A Tale of Two Murders

Between the increasing availability of titles for streaming, and my expanding DVD collection (yes, I’m a Luddite: I like to own copies of my favorite movies just as much as  my favorite books; they’re not quite as tangible, but I do like the way they look on a shelf), I’ve begun to fantasize about home-made film festivals:

  • Coming-of-Age Night: Boyhood, Moonlight, Lady Bird
  • San Francisco Night: Vertigo, Milk, What’s Up Doc?
  • A Little Touch of Nicholson in the Night: Chinatown, Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining

I’m still working on the Streep Soirée, but the choices are too many; I think that may have to become a whole series, maybe one for each accent.

Last night I spontaneously got the whole thing rolling for unexpected reasons. After watching Kenneth Branagh’s immensely unsatisfying remake of Murder on the Orient Express on HBO, I was moved to immediately find Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version to see precisely where Branagh had gone wrong and get the bad taste out of my mouth.

Fortunately, Lumet’s classic version, which I hadn’t seen in decades, was available on Amazon Prime. And so the film festival was inaugurated.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel, though there was a time when I was a great devotee of Agatha Christie, so I can’t be positive whether Branagh’s differences from the Lumet version are actually more faithful to the book. But if you get to pick and choose, then choose wisely. Given what I know about Christie in general and Hercule Poirot in particular, I think it’s safe to assume that Poirot was not intended to be a superhero, chasing one suspect through the supports of a railway bridge, engaging in fisticuffs with another, and taking a bullet in the shoulder in the process.

Those moments in the remake smack of an attempt to appeal to a modern audience more accustomed to Marvel comic movies than a period piece that takes place within the genteel confines of the Calais coach. Why do directors think that “opening up” a story is, by definition, a good thing? I’m reminded of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, using Busby Berkeley dance numbers and—god help us—3-D to completely upend what is primarily an intimate story about a few human beings confronting their own moral quandaries. (More disclosure: for all I know, Luhrmann’s messterpiece may have turned genius at some point in its 2+ hours, but I couldn’t make it through the assault of the first 10 minutes.)

Other differences in the plot in Branagh’s version of the story were innocuous enough (combining the colonel and the doctor into a single part, turning another character into a grieving father rather than a grieving brother), and I rather enjoyed the director’s visual pyrotechnics. In one scene, various characters are shot through windows, which reflect their faces to suggest their duplicity; in another scene, the camera is positioned at the ceiling, heightening the mystery while suggesting Poirot’s godlike ability to spot the truth. Less successful are the anachronistic bones Branagh throws to political correctness with references to racism that seem the moral equivalent of the chase scenes—little more than an attempt to make the story feel more contemporary.

It’s a visually beautiful film, despite the obvious use of CGI—which may or may not have been called upon for Branagh’s mustache—but, when compared to Lumet’s version, its beauty is only skin deep. The first thing you notice about the 1974 film, by contrast, is the verisimilitude. As each character parades through the station in Istanbul, dodging fallen oranges and insistent gypsies on their way to board the train, we see ugliness along with the glamour. It feels real, and it feels like 1934. You can practically smell 1934.

Unlike what passes for a mystery these days, Murder on the Orient Express is primarily a story about character. The heart of the piece is Poirot’s interviews with the suspects. For no apparent reason, Branagh moves the interviews around—one takes place absurdly over tea in the middle of the snow—whereas Lumet keeps them inside the train, all but one in the dining coach. The confined space lends an intensity to each scene and gives the actors a chance to shine—if only because Lumet grants them more dialogue than Branagh can afford, what with all those chase scenes and self-indulgent camera angles. Compare Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance, thanks to the complexity of her nuanced character, to the breadcrumbs the later script offers to Penélope Cruz, an accomplished and talented actress who could have done so much more if she’d only had a part to play.

Even though every character lies through his or her teeth in the interviews, we still learn something, we still see cracks in their armor. And Lumet brings the solution together slowly, whereas Branagh telegraphs it all a bit too much, leaking the ugly truth out faster than the Trump White House. When the big reveal comes, he has the suspects aligned behind a long table—bizarrely, in a tunnel on the tracks rather than inside the eponymous train—conjuring an image of the Last Supper, I suppose, with Michelle Pfeiffer’s ringleader in the role of Jesus.

The climax of Branagh’s film is dispensed with before you can say “mustache wax,” so it was quite wonderful to see Lumet devote a good 45 minutes to the scene. As Albert Finney and his excessively pomaded head move through the dining coach, pulling the truth from one suspect after another, the audience is riveted—not only by the complexity of the mystery, but by Poirot’s methodology in solving it. This is, of course, the genius of the story: character, not spectacle.

Which raises the question: why on earth do people remake classic films? Remake bad ones, please: maybe someday, somebody will get The Great Gatsby right. But unless you’re going to add something significant, remakes are an exercise in futility. I’m just waiting for someone to decide that we really need to see Citizen Kane in color. Starring Dwayne Johnson, of course.

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