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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.

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Hitchcock Blogathon #13: Marnie

Dullsville

Marnie (1964)

     For me, the downward path of Hitchcock’s films started with Marnie and the lifting of the Production Code. Hitchcock had been great at sneaking things by the censors or making deals, but when he was finally let go to insert formerly taboo subjects such as rape and prostitution, his films lost their subtlety and classic feel. This is especially true with Frenzy, a film that depicts nudity, rape and strangling all in one scene (although I admit I would like to give this film a second chance). I thought giving Marnie a second chance might redeem it, but I remain resolutely against this film.

     Marnie, played by Tippi Hendren, is a compulsive thief who uses her looks to get jobs in office buildings where she eventually takes off with the contents of the company safe. When she is hired at the Rutland company, businessman Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) recognizes her from her previous job, but takes her on anyway. When she takes off with company money, Mark figures out where to find the woman and forces her to return. He blackmails her into marrying him.

     Marnie has many peculiarities. She is afraid of thunderstorms, the color red, and is absolutely adverse to the touch of men. On their wedding night, the woman cowers in a corner as Mark tries to consummate the union. They agree that they will essentially persist as friends, but a few days later Mark is ripping off her nightgown and forcing the wifely duty out of her. Marnie attempts to drown herself, but Mark finds her in time. The only thing Marnie does like is her horse, which Mark brings to their home. But when the color red sets her into a frenzy while riding, the woman and beast have an accident and she mush shoot the animal. Her next compulsion is to return to the Rutland company safe and hit the road with the cash. Mark catches her and forcibly takes Marnie to her mother, whom he suspects is the source of the woman’s problems.

     It turns out that Marnie’s mother worked as a prostitute near the docks, taking sailors into Marnie’s bed and forcing the child to the couch. One particular night, when a man was kissing on Marnie, the adults have a scuffle and Marnie must save her mother by bludgeoning the man with a fire stoker. The revelation of this story occurs in flashback with Hendren giving the most infantile of all her performances as her loony character reverts to a childlike state.

     I know some people like this movie, but the horrible performances by Hendren and the mother, Louise Latham, make Marnie laughable. Hendren’s behavior when being upset by red objects or storms is so goofy, it is difficult to take seriously. I admit I am far from a Hendren fan, but movies like this are why. The film, advertised as a “sex mystery”, was set to star Grace Kelly, taking a reprieve from the princess life, but she pulled out because the people of Monaco could not abide their royalty enduring rape, even within wedlock. That scene caused trouble among the writers on the movie but is said to be why Hitchcock wanted to do the story, not surprisingly. Writer Evan Hunter wrote both a rape scene and one he preferred that had Mark backing down, and he was fired for pushing for the act’s exclusion. The final credited writer, Jay Presson Allen, however, had no qualms with writing the scene.

     Marnie also seems to be absent any Hitchcockian humor, at least as far as I could deduce. There is no witty dialogue to lighten the mood, which is a true disappointment.

The MacGuffin: The color red.

Where’s Hitch? Entering from the left of the hotel corridor after Tippi Hedren passes by.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

I will be posting reviews of Hitchcock movies every hour ending at 8 p.m. today, but other members of the Classic Movie Blog Association, which is hosting the blogathon, have plenty to offer also. Links to their articles is up at the CMBA site. Check them out!

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