Saturday, 12 October 2013

Episode-by-episode: Murder on the Orient Express

(c) ITV
This episode was based on the novel Murder on the Orient Express, first published in 1934. It was adapted for television by Stewart Harcourt and directed by Philip Martin. (Beware of SPOILERS).

Script versus novel
Context
Opinion is particularly divided on this episode. That is hardly surprising. We are, after all, talking about  Christie’s most famous Poirot novel, which just happened to be adapted into an Oscar-winning big screen movie, directed by Sidney Lumet, in 1974. Not to mention the fact that this was one of the most intensely anticipated episodes of the ITV series. With this in mind, Stewart Harcourt faced a near impossible challenge when adapting this novel. How do you adapt one of the most famous crime novels in crime fiction history and avoid comparison with the successful 1974 film? And how do you make exciting television, when most people already know the solution?

 I’m not an expert on scriptwriting and the adaptation process. But it seems to me that anyone adapting a famous, universally acclaimed masterpiece is faced with two options for, or approaches to, the source material. They can (a) decide to write a plot-centred adaptation, focusing on Christie’s famous ‘puzzle’, or (b) explore the broader themes of the text and emphasise the characters in relation to those themes. Both approaches can be seen in adaptations of a number of famous novels and plays. Anything by Shakespeare is the prime example. In the case of Murder on the Orient Express, Harcourt was faced with some constraints – but also some considerable advantages – that probably had an impact on the choice between these two approaches. I’ll look into these before I come back to Harcourt’s script. 

Let’s look at the disadvantages first. A new version would inevitably be facing time constraints. Agatha Christie’s Poirot is, after all, a television series. It has to fit into the broadcaster’s strict schedules. ITV have scaled down the length of these adaptations over the years (presumably to make room for more ad breaks within the two-hour time slot). The first ‘feature length’ episodes lasted about 100 minutes. This was cut down to 93 minutes in the later years. The most recent series of episode (the one we are eagerly awaiting) has an average adaptation length of 89 minutes. Anyway, the point is that this version of the novel had about 90 minutes to play with. In comparison, the 1974 film had 128 minutes. Secondly, the small screen version could never match the ‘all-star cast’ of the big screen version. Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, John Gielgud (I could go on forever, really). Nor could it match its budget. Hollywood and British TV are two completely different things.

So what advantages did this new version have? First, the team had the opportunity to make a more authentic version. By that I mean they could largely go for less known (but highly skilled) actors, some of whom actually shared the nationality of their characters. Second, they had some money (this version cost about £3 million), but more importantly, they also had the latest special effects technology, and a highly skilled production team who had been working on these period dramas for more than two decades. Third, and most importantly, they had David Suchet. The Definitive Poirot. An actor who, by this point in time, had had 64 episodes to research, explore, develop and portray every nuance of Christie’s character. That was always going to be the big selling point of this version. And I think that’s why they decided to explore  themes and characters.

The crime fiction plot – the ‘puzzle’ – had been wonderfully brought to life in the two-hour 1974 film. Most people know (or know of) the solution because of that. What this version could bring to the table was an exploration of characters, themes and motivations. Most importantly, it could explore the mind of Hercule Poirot, a character the viewers had become so familiar with over the last two decades that there really was no need just to explore his eccentricities (like the film, and the novel, to a certain extent, do). In the article ‘Love, Crime, and Agatha Christie’, Mark Aldridge explains:

The power of [this adaptation’s denouement] lies in its further context, specifically the fact that Suchet has played the part since the program began in 1989, portraying Poirot as a reserved character, precise and unemotional. The sudden fury therefore becomes a shock to the audience, indicating the extent to which this one case has affected him. [...] His emotional response can only have real resonance in the television series, where the audience has had over twenty years with the character and actor and are fully aware of the importance of the truth to him whatever the implications.

Scriptwriter Harcourt decided to emphasise the themes of justice and morality in the novel. In an article he wrote for the Daily Mail, Harcourt outlines the themes of the adaptation (and, in turn, the novel):

When I was writing it, I found myself thinking about the McCanns. What would happen if they knew who had taken Madeleine and that person was cleared of the crime? What happens to people when they feel justice has been denied? How far is it legitimate to go? Here are 12 good people who have lived blameless lives until they find themselves in the middle of nowhere to take vengeance. A child's life has been taken away and these people, who have put their faith in justice, have been let down.
They are incapable of going on with their lives until they achieve closure. For the fastidious Poirot, this puts him in a quandary. Should he turn them over to the police, or has justice been done? 

(c) ITV
The changes
With this context in mind, it’s time to look at the changes Harcourt has made to the plot. He adds an opening scene, in which Poirot witnesses (or indeed causes) the suicide of a soldier. This is actually mentioned in the novel (‘A very distinguished officer had committed suicide’), but in a different context. As “therebelprince” over at The Agatha Christie Reader puts it, this scene ‘allows us to drop any pretence of Poirot simply being a ‘white knight’, as he is asked to question his own intractable belief that the truth, and a narrow view of justice, is all that matters’. Next, there’s a conversation between Poirot and another soldier, who escorts him to Istanbul (not at the train platform, like in the novel, but on a ferry). The soldier thinks the suicide was unjust, but Poirot objects that it was the dead man’s own choice to lie. This further emphasises Poirot’s sense of right and wrong, which will be challenged later on. He trusts his own sense and right and wrong. Moreover, Harcourt adds a stoning scene in the streets of Istanbul. This has been heavily criticised. I can agree with that criticism, to a certain extent. This isn’t typical Christie. It adds a serious aspect to the story that wasn't there in the first place. However, I’m inclined to support the addition. It highlights the dilemma that Poirot will later be facing, and it brings the questions of the law and  the jury system to the fore. Who are the 'savages in the street' and who are 'twelve good men and true', and what differentiates the two senses of justice?

As Poirot arrives at the hotel in Istanbul, he doesn’t immediately recognise M. Bouc. In the novel, they are old friends, but here he’s just another acquaintance who Poirot barely remembers. The following restaurant scene (and Poirot’s first encounter with MacQueen and Ratchett) is removed. Instead, we get some scenes that show the threatening letters discovered in Ratchett’s hotel room. The Taurus Express (that was removed from the opening scenes) is mentioned by Miss Ohlsson, who has just arrived by that train. As the passengers board the train, we learn that Mary Debenham has a limp arm (we later learn that this was caused by the important events in the past). Later, a conversation between Miss Debenham and Poirot on justice (in light of the stoning) is added. Once again, this highlights the central questions of justice and morality that Harcourt has decided to explore.

Moreover, Dr. Constantine, the Greek doctor, has become a Greek obstetrician living in America. We later discover he has also been made a culprit to the crime; he replaces Mr. Hardman, who has been deleted. The change and deletion of the character is perfectly understandable. Harcourt reduces the number of characters because of the limited screen time. Also, it’s in keeping with other Christie plots to have one of Poirot’s ‘helpers’ become a culprit in the crime (see, for instance, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or The ABC Murders).

The famous line, ‘Forgive me for being personal - I do not like your face’ has been removed. However, it’s very clear from the exchange of looks between Poirot and Ratchett that the essence has been kept. Moreover, Ratchett is seeking penance. He has turned to God for protection (“an extra gun”). This was certainly not in the novel, but I think it works here, because it increases the dilemma Poirot is eventually faced with; does it make a difference if the guilty party is repentant? Also, later in the film, we see Poirot with his rosary, praying. Even Ratchett prays. Again, opinion has been divided on these changes. Many viewers dislike the addition of religion to Poirot’s character, but that should hardly be news. He proclaims himself a bon catholique throughout the novels, and in the series there have been references to his faith in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, Taken at the Flood, Appointment With Death and Third Girl.  This is the same man who proclaims to Hastings in Peril at End House, I will not sit back and say ‘le bon Dieu has arranged everything, I will not interfere.’ Because I am convinced that le bon Dieu created Hercule Poirot for the express purpose of interfering’. It is my métier’. As mentioned, I also think the change to Ratchett’s character, making him a repentant criminal, adds an important aspect to Poirot’s subsequent dilemma.

Once the murder has occurred, Poirot is somewhat reluctant to take the case on. Some viewers might find this surprising. In the past, Poirot has always jumped at the opportunity of solving an interesting case, and this can certainly be said to be interesting. Again, I think this change makes sense in light of the experiences he has had before he gets on the train; the suicide and the stoning. Also, we are watching a more world-weary Poirot. This is, after all, set in the later years of his career. Both these aspects explain why Poirot is more reluctant than usual. He is disturbed by the recent events and disillusioned by the persistence of crime and murder despite his efforts to ‘rid the world of crime’. His overall irritated state should also be attributed to the environment he finds himself in. As Chris Chan points out, Poirot strongly dislikes cold, damp environments, and he can get very grumpy if he is forced to endure them. See, for instance, the adaptation of ‘The Mystery at Hunter’s Lodge’ or Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Suchet’s acting is perfectly in keeping with the earlier episodes on that point.

(c) ITV
Generally speaking, all the interviews are shortened down. Significantly. As earlier mentioned, this is mainly because the length of this adaptation was restricted (like most of the feature length adaptations) to about 90 minutes. It’s understandable, but it would have been nice to see some more of the actual investigation. Still, the 1974 film is fairly faithful to that part of the story, so fans could always watch that one if this is a particularly crucial loss. Some viewers, especially Americans, have complained that the adaptation as a whole feels particularly rushed. I can share some of that frustration, but I think the main reason behind it is that PBS, the channel that airs Poirot in the US, cut several important scenes from the adaptation, including the red kimono clue, Poirot’s arrival on the train and bits and pieces of all the interviews. No wonder it felt rushed. But of course the time constraints I have already mentioned contributed, too.

There are several minor changes as well, e.g. combining some of the interviews, the lack of water/heating/electricity I mentioned earlier, and Helena Goldenberg becomes Wasserstein (Waterstone in English – the 1974 film chose Grünwald, Greenwood). Also, Miss Ohlsson is more religious than in the novel (she has strong opinions about Catholic penance and forgiveness as opposed to Protestantism), but then she did have a faith in the novel, too (‘That there are in the world such evil men. It tries one’s faith’). But let’s turn our attention to the denouement.

If the interview sections were shortened down, the denouement and its aftermath is given more prominence than both the previous film and the novel.  Poirot and the culprits enter into a lengthy discussion on justice and the rule of law, linked in part with religion. While this was never present in the original story, I think it’s a natural extension of the themes of the novel. This is a story about justice, about doing ‘the right thing’, and about the grey areas of right and wrong. Is Ratchett any worse than the others? If he is, then what is it that makes us so sure of that fact? What is the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ kind of justice?

Harcourt adds a crucial scene in which Colonel Arbuthnot is about to kill Poirot and Bouc, but he is stopped by Mary Debenham and the others. Some say this is completely out of character. In a way, I suppose it is. But the scene is added, I think, to prove a point. This might be what tips the scale for Poirot. Miss Debenham says that if he kills them, ‘he’s no better than Casetti’, and she urges him to remember that ‘we don’t do what is wrong’. The difference between Ratchett/Casetti and the 'jurors' is that they accept the course of justice once Poirot has revealed the truth. They wanted justice for Daisy, but they are unlikely to repeat the act, because that would make them as bad as Ratchett.

 Of course, this is a difficult decision to make, and Poirot doesn’t let them go light-heartedly. Some fans have objected that he is too troubled by the decision in light of other cases in which he has let the guilty party get away with the crime (e.g. The Double Clue, The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly, The Chocolate Box). There are two important points to be made here. In the two first cases, we are not dealing with murder, and the culprits return what they have taken/stolen. In the third case, the culprit is deadly ill, and Poirot is merely postponing the truth. Second, in all three cases, there’s only one culprit. Here, Poirot is faced with more culprits than in any other story. And it’s murder. So there’s a noticeable difference between the situation he is faced with in Murder on the Orient Express and the ones he faced in these short stories. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s important to bear in mind that Poirot is a more world-weary man here. He returned to the ‘ghosts’ he tried to escape in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and recent events prove that the world hasn’t become a better place, even with him present to ‘interfere’. By this point in his career, he might very possibly be facing serious doubts about his raison d’etre, especially when faced with a case unlike any other.

In summary, scriptwriter Stewart Harcourt has remained true to the essentials of the story (all the characters bar one are there, the interviews are there, the solution is the same etc), but he has also added several scenes to emphasise and further explore the themes of the novel (justice, morality, and by extension religion). He has emphasised character complexity over plot, which is an option that was open to him because of the two decades of adaptations. The team, Harcourt, and David Suchet, had the confidence that the audience would know the character inside out. All in all, I think this is a successful attempt at reinterpreting a classic. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close at it can get.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Philip Martin was a good choice as director for this adaptation. In collaboration with cinematographer Alan Almond (who should be given credit here!), he manages to convey the sense of confinement the train has to offer. Camera angles, lighting and colours all create a specific atmosphere. The use of close-ups increases the tension, and I particularly enjoy the way certain shots convey the exchange of looks between the culprits throughout. Production designer Jeff Tessler and his team should be given due credit as well. The recreation of the Orient Express is absolutely perfect and completely believable. Some of the CGI shots feel slightly artificial, but that can hardly be blamed on anyone in the crew (that’s a money issue, more than anything else). The actual locations used, apart from the train set at Pinewood Studios, include Black Park Country Park (the scene in the woods), Nene Valley Railway (?, the train exterior), St. Ursula Street in Valetta, Malta (the streets of Istanbul), and the Freemason Hall (Tokatlian Hotel reception). Christian Henson’s soundtrack for this film is absolutely outstanding, echoing the rhythm of the train and story and culminating in a particularly poignant end scene (“Redemption”).

Characters and actors
Many fans have argued that Suchet’s portrayal is inconsistent in this adaptation. They refer to his anger, his mood, his religious attitudes and the lack of his eccentricities. As I have tried to outline in the script section, I’m not of that opinion. His anger and irritation is perfectly natural given the situation he is put in (the moral dilemma, the challenge to his raison d’etre, the unwelcoming, cold and uncomfortable environment). The religious element is in keeping with Christie’s character, but it has been played up in recent years as a way for Suchet to explore new territories with the character. His eccentricities are still there (the eggs of the same size, the moustache wax, his vanity etc), but they are naturally overshadowed by other themes. [See my analysis of David Suchet’s achievement for more details].

As to the guest cast, there’s not much to say. Most are perfectly suited to their characters (e.g. Eileen Atkins, Toby Jones, Jessica Chastain, Barbara Hershey). I particularly like the fact that they have tried to use actors who are actually German and French for actual German and French roles – with important exceptions (even though both actors are good and work well for the adaptation, Briton Joseph Mawle doesn’t really come across as Italian, and Canadian Marie-Josée Croze isn’t entirely convincing as Swedish). It’s difficult to pick a favourite here, but I think Chastain proves why she has gone on to achieve greater fame since this adaptation was made.

45 comments:

  1. This was the First Christie book I ever read, back when I was 13 or 14 and I was impressed at how much of the book is actually kept in this adaptation, sometimes it’s only the odd reference, like the toothache or altered passport, but most of it is all still in there (at least on the DVD, It's probably missing from PBS).

    I didn’t mind the Religious / moral / law battle either, it has basically been lifted from TAKEN AT THE FLOOD, as it's missing in that adaptation. I haven’t read it, but I know enough about CURTIAN to know that this does need to be introduced to the series at some point.

    But I also understand why people wouldn’t like it, if you have only read Christies most famous novels then poirot being catholic jumps out of nowhere, especially this kind of battle, It’s probably not the best idea to add it to the most well known story.

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    1. I agree that the religious / moral / law battle possibly could have been better suited to other stories. It was certainly a bold choice to emphasise it in this adaptation, as this is the Christie story that most people know quite well. But, as you say, they would have to introduce these things at some point anyway. Otherwise the themes in CURTAIN would definitely jump 'out of nowhere'. Also, I'm sure we would have had a very diferent adaptation if it had been made earlier (they couldn't, since the rights were tied down until 2008 becuase of that 2001 adaptation...). As it is, the story had to suit the later stage in Poirot's life. We have moved on from his 'private detective' years here. Still, I fully respect that others might think differently. It's not difficult to understand why this adaptation has divided people.

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  2. I thought this was a really good adaption. The stoning scene felt a little bit too forced for me, but worked within the context of the episode. Of the actors, the ones that stand out to me were Mary Debenham, but also Princess Dragomiroff.

    I've never understood the complains about the ending (where it almost destroys him to let them off), as in my opinion the book where he lets them off was a bit too contrived - a bit out of character for him.

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    1. I agree. I always felt the 'oh, that's all right, then' ending was contrived in the novel. He is not the kind of character that would let the guilty party go free easily. But again, I respect that others might think differently.

      Eileen Atkins was excellent as Princess Dragomiroff!

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    2. I agree - the ending to the book is far too glib, and, while it's neither one of my favourite novels nor episodes, at least here the ending addresses the moral dilemma involved and makes it dramatic.

      Can I just say, though, that I disagree that some actors being the same nationality as the characters is particularly an advantage; if an actor can play another nationality convincingly, that 's all that matters.

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  3. Excellent article Eirik. This is one of my favourite late-era Poirots. Very dark, but as you say it suits the development of the character very well. I love the way there is an overall arc to Poirot's character development over the years.

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    1. Thank you, Jimmy! It's one of my favourite recent episodes, too. The character arc of Poirot is one of the things that make this series so special, in my opinion. It has allowed Suchet to shine, and it has allowed us as viewers to grow fond of and care about the character that Christie described as a 'bombastic tiresome little man'. That's quite an achievement on the part of Suchet and the team.

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  4. http://www.itv.com/presscentre/ep1week44/agatha-christies-poirot-dead-mans-folly#.Ul1bylBJOBI

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  5. Thanks for your excellent blog!

    I am one of those who didn't like this adaptation due to its added seriousness and (in my opinion, anyway) unnecessarily heavy emphasis on religion. The change in Poirot's character is too big for my taste, and inconsistent with Christie's writing. Even Curtain isn't this dark and brooding - melancholy, yes, but up until their very last interaction Hastings and Poirot still keep their sense of humor and Poirot's struggle at the end is clearly more of a moral than a religious nature. He speaks at length of his "disapproval of murder", of protecting the innocent, following the law, doing the right thing, and the religious aspect of it all is covered in two short sentences. His mention of "le bon Dieu" has always been in passing in the novels.

    Poirot's moral dilemma in letting the murderers go in this adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express doesn't ring true to me, either, for a number of reasons:

    One, he doesn't have any proof anyway so he knows they can't be convicted, meaning he actually HAS to let them go (now, this could be said about many cases so this is by far my weakest argument). In the original, he presented two solutions and let the head of the railway company decide which one to give to the authorities. It solved the problem and left Poirot with a clear conscience as, technically, he was not the one lying to the police.
    Two, he has let criminals escape justice not once, but on many occasions before, proving that his view on the legal system isn't as obsessively rigid as this adaptation tries to portray (The Double Clue, Johnny Waverly, Chocolate Box as mentioned above but also Wasp's Nest, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Peril at End House and Death on the Nile if I remember correctly). Given those circumstances, it is difficult to understand why this particular case, where the murderers are comparatively likeable, the murder victim a complete monster, and there is no way of knowing who actually dealt the fatal blow, would present a major moral dilemma for Poirot.
    Three, he doesn't lift a finger when, earlier in the episode, a woman is stoned to death by an angry mob for being unfaithful (which in itself seems very out of character for Poirot, since here he witnesses a murder and does nothing about it, not even report it to the local authorities). So if he could look the other way then, why did he have a problem doing the same thing later on in the same episode, when there were even extenuating circumstances? Maybe the writers (or Poirot) were under the mistaken assumption that impromptu stonings were perfectly legal in (secular!) Turkey in the 1930s.

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    1. Thank you for this! It's great to hear a dissenting opinion. I was expecting different opinions on this episode, and your points are well-argued. I won't go into a long discussion here (we'll just have to disagree, which is fine), but I'll comment briefly on your three main points.

      One: Like you said, this is possibly the weakest argument. This could be said about a number of Poirot stories (quite a few stories don't have 'realistic' solutions in the sense that the culprit(s) are brought to justice almost without a shred of evidence, just Poirot's assumptions). Surely, what matters is that Poirot (on a personal level) knows the truth, so even if he can't convict them, the principle should be the same; clear the innocent and catch the guilty. Whether they can be convicted is an entirely different matter. Similarly, I always found it hard to believe that Poirot would walk away from the dilemma by passing it on to the railway company. Poirot, as a champion of justice, wouldn't walk away if he knew the truth (in my opinion, anyway).

      Two: Yes, he's let criminals escape before.The first three I've discussed above. In Wasp's Nest he prevents a murder before it is committed, and the culprit is a dying man. In Ackroyd, he is postponing justice (not letting the culprit escape it) for the sake of the sister, and the culprit committed suicide. In Peril at End House, he allows the culprit to commit suicide, but she is revealed as the culprit before that, in front of the police and several witnesses. In Death on the Nile we have a similar situation. The culprits are revealed before they commit suicide. Personally, I think the differences between the four cases you mention and MOTOE is that no innocent suspect is convicted in their place (in Peril and Nile the culprits are revealed before the suicides, in Ackroyd the police work with Poirot so that no one else will be arrested for the crime, and in Wasp Poirot intervened before anything happened, so he's strictly speaking not a culprit). In MOTOE, Poirot runs the risk of allowing an innocent man be convicted (if a man matching the mafia description is ever found by the police). The fact that the victim was unlikeable and the culprits likeable shouldn't really be an element of his decision if it's the truth, the innocent and the guilty that matter. But of course that's what makes the dilemma difficult.

      Three: This is definitely a valid point. As I write in the blog post, I suppose the reasoning behind that scene is to question Poirot's sense of justice. What makes one thing okay ('she broke the rules and she knew what that would mean') in his eyes, and another unacceptable ('if we behave like this we become just savages in the streets')? I agree that this might represent an over-simplification of Turkish culture in the 1930s, to assume that stonings are the legal and rightful way to 'convict' the criminals.

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    2. One thing that's kind of glossed over in the book and perhaps in the 1974 movie as well, but more recognized here, is that Poirot and Bouc are somewhat at the conspirators' mercy! Moral issues aside, it might have been SMART (from a self-preservation point of view) to make them feel secure that he would not turn them in.

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    3. It is true that in most other instances where Poirot has consented to cover up the truth about a murder, the murderer commits suicide - it's almost like a bargain is made ("I'm only covering up for you if it's for sure you can't kill anyone else.") The Double Clue, of course, is MEANT to seen as an atypical situation for Poirot - but I think it's also important to note that Countess Rossakoff does no one any bodily harm.

      Now, in other cases the possibility that a thief will murder so as not to be found out as a thief is discussed (Cards on the Table and Blue Train, for instance). But I assume Poirot feels Countess Rossakoff is not capable of that - because we the viewers don't get the impression that she is. Despite not being a paragon of honesty, she does seem gentle. And let's face it, if she were inclined towards killing off someone who had found her out, she had some opportunities to do it to Poirot!

      On the other hand, I don't think she returned all the jewels. Poirot kind of says to her at the picnic, in his subtle, hinting way, "I need those jewels back if I'm going to cover up for you." But all Japp found was the necklace from Hardman's. What about the rest of the items?

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    4. The criminal Poirot allows to go free in Death on the Nile is Tim Allerton.

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    5. Rocky Elvestad10 July 2015 at 16:32

      He also lets Rowley off scot-free in Taken by the Flood.

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  7. I have very mixed feelings about this adaptation. There were aspects of it that I liked - some of the casting, especially Samuel West, Barbara Hershey, Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Chastain, Eileen Atkins, Denis Menochet, and Brian J. Smith. I also liked the fact that the costumes are less theatrical than in the 1974 version.

    However . . . there was still a lot of this episode I didn't like. One, the entire train is made up of Pullman cars. Two, Suchet's performance came off as over-the-top, especially in the last half hour. He made a great Poirot. But so did Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney. There is no "definitive Poirot" as far as I'm concerned. There were other performances that I didn't like - including David Morrissey, Serge Hazanavicius, Joseph Mawle, and Marie-Josée Croze. I was especially put off by Toby Jones' portrayal of Rachett. There was something off about it. And I found it hard to believe that a Chicago mobster like Rachett could commit a major crime in New York (Long Island) like kidnapping without any consequences from the New York mobs. Worse, organized criminals did not engage in the kidnappings of wealthy private citizens back in the 1930s, due to fear of attracting State and Federal law enforcement attention. I didn't care for the religious undertones or the scene featuring the stoning of the Turkish woman in Istanbul. I found them unnecessary.

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  8. What I did not find to be in character was Poirot's cavalier dismissal of the stoning of the adulteress, and his judgmental attack on Hector's father for "rigging" a trial (under duress.) I didn't think Poorit was that rigid, morally. And clearly, the friends and relatives of Daisy viewed Hector and his father as fellow Cassetti victims...not as conspirators with Cassetti. Has anyone seen the 2002 version with Alfred Molina? VERY updated and pretty out-of-character...and it include Vera Rossokoff!

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    1. What I mean is, I thought Poirot had taken more liberal views of adultery and sexual indiscretions on other occasions.

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  9. I am ok with making the decision more of a struggle than it was in the book...but I think here they went a little TOO overboard with Poirot's righteous anger. It's not the only time we've seen him get emotional, or self-righteous about murder, but this was...a little TOO much. Especially when you consider this group's motive versus the motives of others he's uncovered. So he's madder about people "taking the law into their own hands" and killing a known, vicious criminal who caused them great grief, than he is about people who cold-bloodedly kill their nearest and dearest for money?

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  10. I believe, in the book, Mrs. Hubbard / Linda Arden offers to take the fall on everyone's behalf. Did they change it in this version so it was the Russian princess who made that offer?

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  11. Poirot has a tendency to "play God" throughout the series and the books: he makes his own judgements about how culpable everyone is, and who deserves what punishment - and then he devises ways to punish them. But he's not always consistent - for example - he was willing to help save the crooked politician from exposure in Augean Stables, for the sake of the party and the successor politicians -but in Patriotic Murders he says that even though he does approve of all Alistair Blunt has done to keep England stable, "Poirot is more concerned with private individuals who have the right not to have their lives taken."

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    1. To be fair, in Augean Stables, the argument presented to Poirot is that saving the politician is necessary not just for the party but for the country's stability. Of course, that still depends on one's personal political opinions, but he doesn't do it to protect the man or his party.

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  12. Isn't the outcome of MOTOE in a way consistent, perhaps not with Poirot's usually approach to resolving cases, but with Christie's overall approach to murder, and to her killers and victims? Doesn't she almost always manipulate us into liking the killer better than the person they kill - even when it's done for money or cold-bloodedly? Dr. Liedner literally crushes his wife's head...and somehow, we're supposed to feel sorry for him because it was so tortuous being in love with her? Give me a break? And while Poirot doesn't necessarily let him walk...there is an implied sense of sympathy...I don't see the moral outrage there. Almost always, there is a sense that either 1) everyone who is affected by the person's death is better off for it, or 2) the murdered person had nothing more to get out of life anyway (i.e., Laura Welman). Jackie deB is a sympathetic character just because she wanted the money for someone she loved instead of for herself?! Ditto Miss Lingard (particularly as Ruth seems to have made a decision to go through with her marriage despite the risks...was the money so important to her?)

    Strangely, one of the exceptions is Paul Renauld (in the original book, at least - he's more of a jerk in the adaptation). He has a murder in his past - and yet, somehow, we're supposed to see him as a good guy. The book suggests he was conned by Jeanne into believing that her husband was abusive, but that means, at best, that he took the law into his own hands. The adaptation doesn't really even give him that excuse.

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    1. And many times gamblers, womanizers, or other people of dubious character become the protagonists and it's kind of seen as a good thing that their problems are solved by the murder (Rupert Carrington / Derek Kettering). Do you notice, also, that the families/spouse who communicate most thoroughly and interact most warmly are (usually) the ones conspiring to commit a crime or cover it up?

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  13. @ Juanita's Journal...for some reason, I almost expect families like the Armstrongs to be connected with New York mobs. There have always been rumors about the Kennedys, for example. And also, there is no doubt that having a child kidnapped and murdered like that would be absolutely horrific for any parent...but it's rather ironic how the Armstrongs are portrayed as these innocent victims here, when they are so similar to the screwed-up rich families whose buried resentments and secrets provide the backdrop for so many of Christie's "domestic" murders.

    Put another way, what makes Ratchett/Cassetti the worst of the guilty, and the Armstrongs the most innocent of the innocent?

    Very interestingly, the 1974 and 2002 version remove the corruption of the legal system: in the first, a henchman of Cassetti's who actually carried out the act of killing Daisy got arrested and convicted and he named his boss only before his execution. In the 2002 version, Casetti had great lawyers who "got him off on a technicality," but there's no suggestion anyone was paid off or pressured.

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    1. ["for some reason, I almost expect families like the Armstrongs to be connected with New York mobs. There have always been rumors about the Kennedys, for example. And also, there is no doubt that having a child kidnapped and murdered like that would be absolutely horrific for any parent...but it's rather ironic how the Armstrongs are portrayed as these innocent victims here, when they are so similar to the screwed-up rich families whose buried resentments and secrets provide the backdrop for so many of Christie's "domestic" murders."]



      I cannot accept your comparison between the Armstrong and Kennedy families. The Kennedys did not possess the same level of social acceptance and respectability that the Armstrongs would have possessed in real life. Also, Christie made NO HINT that Colonel Armstrong had business ties with the New York mobs. And three, Rachett was still a Chicago mobster. Which meant that as a member of the Mafia, he would never kidnap the child of a respectable and wealthy man like Armstrong without attracting Federal attention. As a member of the Chicago mob, he would not commit an act of kidnapping on the New York mob's turf. Such an act would cause a great deal of friction. And this only tells me that whoever wrote this screenplay, did a shoddy job overall if he or she would allow such a thing to happen. I will even go as far as criticize Agatha Christie for making Rachett a member of the mob. If he was a criminal like George and Kate Kelly, John Dillinger or Alvin Karpis . . . yeah. But a member of organized crime wouldn't do such a thing. It's not about morality. It's about having the common sense not to attract Federal attention.

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    2. I guess my point is, respectable, high society families could also be involved with the Mafia or other shady or even criminal dealings. And they could certainly be personally dysfunctional. That was the case for many of Christie's rich and aristocratic families. But here, the Armstrongs (who are similar in class and the types of people involved) are somehow the most innocent of the innocent, making what Cassetti did to them all the more evil. In fact, as I have said, I think the conspirators' genuine love and caring for one another is part of what moves Poirot to let them off.

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  14. You know what jumped out at me? How did Ratchet let himself end up at the mercy of so many people connected with Daisy? He tells Poirot he knows he's in danger (mostly due to letters he's received) but he doesn't seem to know who any of his fellow passengers are? And most importantly, if he pressured McQueen Senior, prosecutor, into cooperating by threatening Hector's life, how could he then not know who Hector was before he (Ratchett) hired him? Hector wasn't even using an assumed name.

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    1. Yes, that for me, is just the beginning of what's wrong with this book and its adaptations. Ratchett doesn't recognise any of his fellow passengers. A conspiracy involving thirteen people, some of whom have never met and live in different continents, organised and carried out in meticulous detail and with none of them ever cracking, having second thoughts or even refusing to take part in the first place. Not to mention the coincidence of Poirot's presence not only on the Orient Express (in the very carriage where the time takes place) but also on the same train as two of the conspirators on the way there. Then, of course, it's set in a very limiting location and NOTHING ACTUALLY HAPPENS. There's a murder, Poirot interviews the suspects, then he reveals what really happens and lets them all off. And the book just stops, suddenly. Whereas the TV adaptation goes over the top in trying to remedy that. Why is this the most famous Poirot story? I've never understood its status. It may not be the worst book, but it's among the weakest.

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    2. Stuart makes a lot of good points which I'm not inclined to argue with - EXCEPT for "some of them have never met" - most of them lived under the same roof with each other either as family members or household help. I believe in the novel it is said that the only one not on the scene when the kidnapping and other deaths happened was Pierre.

      The group's solidarity is unusual in a verse where, in most households and social circles, either everyone hates each other or the interaction is so superficial that no one really knows anyone or can confide in each other about important things. It's the more unusual when you take into account the different nationalities and classes involved.

      In fact, do you notice that almost everyone makes a negative comment about someone based on nationality...but I guess it's all part of the act?

      I actually get the feeling that the group's feelings toward each other and cooperation are part of what wins Poirot over to their side.

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  15. There is, however, a definite difference between Poirot's stance here and in The Chocolate Box. It is true that there the killer is terminally ill, but Poirot does not just say, "There is no point in convicting and hanging someone who is going to die in six months anyway." He expresses actual ADMIRATION for the killer's actions - using phrases like "moral courage," and "sacrifice" and "acting for the greater good."

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  16. And other example where Poirot kind of approves of a crime: Celia of Hickory, Dickory Dock steals to attract the interest of a budding psychologist, and Poirot says, "A girl is entitled to use desperate measures to get her man." Interestingly, the books also contains Poirot having a little memory of Countess Rossakoff...though not at the same point he's unmasking (and defending) Celia - earlier on when he finds one of the other female students UNattractive.

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  17. I don't think it happens in the adaptation, but in the BOOK Appointment with Death, Nadine Boynton tells Poirot she has heard that he "accepted an official verdict" in "that affair of the Orient Express"(!) (there are contradictory references in the books as to how well known both Poirot himself and his cases are) and Nadine argues that the case is similar to the current one because both victims were evil. And Poirot responds with his usual "Hercule Poirot does not condone murder" stance and speech.

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  18. Poirot insistence that the prosecutor should have let justice be done in open court...even in the face of pressure from the mob, does contradict solutions to cases like Roger Ackroyd, where the murderer is put out of commission permanently (with the same penalty he would probably have gotten from the justice system at that time), but Poirot didn't insist that the justice system actually be used.

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  19. It seems that, except maybe for Linda Arden, none of the passengers connected with Daisy used assumed names. So if the police talk to any of them or even know who they are, they should have SOME suspicion.

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  20. I think one difference between MOTOE and some of the other cases mentioned is that here, Poirot takes a far more active role in concocting a fake solution and giving it to the police. In some of the other cases, Poirot tells the police the truth but they don't let it leak out to the public due to the killer's suicide or illness (i.e., Ackroyd) OR, there is no case or investigation as such (Wasp's Nest) OR the police aren't involved or aren't interested in what Poirot has to say (Chocolate Box - at least, the adaptation). So, he doesn't have to actually TELL out-and-out lies to the official law enforcement.

    Both AnnMagda and Eirik make good points about the proof...if he really can't prove anything than maybe he's not doing anything wrong by keeping quiet...except that in many other cases he hasn't been able to prove it either. Poirot has this kind of supernatural omniscience, where he's often right about how a crime happened even when the evidence is lacking or actually contradicts his theory. Ditto his knowledge of what secrets people are keeping...and what people are like whom he's just met.

    But in other cases, his "knowing" is good enough for the police, at least, for those who are his friends or admirers (even when it really shouldn't be.)

    There's also the fact that Poirot's life is, in a real sense, in danger while he's trapped with these people. (I can't believe he drank tea they'd prepared, after telling them he knew!)

    I was very interested to realize that we can't hear what he's saying to the Yugoslav police at the end. We can hear enough to know he probably gave them the fake story... and his reaching for his rosary beads suggests he feels guilty about what he said...but you realize how easy it would have been to leave the ending open to interpretation completely.

    I feel like this case should be the last one before Labours and Curtain, maybe even after Labours. Because I have a hard time believing in the direct action Poirot takes in Curtain...but on the heels of this one, it becomes more believable.

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  21. Only Hercule Poirot could drink tea prepared by someone he knows is a criminal - even a murderer - and live! (I hate to say it, but that crossed my mind during the picnic scene in Double Clue, too, even though I know the Countess most likely wouldn't have hurt him.)

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  22. Having watched Curtain, I realized that we do not see anywhere near the degree of emotional torment on Poirot's part there that we do here. He says in Curtain he is not sure if what he has done is right - but the anguish doesn't equal what we see here. And he seems pretty much to have made up his mind early on.

    That's kind of odd, when you consider that here (in MOTOE), he is being asked to lie by omission about someone else's murder, and here the victim's own murderous nature is beyond question. In Curtain, he actually has to do the deed himself (in a rather brutal way) and although he is convinced Norton is evil, it is less unambiguous to the average person watching. That should have been harder for him to decide than this.

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  23. As much as this adaptation tries to focus on the moral dilemma, it also conveys a strong sense of Poirot not really having much choice - he is at trapped with the killers and at their mercy, and it is also doubtful what proof he has.

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  24. [" Why is this the most famous Poirot story? I've never understood its status. It may not be the worst book, but it's among the weakest."]


    I have to agree with this statement. The best things about this particular story are the setting . . . aboard the glamorous Orient Express and the tragedy of a child's death serving as the killers' motive.

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    1. Not that we actually get much of the glamour of the Orient Express. That had never occurred to me before reading your comment, but when you think of it, it could really be any sleeper train, and any glamour is pretty much wiped out by being trapped in the snow. Perhaps that's part of what's missing. I wonder why Christie didn't spend time giving us the glamour first, considering how famous the train is and was at the time.

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  25. The thing that bothered me in this episode was how the character of Poirot was irritating to watch.

    The whole moral decision aside, I can't remember two scenes of him smiling, he looks bored, irritated, like he really really doesn't want to be there, he doesn't show actual interest in the case once, and looks a bit loony with the whole religious angle. And it also made me feel that way: bored and uninterested. If the episode is so dark that it becomes boring, than the darkness should be alleviated.

    This is not a good change to the character who has had a sense of humor and was not so tormented by the moral decisions and was such for almost two decades. If you want to have a darker Poirot, you should make a new Poirot universe and not change the character so drastically so late in the series.

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  26. Having just watched the 1974 Sidney Lumet film again (after many years), I realise quite how radical the new 2010 version must have seemed on its first airing, especially with its bleak (and incredibly effective and affecting) ending. The setting of the 1974 production is very beautiful and perhaps not quite so slavishly Art Deco as in the new version (the glass panels in the Dining Carriage look as if they had been hand-chiselled by Lalique) and the cast is stuffed to the gills with Hollywood stars (with Vanessa Redgrave absolutely radiant as Mary Debenham). However the ending is such a terrible Hollywood cop-out, with lots of smirks and smiles of self-congratulatory luvvydom set to the swirling strains of Richard Rodney Bennett's overlush score. Albert Finney's acting is absolutely frightful throughout - one minute he minces around with a bad neck as if he was Quasimodo and the next guffawing loudly as if he was Mr Creosote in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life" (the one who explodes having eaten just one more 'wafer-thin mint'). His accent varies from the school of 'Allo 'Allo to being almost totally incomprehensible. To think he was nominated for an Oscar !! However that year the judges also overlooked Jack Nicholson for "Chinatown", Al Pacino in "The Godfather Part 2" and Dustin Hoffmann for "Lenny", awarding the Oscar to Art Carney for "Harry and Tonto" a film which has certainly not stood the test of time. The new 2010 version is better (to my mind) in almost every way.

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  27. First of all, we have to admit that indeed, the novel has logic flaws. There is no way Cassetti would not have known that at least some of the Armstrong family/circle were on board that train. The reader also must suspend disbelief to accept that such a large number of people could have gotten together at the same time as a man accustomed to being a fugitive. Christie pulled off a very bold "cozy/enclosed set" style story here, possibly the first in which all the suspects are proven guilty.

    I was fascinated by the producers' choice to make this adaptation a dark, morality story. I am not troubled by Poirot's moral crisis which was conveniently left out of the original story. This case is not the moral equivalent of others in which he "lets the culprit go." In The Chocolate Box, the culprit executes her son because he has a definite plan to disrupt his society, and as she is dying, will meet heavenly justice soon. (In addition, Poirot has no standing to make an arrest, as he was removed from the case.) Later he lets Countess Rossakoff go after she returns the items she has stolen. In other stories he allows the killer(s) to execute themselves, which meets the necessity of justice.

    The two introductory scenes - the court martial and the woman being stoned - obfuscate the issue debated later in the film because they are both instances in which people who live under stringent systems (military conduct rules and Islam) each Chose to transgress their systems (even if seen by outsiders as unfair).

    This case is unique however, since it consists of a group of people who have conspired to set themselves in lieu of legal authority. That's the point he makes in his summing up scene (which I really like, showing all of them huddled together to keep warm, listening to P. quietly elucidate the case, rather than rant like Finney did). And then Miss Debenham repeats the same basic argument - of not stooping to a lower level of humanity. It's just that P. set the bar at a much more rigid level than the others do. When he decides to accept their interpretation of justice, it seems to me reminiscent of The Chocolate Box - that he feels the killers have suffered enough and will continue to suffer from their consciences.

    I would have been perfectly happy with a straight remake of the truly horrible 1974 version ( a collection of caricatures trying to upstage one another, and Mr. Finney destroying what should have been a charming character) but this dark and nuanced version fits today's trend toward much more complicated story lines. Incidentally I think it is a shame that in 2017 MOTOE will be made Yet Again!

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About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at poirotchronology@gmail.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)