Sunday, August 15, 2021

Murder on the Orient Express (2017).

I'm sort of lat to the party on this one.  I first got to learn the particular joys that come from reading detective fiction sometime around my elementary schools years.  It was around then that I first made the acquaintance of the inhabitant of 221B Baker Street.  It was one of those gateway experiences that is able to both introduce the novice to the mystery genre as a whole, as well as grant them access to a host of similar authors, and their respective fictional shamuses.  From the fog swept lanes and alleyways of Conan Doyle's London, I soon found myself migrating to the gritty mean streets investigated by Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.  From there, as best I recall, it's sort of been all points in between since.  I haven't made anything like an authoritative, all-encompassing exploration of the Noir or Mystery genre as a whole.  I think it's like I've gotten close to reading and listening to enough stories in this particular neck of the woods in order to start forming my first, nascent ideas about what this type of story is, and what it's up to.  I think a lot of what's helped me in this regard is just how closely related Noir fiction is to another favorite childhood standby, the Horror genre.  It seems to me that both types of writing share the same Gothic sensibility at their core, which perhaps explains the sometimes casual ease of overlap between of these respective, yet related stories.

Looking back on all this now, I'm sort of surprised at just how much info I've been able to put away on this subject.  In addition of Doyle and Chandler, it's curious how a lot of other great yet forgotten fictional names keeps coming back to me now.  Off the top of my head, the list would include: Leslie Charteris's Simon Templer, a.k.a The Saint; a superhero precursor known as The Shadow, who was portrayed by Orson Welles, of all people; then there was Richard Diamond, Private Detective; Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade; Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons; Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe; and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Then of course, there was the gradual acquaintance of giants in the Suspense field such as Robert Bloch, James M. Cain, and John D. MacDonald.   The point is I seemed to have stumbled my way through or towards a very casual kind of literacy in the Detective genre.  There seems to have been nothing intentional on my part.  The only thing that seems to have guided the whole thing was a Gothic fan following what seemed at first like vague trace elements of the terror tales I loved growing up as a boy.  If there was even the slightest hint of the horrific in what I was listening to or reading, then I made an unreserved beeline for it.

At first it was this basic thread of Horror that kept drawing me further into the world of the private eye.  In time, however, my tastes began to develop into a genuine liking for the Mystery genre on its own merits.  I don't recall that there was ever anything conscious about this, it was more like just following my own bloodhound instincts, if that makes any sense.  Even if it doesn't, there's just not much I can do there, I'm afraid.  It's merely what happened, you see, and it's an artistic experience I've sort of been grateful for ever since.  At some point my mind wandered off down other avenues, and for the longest time I sort of lost track of this particular branch office.  I've just had time to make my way back towards it very recently, like visiting one of those old neighborhood sandlots that you used to play around in as a kid.  When I first got back here, it was sort of gratifying.  It was like discovering that everything was still in its place, and exactly as you left it.  It's as if I'd done no more than step out to run an errand, and everything was still waiting for me when I got back.  I don't know the exact word for that kind of experience, yet I'm glad it's what happened to me.

There is one name out of all that list that I never seem to have gotten around to, at least until just recently.  For the longest time, Agatha Christie has been one of those names that crops up in passing here and there while I was on my way to other business.  Without going into too many details, let's just say it took a long time before anything like a genuine interest was kindled in her work.  In a way, that's sort of the explanation for choosing this film as the topic for discussion.  When it comes to Christie, I guess you could say I've chosen the easiest point of entry.  Whether this can or should be held against me is something others can decide for themselves, and then leave me out of it.  I have no time to worry about the right way of approaching an author like this.  All I know is that Kenneth Branagh's 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express seemed like as good a place as any in helping me to continuing to get reacquainted with old childhood haunts.

The Story.

I haven't a clue how it all got started.  The whole miserable business seems to have happened in a flash.  It's as if all you needed to do was turn your back, and the next thing you know, you've got a real mess on your hands.  The worst part is there's no telling what the authorities will do.  We're not in the best place for a crime to happen, you know?  Forgive me, though.  Where are my manners.  I seem to be putting the cart before the horse on this one.  Perhaps I should clarify a few things before I get too ahead of myself.  I ought to make it clear that this is not the sort of venture I make a habit of looking for.  Who am I, you may ask?  Well, there's not much to tell, really.  On paper it says I'm a business manager, and yet sometimes I think my real, life-long profession is best described as that of a wastrel.  I know its what my family thinks, and to be fair, I've never really been able to let them down on that opinion.  It's a sorry state of affairs to be in, I suppose.  The trouble is I've always been far too busy having fun to bother much about regrets.  At least I've never really hurt anyone (not that I can recall, anyhow).  The results have been about what you might expect.  My uncle has had to bail me out of various sundry situations, and at last, in order to get me out of the way and off his hands, this is where I've wound up, as leading manager of the Istanbul Orient Express railway line.

Our service is very basic, and about what you'd expect.  We ferry our clients from what used to be known as the ancient capital of Constantinople, and thence from here to just about all points west.  My business sometimes keeps me chained behind my office desk.  The staff here are all a crack sort of team.  They know the job, and do it well, and my uncle makes sure that all are compensated handsomely for their efforts.  For the most part, however, I almost live in my train compartment.  I'm always having to flit about from here to there these days, official Wagon Lit Manager business.  I  can't say I mind the arrangement all that much.  Chaps like me are always needing the air and the time.  It's perhaps the closest I've ever come to being a respectable man of business while holding down the sort of job that allows me to keep up with all the old vices.  It seems like there is an art to nepotism.  One of my friends even claims that I'm sort of a Michelangelo of that old, established profession.  Either way, it's an ideal spot for someone like me.  Or at least it was, until just now.  This is what happened.

I'd recently had an opportunity to catch up with this friend I mentioned earlier.  We were both staying at the Hotel Tokatlian in Stamboul together, each without the other knowing.  I was there on (un)official business and my friend was in search of a vacation.  We met up by what I hope was pure chance, and got to catching up a bit.  Then a gentleman from the British Consulate showed up, and that's when things started to go downhill, though none of us caught on right away.  My friend needed to reach the states within a weeks time, and here I was with my toy train set, all ready and waiting to carry him on the first leg of his journey.  I helped finagle him passage on the Express, and this old acquaintance found himself a guest in the first class compartment, compliments of the Wagon Constantinople Callais.  We always do our best to spare no expense when it comes to our most valued (or just well paying) guests.

There were a few others riding on that train worth talking about.  I almost have to, because one of them might be very important to the mess I now find myself in.  With that in mind, the passenger manifest goes as follows.  The first up was a shady looking American chap.  Edward Ratchett, I believe his name was.  I'm not quite sure what he did for a living.  From what little I could gather, the gentleman seemed in the buy and sell trading profession, fine shag rugs and carpets mostly, though I think he might have traded in paintings, as well?  I don't know, there's something sketchy about the man.  He didn't board the train alone, by the way.  Accompanying Mr. Ratchett was a harried looking little fellow named MacQueen, and there was also a valet, Masterman.  Then there's the missionary.  She was a fine, yet somewhat severe looking girl named Pilar Estravados.  She doesn't fancy the demon drink all that much, I'm afraid.  Up next there is a very pretty English governess called Miss Mary Debenham.  She seems to have arrived in the company of an Anglo-African, Dr. Arbuthnot.  I wish them both the best.  

Then we have our three upper class passengers.  At least I think they might have been upper class at one time in their respective lives, I'm not sure what they are now.  I'm referring specifically here to Count and Countess Rudolph and Elena Andrenyi, as well as the Princess Natalia Dragomiroff.  Neither of these two parties bear any known relation to each, at least none that I know off.  The latter, by the way, is always accompanied by her maid and companion, a Miss Greta Hildegarde Schmidt, I believe.  I said just know that I couldn't say whether any of these three were upper class or not.  A few years or so ago, that might not have been a problem.  There was a time, you see, when folks like either of them wouldn't have bothered to give even high placed sorts like me the time of day.  Now it seems like the world is upside down for their lot.  They used to know what it was like to grow up in grand, palatial estates, with liveries of servants at their beck and call.  Now, many of them have a new experience, where former members of royalty struggle to earn a living.  There's got to be no more of a surreal sight than a former princess doing menial secretarial work, typing in an office building somewhere.  It's almost like an image out of a fairy tale.  Even if that's the case, I can't say I envy them all that much.

Last off we have Prof. Gerhard Hardman, and a Mrs. Caroline Hubbard.  The Professor is one of those bigoted, Teutonic types.  You'll meet a lot of chaps like him cropping up with increasing regularity these days.  In fact, if I'm being honest, at the accelerating rate one is likely to to encounter his sort, well, it almost looks rather alarming.  Should I be worried?  Old Mrs. Hubbard, meanwhile, cuts a rather charming figure.  She's one of those Wife of Bath types, the ones who've worn the bands a few time, and yet somehow never manage to lose their pace and style.  There goes one face to keep an eye on, definitely.  Finally, I suppose I'd better mention this friend of mine again.  I bring him back on-stage at this point for one very solid reason, two of them actually.  I don't think I ever bothered to explain just what it is my friend does for a living.  He's a detective, you see.  For the longest time, he appears to have been one of the most celebrated constables on the Belgian police force.  That was a great deal in the past, however.  These days, he works it more or less alone as a private consulting investigator, what is commonly known as a private eye, in the pulp press.  His name is Hercule Poirot.

I said a moment ago that I almost hoped it was pure chance that threw us both together.  If I'm being honest, though, I'll have to admit I'm glad he's on board.  There's been a tragedy on this train, you see.  To put it bluntly, a murder has been committed.  Mr. Ratchett was found dead in his cabin this morning.  It wasn't a relatively bloodless affair either.  He was stabbed several times all over the chest.  From from Poirot says, it looks as if Ratchett's killer made his attack at random.  The stab wounds are all haphazard, adhering to no recognizable pattern.  It looks, for all the world, as if the killing took place in a state of pure, unadulterated frenzy.  There's just one problem.  An attack like that always comes with the decibel levels turned up to the heights, and yet there was no scream, no sounds of commotion in the night.  If a crime was committed here, then it was quiet enough for everyone to sleep through.  Poirot even swears he he heard Ratchett reassure Michel, or conductor, that everything was alright at one point in the evening.  

It's an ugly business to have to deal with.  None of it makes any sense, as far as I'm concerned.  I just know I've a nightmare waiting to explode on my hands if someone doesn't do something fast.  Here's the worst part in the whole affair, the one that makes my skin crawl to think about.  This murder was committed in the middle of nowhere.  We've had to make a stop for emergency repairs.  The train was half-derailed thanks to the snow outside.  So, here we all are, stranded miles from civilization, a dead body in one of the first class compartments, and there is literally no one else within miles who could have had a hand in this travesty.  That means that one of the passenger on the Orient Express is a cold blooded murdered.

Some Annoying, Preliminary Considerations.

As I have said above, I've sort arrived late to the party when it comes to the work of Agatha Christie.  In fact, I'm still very much in a beginners phase.  I want to say it was maybe sometime after 2018 before I really started to gain a vested interest in her work.  I suppose the result is best described as finding out aspects of one of your favorite childhood stomping grounds that you never knew was there all along.  As of this writing, I'm more than prepared to declare Ms. Christie a fascinating author in her own right.  One who is capable of crafting a secondary world, and then peopling it with life in just about the same way as what Tolkien was able to accomplish in conjuring his world of Middle Earth.  Christie's settings are always more down to earth than the lands bordering the Gray Havens, of course, and yet perhaps the linking between a Fantasy and Mystery writer is not as far-fetched as it may seem.  This is a topic I'll have to work my way back toward.

Right now it's best to start at a more basic level and ask how does Branagh handle the source material he's chosen to work with?  In a way, that's really a kind of trick question.  My answer to it is simple enough.  Yes, I'd have to say I liked it very much.  In fact, it might go on to be one of my favorite book to film adaptations.  It's when I try to explain why I can give that particular answer that things get complicated.  There's a bit of lengthy explanation involved, and that in itself might strike some readers as suspicious.  When it comes to majority audience expectations, my own experience has taught me that the people in the aisle never have enough time for, and therefore don't set much stock in all the more detailed explanations for why a story succeeds or fails.  The general preference seems to be for a quick, simple, and easy explanation, with little in the way of hassle or what they might refer to as "jargon".  The real kick in the teeth is that a lot of the time, even the most cogent and logical explanation for why stories are complex and intricate things tends to fall on deaf ears.  What we have then are a series of two incompatible facts of life.  In such a setup, one of them ultimately has to give way, and I doubt it will ever be the story itself.  All the critic can do, therefore, is to beg the audience to stick with him.

I think the main reason Branagh's adaptation works as well as it does is twofold.  (1) It is carried out in such a way that allows me to say that it is all around faithful to the source material.  In addition, (2) it is able to draw out all of the dramatic potential that was contained and yet underdeveloped in the original book, and then found the more or less right way of fleshing it all out.  This is a statement that will most likely puzzle general audiences, while ticking off one particular segment in of readers in the aisles.  When Branagh released his film way back in 2017, it received a thrashing from several quarters.  The first was from the regular slew of film critics in the media.  The second was from those claiming to be fans of Agatha Christie herself.  They felt it had to be a travesty of her book in some way.  It's the second charge leveled against the film that I take a bit more seriously.  At the same time, I have to maintain my original positive vote of confidence in the film, if for no other reason than that I keep repeatedly getting the same positive sense of entertainment and catharsis as when I first watched it.

A lot of the complaints from Christie fans has centered around questions like characterization, atmosphere, and what is the proper style of a Christie thriller?  I guess these are all topics I'll have to tackle in turn, or all at once, then.  The questions revolving around style, characterization, and atmosphere are of the kind that deserve careful consideration, within reason, anyway.  There is one argument that has never held water with me, however, and I'd best get it out of the way right here and now.  If the argument about style is based on nothing more than a concern or obsession with mere "artistic looks" such as lighting, camera angles, and the the like, then let me make it clear that's a game I just can't play.  I've hinted at this elsewhere, and its one of the guiding principles in everything I ever write about the arts in general.  I have not, and never really have been able to be concerned about the proper appearances of any given story, regardless of format.  To me, such concerns are fleeting, and always in a state of flu from one century to the next.  As a result, it's impossible to pin down any definition, or standard based on such shifting conditions.  If you wish to discuss atmosphere as a quality of the writing, then we are on much more solid ground.  Nothing else can help us here.

All of which is to say I have no time for complaints about Branagh casting himself, or how he makes himself up to look like Poirot, or what his reputation as an actor or director means for the film as a whole.  You might as well complain about Shakespeare's performance as Hamlet just because you notice he has a bald patch, or that sometimes the women roles are played by men.   When it comes to the sort of thing that most audiences get hung about these days, my own two cents is derived from the work of a forgotten critic named Samuel Bethell, and his expertise in the field of Elizabethan Drama and Story Craft.  It's thanks to him that I've been able to derive two basic, unwavering fundamentals about storytelling.  We've never been able to leave the stage, and the stage was never able to get off the page.  That sort of thing was always relative, and perhaps it's best that way.  Now then, with that out of the way, let's get down to discussing the real importance of this film. 

The Nature of Traditions of the Mystery Story.    

My working hypothesis from here on out is that in order to get as close to the correct judgment of Branagh's film, we first have to find the answers to two, interrelated question.  What kind of story does Christie have to tell, and how loyal does Branagh's film wind up in relation to this artistic vision?  The best place I've found to start with the answer is in the work of Prof. Jared Lobdell.  I've found his introductory remarks in The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams to throw a surprising amount of helpful light on our twin subject.  I'd argue he can at least help us gain some insight on where Christie and Branagh stand in relation to one another as artists.  The first thing to note is the definition Lobdell gives to the Detective story.  What makes it stand out from any other discussion I've heard or read about the topic is that he chooses to highlight elements of the Noir morality play that others have probably have never given much thought to.  "It is reasonable," Lobdell contends, "to call detective stories a kind of mythic comedy (6)".  It's a statement that sounds natural enough to a minority of readers.  Therefore, I'm not sure how many out there would see it that way.  

Whenever someone thinks of Noir fiction (if they can ever be bothered with it at all) then the terms in which they might find themselves describing the genre would tend to be rather limited.  All most of us have to go on these days are flashes of personal and collective memory.  They recall figures like Sherlock Holmes stalking down foggy London streets, or else Humphrey Bogart lighting up a thousand cigarettes under a street lamp in a dirty, black and white city.  To be fair, images like that do tend to stick around for a reason.  The trouble is very few people bother to ask why.  There's a sense of Romanticism in the idea of a detective chasing the case. It's something most fans of the genre would be willing to agree upon.  They might even refer to it in such terms as "the thrill of the hunt".  They might also stop short at describing it as in any way mythic.  However, this is one of those cases where I can't help wondering if critics like Lobdell are onto something.  He places the Mystery genre on the same critical spectrum advanced by Northrop Frye, claiming that the genre echos the mythos of comedy (ibid)".

"I am leading up to the point that, as those familiar with Professor Frye's The Myth of Deliverance will already have noted, sensation fiction, and particularly detective fiction, fulfills the same function and demands the same responses for and from the reading public in Victorian England that the popular comedic plays fulfilled and demanded in Shakespeare's day.  Here is Professor Frye in The Myth of Deliverance: "In a famous chapter of the Poetics (xi), Aristotle speaks of reversal and recognition (peripeteia and anagnorisis) as characteristic of what he calls complex plots...Sometimes the effect [of what Frye calls  the 'and hence' story, as opposed to the 'and then' story] seems to reverse the direction of the action up to that point, and when it does we are normally very close to the end.  Hence a reversal of the action often forms part of an anagnorisis, a 'recognition', depending on how much of a surprise it is [p. 4]

"Thus, in a detective story, the identification of the murderer is a 'discovery in the sense that we realize he is a murderer for the first time; it is a 'recognition' in the sense that, if the normal conventions of the detective story are being preserved, he is already a well known and established character.  This anagnorisis is in fact a staple of Victorian popular fiction as well as of Shakespearean comedy...But how does this tie in with Frye's myth of deliverance?  By the myth of deliverance, Frye means the story-pattern whose essential drive is toward liberation, "whether of the central character, a pair of lovers, or the whole society" (p. 14).  The comedy, or the detective fiction, is a ritual enactment of this pattern of deliverance, highly conventionalized.  The point is thus not in guessing "Whodunit?" but in the reader's participation in the denouement, the anagnorisis (7)".

That's a whole lot of big words for just a few short paragraphs.  Most of us have no choice except to ask if guys like Lobdell even know what in hell they're talking about?  Nor can anyone really be blamed for the creeping sense of incredulity.  The point is that we've just been given a basic summary of Lobdell's somewhat derivative thoughts on the nature of detective fiction as a genre.  "But we have been speaking of detective fiction, and it may reasonably be asked, what is the position of the detective in all this (7)"?  Lobdell's definition of the literary detective is just as outre as the rest of his theories on the genre.  It is once more an idea which even genre fans might not have thought worth entertaining.  The funny things is just how much sense it seems to make, at least to me.  "It seems rather that Sherlock Holmes and his successors are, like the Duke in Measure for Measure, or Prospero..., stage managers or "deputy dramatists," Frye's term for characters whose function is to make sure "everything comes out all right in the end," to enact the myth of deliverance.  As I have observed elsewhere, using T.A. Shippey's term in The Road to Middle Earth, Sherlock Holmes may be taken as a "calque" of the White Magician on the Victorian detective.  He is a type raised to the dignity of an archetype (8)"

Perhaps that will be enough to go on, at least for the moment. You want to here the craziest irony?  For some of you reading this, it might almost have sounded as if Lobdell was starting to make maybe the slightest bit of sense there near the end.  Perhaps he was onto something?  I think it's the idea of paralleling the Mystery Detective with the White Magician trope, like the one you find in works by Tolkien.  There's just something about the idea that can at least strike a chord in audiences.  It has this lingering aura of "sweet rhyme".  There's a certain ring to it (pun half intended).  What jumps out to me more than this, however, is Lobdell's concept of the Noir detective as "stage manager" in a vaguely Shakespearean vein.  What the critic has just done is to link up a modern archetype to a similar level with that of Renaissance dramaturgy and literature.  To repeat, it's a novel concept, and also not one that anyone automatically associates with The Body in the Library.  I think the real punchline here is that it's possible to actually find something like supporting evidence for Lobdell's thesis.

Believe it or not (and when it comes to real life, mileage always seems to vary), someone out there managed to discover that Bill from Stratford somehow has managed to to play an outsize role in the Mystery genre.  This is how the jacket description of Lisa Hopkins' Shakespearean Allusion in Crime Fiction tells it.  "This book explores why crime fiction so often alludes to Shakespeare. It ranges widely over a variety of authors including classic golden age crime writers such as the four ‘queens of crime’ (Allingham, Christie, Marsh, Sayers), Nicholas Blake and Edmund Crispin, as well as more recent authors such as Reginald Hill, Kate Atkinson and Val McDermid. It also looks at the fondness for Shakespearean allusion in a number of television crime series, most notably Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse and Lewis, and considers the special sub-genre of detective stories in which a lost Shakespeare play is found. It shows how Shakespeare facilitates discussions about what constitutes justice, what authorises the detective to track down the villain, who owns the countryside, national and social identities, and the question of how we measure cultural value (web)".

There are several ways in which this information can be taken.  The most nominal response will be to observe that it's amazing what can be accomplished just from wasting valuable time.  To which I'd have to respond, "Well, maybe.  That and a surprising amount amount of cultural literacy on an astounding number of writers spanning two whole centuries".  I still can't shake the idea that there's a lot more going on than mere clever wordplay and time wasting.  Then again, I'm just a miserable little bookworm.  What else am I going to say?  What can I even say that doesn't work it's way back to the written word in some form or another?  I have to admit that what stands out to me in all this, the part that I really like about it all, is the way that Mystery fiction keeps getting drawn into the same level of literary sophistication and practice as those accomplished by Shakespeare.  It establishes a link between modern and Renaissance poetical practices.  It grants the genre of Noir what can only be described as a peculiar Elizabethan streak.  It is not what I was expecting to find, nor is it at all unwelcome.  I think the real questions left to ask now, however, are what does this mean for Christie's story, and Branagh's adaptation of it?

A Modern, Jacobean Revenge Story.     

If I had to give any single reason why Branagh succeeds as well as he does with his film, then I'd have to point toward this Elizabethan character of the Golden Age Mystery novel, and the director's consummate literacy in this very department.  Let's not forget, Branagh is the guy who doesn't really worship at the shrine of Shakespeare, so much as he's not very good at giving us the impression that he does very much of anything else.  It's an interest people have been willing to fault him for, among other things.  I must be lucky in that sense.  I've never had any long term interactions with his work to the point where he's reduced himself to a living cliche in my mind.  Instead, all I can see is a devotee of Renaissance drama and literature, one who isn't afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve.  I'm willing to claim this movie is the director on a good day, and so if any of the vices attributed to him are present, they are a hell of a lot more muted here than in, let's say, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  I think a lot of it has to do with just how well suited the artist is to the source material.  Gothic fiction, as a whole, is a very unbelievable genre.  That in itself is no criticism, the trouble is that it tends to bring out the director's unnecessarily flamboyant streak.  Here, however, there is a better sense of proportion.

Whereas the earlier film was histrionic and self-important to a fault, this time there's a sense that the director has learned to keep things just a bit more lighter and lower.  I think the real key to his effectiveness here is the director's instinctive grasp not just of the original Christie story, but also the elements that went into it, all the vital components that help make the original Orient Express a (more or less) completed whole.  This is important because I think it means Branagh might be one of the few readers out there with something close to a proper grasp of the inherent literary quality of Christie as a writer.  Her reputation hasn't always been that lucky.  Even today, the big consensus is that we're dealing with "a talent", but nothing major.  Very few readers or critics have ever thought of placing her in the same company as Arthur Miller or Jane Austen.  No matter how well she sells, Ms. Christie is still regarded, fundamentally, as a strictly pulp phenomenon.  One of those authors who, if she were born and raised in America, would most likely have had to eak out her living in the same way as the hard bitten Raymond Chandler, having to share shelf space with him, alongside Mickey Spillane, or Davis Grubb, on the same drugstore paperback rack.  The irony is that's sort of what happened over here anyway, even with her good fortune on British shores.

As a result, despite being lauded as the Queen of Crime today, she was always treated as something of a lightweight in her own time.  For instance, here is how a reviewer named Charles Williams sums up the story under discussion today.  "Her Murder on the Orient Express" takes place when that train is snowed up in (Yugoslavia, sic).  M. Poirot has the case to himself, and has to solve it by pure mind.  There are three parts: "I. The Facts, II. The Evidence, III. Poirot Thinks."  This austere method, combined with the method of the crime, makes the book a piece of classic workmanship; almost unbelievable, but exquisite and wholly satisfying.  The ice cracks here and there; there is one very dangerous moment connected with Oxford-street, but it just holds (Lobdell, 106)".  When it comes to criticizing the critic, what stands out to me the most is the caveat in Williams' judgment.  He's willing to call it good, yet only as a piece "classic workmanship", rather than it being any kind of classic, proper.

My own experience is a bit more positive and nuanced.  I'm willing to label Christie's book as an actual classic, just one that that needs a minor bit of improvement around the edges.  The way I look at it is this, the story itself is solid, it's just that there are times when the author is being perhaps a tad too flippant about the proceedings for her own good.  She has a legitimate archetype, or inspiration on her hands, and it wants to have its full and artistic expression.  To her credit, she is able to get most of it down on paper, and whenever that happens is where the story counts the greatest.  However, it is just possible the author is also holding herself a back a bit too much from the story to be able to treat it with the proper sense of gravity that it deserves.  Williams says that none of it is believable in terms of real life, and I am inclined to not see that as a fault.  It's a kind of low-key fairy story that Christie has on her hands, and she tells it with remarkable skill, except for when she can't be bothered to take either herself, or her work, seriously enough to complete the artistic effect.  

As a result, what the reader is left with is a book that is "mostly finished", and could still use a little work.  Nothing major, the whole deck doesn't need to be reshuffled, or anything that drastic.  Instead, it's more a question of finding the right finishing touches, or grace notes necessary to making the story come fully alive.  I think this is where Branagh comes in.  He seems to have been the one to have found what those final notes are, or at least what they could be.  It's what allows him to inject the proceedings with a much needed sense not just of gravitas, but also, perhaps, a certain element of humanitas.  It's this lingering sense of humanism that helps grant everything a greater sense of completion.  He has taken the original archetype, and then found the best way possible to allow the story to express itself in full.  Nor does this seem like an out of the ordinary occurrence to me.  It's just another example of a process I've seen happen elsewhere.  Sometimes you'll have these novels that are great works of art, only they never express their full potential for one reason or another.  Often this is on account of the writer either getting too much in the way, or else they don't devote enough of the time and craft that the story needs in order to succeed.  Then some other artist comes along later, and they are able to prove themselves to be in enough sympathy with the work (for lack of a better term) that they are capable of unearthing the rest of the fossil and presenting the whole skeletal story structure in its full glory. 

I've seen this happen at least three times before, already.  Once was when John Huston took a Rudyard Kipling short story and then somehow found the right way to give it the sense of epic scope that the tale always seemed to be reaching for, and that Kipling could never quite manage to give it.  The same thing happened back in the 80s when PBS found the right person to help give Tom, Huck, and Jim the denouement they all richly deserved.  Finally, the earliest example of this practice of posthumous completion that I know of still remains when Huston again, this time with the aid of Ray Bradbury, was able to take on Herman Melville's sea-faring tale (what Bradbury aptly referred to as "a masterpiece of bits and pieces") and were able to go through the whole thing with a fine tooth comb, weighing and sifting, cutting out the dross, and uncovering the core of brilliant, American Gothic Existentialism that was always the heart and soul of the story.  That's probably a lot of heresy in a very short space of time.  If so, my only defense is that this is where my reaction to each iteration of the following stories has led me.  Now it seems I'm forced to compound the error by adding Branagh's efforts to that list.

The way he goes about it is by recognizing that he is dealing with a very specific kind of detective story.  Branagh seems to have grasped that what he's dealing with is a Jacobean Revenge Drama transposed to a Modernist setting.  The way he does this is by literally reading through Christie with a highlighter and coming to the slow and gradual realization that he's met a kindred spirit.  I'd like to suggest now that one of the unnoticed reasons why Branagh seems to get along so well with Christie's material is that both artists share the same enthusiasm for the literature and dramatic tropes of the Renaissance.  Christie, in particular,  seems to have made a habit of incorporating three Elizabethan tropes into her works on a constant, almost compulsive basis.  These were a steady hand at mimicking the events, conventions, and dramatis persona the Revenge Tragedy, or Jacobean Drama.  On a lighter note, she also had a lifelong passion for the ancient Commedia dell'arte, with a particular fondness for the figure of the harlequin.  I think both these aspects of her literary artistry (both black and white) met their final synthesis in the influence of William Shakespeare.  For a guy like Branagh, it's like being given the key to the world's ultimate combination candy store and toy chest.

The result is a Renaissance enthusiast discovering the presence of his favorite literary format at play in a work of detective fiction, thus finding him amply suited for the job.  It allows him to take those Elizabethan elements within Christie's text, and give them a heightened textual awareness.  The interesting part is that Branagh is able to pull this particular feat off with a degree of subtlety that is as much gratifying as it is surprising from a director with a reputation for always wanting to take things over the top.  Everything in this movie is handled with a sense of natural, slow-building tension, which also manages to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, trying to guess how the murder was committed, and by who.  It's a task Branagh is able to accomplish thanks in no small part to the dramatic conventions mentioned above.  It really isn't a misstatement (and hopefully not too much of a spoiler) to call her story a modern day Jacobean Revenge Tragedy in novel format.  Her inspiration for the book was one of those "torn from the headlines" cases.  It came in the form of the scandal of the Lindbergh Kidnapping, and the subsequent fallout that resulted in the wake of that tragedy.

Reading the details in the international press, and following along as the event turned into its own real life narrative seems to have left something of an impact on Agatha's imagination.  There was enough of an effect, at any rate, to the point where something clicked in her mind, and pretty soon she was drawing on the Lindbergh case, as well as personal memories to create a story in which Poirot finds himself confronted with a fictional equivalent of that real life event, and having to deal with a situation in which justice takes the form of personal revenge.  The entire setup itself is a reflection of those old, Jacobean dramatic tropes.  It may not be the most down-to-earth story out there, nor is this a slight against her story.  We're ultimately being told a fairy tale, of sorts, one in which the heightened reality of the drama is a help rather than a hindrance.  What's notable in both book and film is that Agatha and Branagh find a way of turning these hoary old conventions somewhat on their head.  The usual custom of the Elizabethan Revenge plot tended to center around a "drama in which the dominant motive is revenge for a real or imagined injury; it was a favorite form of English tragedy in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras and found its highest expression in William Shakespeare's Hamlet (web)".

The point here is that if we are dealing with a story modeled after the form of an old, Jacobean Tragedy, then the normal expectation to have when going in to this sort of story is to expect it to end with all the main characters strewn about the stage, along with the other stiffs.  It's the sort of ghoulish tableau that the reader or viewer is left with at the end of the Denmark play, as well as others like Macbeth.  Both are stories that center around questions of crime, guilt, and revenge.  Properly speaking, vengeance is really the key note of plays or stories like this.  It often features a main character who feels honor bound, or else just obsessed with righting either a wrong, or a felt slight, by taking justice into his or her own hands.  It's a format that has had a surprising durability, even long after Shakespeare and his stage plays.  The current example most of us might still be familiar with is Charles Bronson in the original Death Wish.  That right there is an idea that everyone from artist to hack has been willing to revisit.   

These are all the ingredients the reader can expect to find waiting for them in the corridors and passages of the Orient Express.  I'm not so sure whether anyone is expecting what the writer winds up doing with all these old tropes, however.  Christie begins her story on a very simple premise, a murder is committed on a train.  From there, she establishes the Modernist Jacobean scaffolding on which she has allowed her narrative to rest.  Pretty soon it's revealed that the crime really was a case of motivational revenge.  That's not the big spoiler.  What is turns out to be the denouement that everything ends on.  It breaks at least one Elizabethan dramatic convention, and somehow winds up subverting at least two sets of expectation as a result.  The first is that of the average viewer on the street, the ones who are coming in with no preconceptions, either about Christie, or the Mystery genre as a whole.  The second type of upset might strike the English Majors in the aisles.  These are the type who might actually know that Jacobean Tragedy is something that still kind of exists as a thing.  This is the type of reader who will be able to pick up on the nuances of literary allusion embedded in Agatha's text.  It's what tends to make her big reveal more of a rug pull for the second class of reader, rather than the first.

What makes the solution of the crime so intriguing is precisely how it takes the Jacobean dramatic conventions, and turns them inside-out in a way that really doesn't appear to upset the apple cart.  Instead of ending with Poirot standing in the middle of the stage, with the remains of the cast surrounding him on all sides, we get a conclusion that may or may not have been an innovation at the time, depending on how you look at it.  Without giving way to spoilers, Christie ends her Renaissance style tragedy on a note that is less darker than in a more traditional ending for the genre.  This is not to say that irony is absent, nor that the ethical price tag attached with this sort of crime doesn't get paid.  Instead, it's more that Agatha is able to at least hint at a note of reconciliation by the time we reach the final page.  There's nothing wrong with this ending as it stands, it seems like the right way to conclude things.  It's just that I think Branagh is able to hit the proper final note necessary to completing the mystery's overall dramatic effect.  I've said that reconciliation is the potential conclusion to the novel.  That's also sort of the ultimate issue with the source material.  

The conciliatory idea remains implicit, and is never really brought out in full like it deserves to be.  Instead, Christie chooses to end things on a note that is almost too flippant for the novel's own good.  I'm not saying the story doesn't deserve to be wrapped up with a bow, however I'm not sure the bow itself deserves to be so neat and clean as she winds up making it.  There's a self-satisfied smugness to the final pages that just comes off as careless at best, callous, at worst.  It's not about sympathy for the victim here, but for others that surround him.  By treating the final passages with too light a hand, Agatha runs the risk of taking what should be three-dimensional characters that we care about, and reducing them all to flat cut-outs.  It's this flattening effect that sort of reduces the impact of the narrative when things should be reaching their dramatic heights.  It's something that Branagh seems to have been aware of, as he deftly sidesteps the smug tone of the book, and instead finds a way to end things on a more or less elegiac note.  He isn't content like Christie to just proclaim that justice has been done.  He's more interested in the toll tragedy can take on a person, and the costs it exacts.  Branagh also hints in his final moments that even after all that, reconciliation is still a possibility that remains on the table.  The final result is an end note in which both justice and mercy are able to combine.  Here we see the implicit potential of Agatha's book made actual, and I think Branagh pulls it off like a boss.

Conclusion: A Well Worn Case.

That said, it's been interesting to watch the reactions other people have had to this film.  When the movie was first released, all I could get out of any of the critical writing on it was that it seemed tired, worn out, and done to death, with nothing original to bring to the table.  The trouble with that kind of summation is that it raises a paradox.  In back of it all is an unstated demand for originality.  The complaint itself then appears to stem less from a concern with the actual artwork that has been set before you, because their collective minds seem distracted, and focused elsewhere.  They are not so much concerned with anything by an older writer like Christie, because they find themselves slaves to a shared sense of boredom.  It's a result that might be worth tracking down for its own sake.  However, that's another story.  Right now, the irony remains in asking a dead dog to learn new tricks.  It's like asking a tiger to hang by its tail from the branches of a tree, as if the species were some bizarre, exotic form of living, clawing, plant life.  It's a fancy, to be sure.  It's just there's no point in entertaining it.  

The other complaint, as I've said before, is one that deserves a certain amount of consideration.  It comes from those fans who are particularly devoted to Christie's writings.  The desire there is a lot more understandable.  And there is a sense in which I'm agreement with at least part of their complaints.  It comes in the desire for faithful fidelity to the narrative itself.  So long as we are talking about that one, single point, then we're mostly on the same page.  There's no art I can appreciate more than piece a writing that is well done.  All other concerns are ultimately secondary for my tastes.  If you can make the script work, then the rest takes care of itself, one way or another.  That's how its always been for me, anyway.  And it sounds very much like what we're dealing with here is a particular version of that stricture.  I guess this means we've reached a point were the mileage is always going to vary no matter what you do.  I've given my reasons above for why I like this movie.  At the same time, I can at least have a grasp of why fans of the book hold their opinion.  The place where we seem to diverge is right at the ending.  They see it fine as it is.  I say still maintain there is room for improvement, and Branagh found it.  

It's a detail so minor, that most in the audience won't be able to see what all the fuss is about.  This is the kind of detailed conversation and debate that perhaps can only ever appeal to a very limited segment of the audience, and yet it's one I'm willing to champion more often than not.  A lot of it is down to the conviction that stories really are things of value to life in general.  I suppose that's because guys like me tend to look at art in the way others regard a well built shelter, it's something you tend to rely on, more often than not.  That said, there may still be a sense in which the general audience is somewhat the wisest in this case.  

As turns out, whatever cases both camps might have raised, the reaction of general audiences has become the real deciding factor in all this.  Their verdict that is they kind of liked it.  I think it's easy to figure out where that comes from too.  It was because the plot itself is a perfect example of that old, almost classical form of storytelling where situation and character take precedent over explosions and action sequences.  As a result, audiences were given a chance to enjoy a movie going experience that was in every sense of the term, literate and sophisticated.  This meant the movie was able to make back three times its budget, and it could be that we have a new franchise on our hands.

I'm cautiously in favor of this development, because I get the idea that if it's done right, it might open a window that's been closed for perhaps far too long.  The idea of an Agatha Christie cinematic universe could, at least on a potential level, be an opportunity to reacquaint audience with what I think of as a more Golden Age of Hollywood level of storytelling.  It's a re-introduction to the literate type of storytelling that used to come from the efforts of directors like Hitchcock, or Billy Wilder.  It's a form of storytelling that you don't see all that often anymore, though there was a time when it was the definition of what a film was supposed to be.  Ever since the advent of tent pole cinema, however, that more classical approach has fallen both out of style, and almost out of memory.  I guess that's another reason why I like Branagh's approach to the material.  His sense of literacy is able to extend beyond the present moment.  I just think it would be nice to find a space in the current movie landscape that would help give a voice to that older, cozy style of making movies.  I don't know what that makes me sound like.  All I know is that it's one cinema buff's enthusiasm for seeing older forms of the medium make a comeback.

Beyond this, all I can do is tell the truth.  I had fun.  That's always the most important part of any storytelling experience.  It's gratifying on several levels.  The first was in seeing it was possible to discover a filmmaker who it turns out did know a thing or two about the more subtle forms of Gothic fiction.  And in addition, it's nice to find out there was a healthy audience out there with an open-minded fondness for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.  I'm hoping this is an encouraging sign of sorts for the movies in general.  There's been a lot of strain going on recently, and I'd hate to see a grand old edifice like Hollywood fall apart.  

A film like this could help show at least some of the way of getting it's feet back on solid ground.  Other than that, the fact is I'm just a plain sucker for stories like this.  I like weird and unexplainable noises in dark corridors.  I've always been able to enjoy a palpable sense of threat in a confined space.  It's one of the simplest, yet also one of the most potent Gothic tropes out there.  This is something the best directors in this particular branch office are aware of.  Branagh seems to be one of them.  More than that, any fan of the Mystery genre can do worse than to check out Murder on the Orient Express.  It's an old fashioned thrill that any lover of this genre is sure to enjoy.


  1. (1) Unless I misremember being assigned something in school, I have never read a single thing by Agatha Christie. I'm not proud of this; I'd like to change it eventually.

    Nor have I seen this movie! Again, not out of disinterest, but out of simply not having done so. I have, however, seen the 1974 film starring Albert Finney; I quite enjoyed that one. (And enjoyed the follow-up, "Death on the Nile," even more, despite its swapping Finney out and Peter Ustinov in.)

    (2) "All of which is to say I have no time for complaints about Branagh casting himself, or how he makes himself up to look like Poirot, or what his reputation as an actor or director means for the film as a whole." -- Hear, hear. Branagh is a reliably good actor and director alike, so I'm down for more or less whatever he wants to do, at least in theory (me making the time to actually take it in is not guaranteed, but my interest being piqued by his involvement is).

    (3) "I'm willing to label Christie's book as an actual classic, just one that that needs a minor bit of improvement around the edges." -- An interesting question presents itself to me here. How imperfect can a work of art be and still be thought of as a classic? I don't have an answer for the question and don't necessarily expect one; it's an interesting topic, though.

    (4) "I think this is where Branagh comes in. He seems to have been the one to have found what those final notes are, or at least what they could be." -- Oh, now there's an intriguing tidbit!

    1. (1) I's say she's well worth the effort. This is from a guy who also arrived late to this particular party. There was a brief span of time in the 90s where it seemed like Christie was a vague presence at the very fringes of my line of sight.

      This was back when a TV channel called "A&E" was I guess in its prime. They were like PBS-lite, if that makes any sense. You have showcases and documentaries dedicated to old Jazz legends, or works of classic literature existing alongside shows like "Night Court" and "Northern Exposure". Sandwiched somewhere in between would be a slew of murder mystery programing, and every so often I would see promos for these characters known as Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, "the best detectives in town". That's the one part of their commercials I've always been able to remember. I think I'd dispute that claim, Sherlock Holmes still seems to remain the best of the pulp gumshoes, in my book.

      However, the interesting thing about such characters, including Poirot, is that they're very much like James Bond. They can be played by any actor across generations, and it won't make a difference as long as the story itself is good. At the same time, this approach can allow for viewers to single out their favorite incarnations, if that's what they want. Basil Rathbone still sums up Holmes to me, for instance.

      (3) That is a very good question. I think the closest answer I can provide right now is that it all comes down to the inherent narrative potential that any given story can either hint at, or else display without ever delivering as much as it can or should. In addition to works like Huck Finn or Moby Dick, I'd say the original Pinocchio is another example. The original book is an aimless hodge-podge, and let's just say that Disney did the whole world a favor in finding the right way to streamline it all...Still wish the coachman had got what's coming to him, though.

      (4) Like I say, this is, or can be, another natural enough part of the creative process. I guess it fits in with the concept and practice of script doctors, fixers, or closers, whatever you want to call them. Sometimes you get lucky, and guys like John Huston can help put the finishing touches on things.