the monstrous career she had in her younger days. I find it difficult not to instantly draw comparisons against Minnelli’s mother, Judy Garland. Their voices are similar and Liza occasionally affects an expression similar to her mother, but I dare call the daughter a mutant version of Garland. Minnelli’s singing voice is decidedly different from Judy’s in most ways, thankfully. Although I would call Minnelli’s character in Cabaret fairly obnoxious, her performance grows wonderfully as the film progresses.

     Cabaret takes us to 1930s Berlin where American Sally Bowles is working as a headliner act in a small club where she sings and dances. The film commences with Michael York as Brian Roberts meeting Sally when acquiring a room at her boarding house. The two become fast friends, but when Sally –who has already professed a love for sex– puts the moves on Brian, we learn he thinks he is gay. Fast forward a few scenes and Sally manages this time to stir sexual desire in her companion and the two become lovers. Sally, who longs to become an actress, has a penchant for flirting/sleeping with any man who might be a producer or otherwise affiliated with the German film company Ufa. Although this makes Brian mildly jealous, it is not until wealthy Maximilian Von Huene (Helmut Griem) begins courting Sally –with Brian always in tow– that we see the sting of cuckoldom. When Max finally abandons the duo after showering both with gifts, we learn that indeed both Brian and Sally had been sleeping with him. In the midst of all that, a penniless friend, Fritz (Fritz Wepper), falls in love with a wealthy young woman, Natalia (Marisa Berenson) and struggles to convince her to marry him.

     In the backdrop of life’s adventures for this group is the rise of the Nazi party. Although we are entreated to the occasional glimpse of their presence, the upcoming trouble is not mentioned until Natalia says she cannot marry Fritz because she is Jewish. The subject matter increases from that point on with a musical display in a country town and finally a most unsettling and impactful close to the film.

     I have always generally lumped all musicals into the category of comedy. Even those with particularly dramatic storylines usually have a large amount of laughs. Cabaret broke the mold in that regard (Although now that I think about it, Cabaret could be better described as a music movie, because it contains no spontaneous breaking into song. All numbers are performed on the stage within the confines of the plot). Some very unique editing works to juxtapose scenes of gaiety, usually musical numbers, against Nazi brutality. The song selections arranged against the goings on in Sally’s life also manage to convey greater meaning, such as the protagonist singing about finding a man who might stay after first sleeping with Brian, or vocalizing about money upon meeting max, or a number about threesomes. The editing, which won one of the eight Oscars for the picture, is truly genius. The film contains nothing but plain, sharp cuts between scenes. Whereas standard filmmaking uses fades between scenes to show the passage of time or wipes to show a change in scenery, Cabaret moves quickly from one place and time to another and even inserts unrelated images to covey a greater meaning –giving me chills at times. The editing reverts to the neanderthal techniques of early silent films, which is a rather brave endeavor.

     Although I would still not declare myself a Liza fan, I can understand why she won the Best Actress award. The movie also took home statuettes for set decoration, cinematography,  score, sound, and Director Bob Fosse, and Supporting Actor Joel Grey (the master of ceremonies at the club). Cabaret set a record of receiving the most Academy Award wins without claiming Best Picture, which went to The Godfather.

Source: Robert Osborne

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