Murder on the Orient Express (1974 film)

Murder on the Orient Express

Original British quad format film poster
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Produced by John Brabourne
Richard B. Goodwin
Screenplay by Paul Dehn
Based on Murder on the Orient Express
1934 novel
by Agatha Christie
Starring Albert Finney
Lauren Bacall
Martin Balsam
Ingrid Bergman
Jacqueline Bisset
Jean-Pierre Cassel
Sean Connery
John Gielgud
Wendy Hiller
Anthony Perkins
Vanessa Redgrave
Rachel Roberts
Richard Widmark
Michael York
Music by Richard Rodney Bennett
Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth
Edited by Anne V. Coates
G.W. Films Limited
Distributed by

EMI Films (UK)

Paramount Pictures (Elsewhere)
Release dates
  • 24 November 1974 (1974-11-24) (UK)
Running time
131 min.[1]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £1.5 million[2]
Box office £19 million[3]

Murder on the Orient Express is a 1974 British mystery film directed by Sidney Lumet, produced by John Brabourne and Richard B. Goodwin, and based on the 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

The film features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), who is asked to investigate the murder of an American business tycoon aboard the Orient Express train. The suspects are portrayed by an all-star cast, including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins and Wendy Hiller. The screenplay is by Paul Dehn as well as an uncredited Anthony Shaffer.[4]

The film was commercially and critically well-received, as well as receiving six nominations at the 47th Academy Awards: Best Actor (Finney), Best Supporting Actress (Bergman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design. Of these nominations, Bergman was the only winner.


In December 1935, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is returning to England aboard the Orient Express, encountering his friend Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which owns the line. Aside from Poirot, the other passengers travelling on the Calais coach are: Mrs. Harriet Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), a fussy, talkative, multiple-widowed American; enigmatic American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), his secretary and translator Hector McQueen (Anthony Perkins) and English manservant Beddoes (John Gielgud); elderly Russian royal Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) and her German maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts); Hungarian diplomat Count Rudolf Andrenyi (Michael York) and his wife Elena (Jacqueline Bisset); British Indian Army officer Col. John Arbuthnott (Sean Connery); Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), a teacher of English in Baghdad; Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), a timid Swedish missionary to Africa on a fund-raising trip; Italian-American car salesman Antonio Foscarelli (Denis Quilley); and Cyrus B. Hardman (Colin Blakely), an American theatrical agent.

The morning after the train's departure from Istanbul, Ratchett tries to secure Poirot's services for $15,000 since he has received many death threats, but Poirot finds the case of little interest and turns it down. That night the train is caught in heavy snows en route through Yugoslavia. Poirot is disturbed numerous times during the night. The next morning Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his cabin. Poirot and Bianchi work together to solve the case. They enlist the help of Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris), a Greek medical doctor who was travelling in another coach with Bianchi as the only other passenger and thus is not a suspect. Pierre Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the French conductor of the car, also assists the investigation, as well as being a suspect.

Dr. Constantine's examination reveals Ratchett was stabbed 12 times. Some wounds were slight, but at least three of them could have resulted in death. The stopped watch in the victim's pocket, as well as Poirot's reconstructed timeline of passenger activities the night before, indicate that Ratchett was murdered at about 1:15 a.m. The train had stopped, surrounded by fresh snow, before then. There are no tracks in the snow and the doors to the other cars were locked, so the murderer is almost certainly still among the Calais passengers. Also discovered at the scene of the crime are a pipe-cleaner, a woman's handkerchief with the initial "H" and a fragment of a burned letter.

Upon examining the letter, Poirot discovers that Ratchett's real name was Cassetti, a Mafia gangster who five years before carried out the kidnapping and killing of Daisy Armstrong, the infant daughter of wealthy British Army Colonel Hamish Armstrong who had settled in America with his American wife Sonia. Overcome with grief, the pregnant Mrs. Armstrong went into labour early and died while giving birth to a stillborn baby. A French maidservant named Paulette, wrongly suspected of complicity in the kidnapping, committed suicide, only to be found innocent later. Colonel Armstrong, consumed by these tragedies, later killed himself as well. Cassetti betrayed his partner, leaving him to be executed while he fled the country with the ransom, as he was only revealed to be the leader of the kidnapping plot on the eve of the execution.

Poirot, Constantine and Bianchi begin their interrogation of the passengers. They learn that: McQueen was the son of the District Attorney who prosecuted the case and was very fond of Mrs. Armstrong; Beddoes was, before going into service, a British Army batman; Countess Andrenyi is of German descent and her maiden name is Grunwald; Greta Ohlsson has a limited knowledge of the English language but has spent some time in America fund-raising; Pierre Michel's daughter died five years earlier of scarlet fever; Col. Arbuthnott is going through a divorce and intends to marry Mary Debenham as soon as proceedings are over. Arbuthnott also displays an extensive knowledge of Armstrong's military decorations. When Poirot interviews Princess Dragomiroff he discovers she is a great friend of the now-bedridden actress Linda Arden, Mrs Armstrong's mother; the Princess was Sonia's godmother. He learns that also in the household were a butler, a secretary, a cook, a chauffeur and a nursemaid to Daisy. Poirot then flatters Hildegarde Schmidt by saying he knows a good cook when he sees one, and asks for a photo of the maid Paulette, with whom Miss Schmidt was friendly. Foscarelli, when asked, vehemently denies ever having been in private service as a chauffeur. Hardman reveals he is, in fact, a Pinkerton detective hired to guard Ratchett. When shown the photo of Paulette, he breaks down and reveals he was the policeman in love with Paulette, and feels responsible for her suicide.

After concluding his investigation, Poirot gathers the suspects in the dining car to present his solution. He has formulated two possible scenarios to explain the murder. The first, which he calls the simple solution, is based on several clues suggesting that Cassetti's murder was the result of a mafia feud. Poirot analyses his second solution — referring to it as the more complex of the two — according to which every suspect has a link to the Armstrong case, thus having sufficient motive for the murder. The Princess had dodged the answers to Poirot's questions either by saying she did not remember or by word associaton: for example when asked Mrs Armstrong's maiden name, she replied "Greenwood", the English for "Grunwald", allowing Poirot to deduce that Countess Elena Andrenyi was, in fact, Helena, Mrs Armstrong's sister, and Count Andrenyi her brother-in-law. The Princess also claimed the secretary's name was "Miss Freebody", so Poirot deduces the secretary was in fact Mary Debenham (as in the London department store Debenham and Freebody). By flattering Miss Schmidt, he confirmed that she had been cook for the Armstrongs. Aside from the obvious motives of the Princess, Miss Schmidt, Mary, McQueen, the Count and Countess and Hardman, Poirot presents the motives of the other suspects: Pierre was Paulette's father; Beddoes was Colonel Armstrong's army batman and the family butler; Miss Ohlsson was Daisy's nursemaid (and faked her limited knowledge of English by showing she understood complex words); Col. Arbuthnott was an army friend of Armstrong's; Foscarelli was the Armstrongs' private chauffeur; Mrs Hubbard is, in reality, Linda Arden, Mrs Armstrong's mother. Ratchett was sedated by Beddoes and McQueen. Arbuthnott planted the pipe-cleaner and the Princess the handkerchief (a Cyrillic "N" resembles a Roman "H"). All of the incidents which disturbed Poirot's sleep were contrived for the sole purpose of confusing him about the time of death. Each of the passengers then stabbed Cassetti in turn.

When Poirot finishes his explanation, everyone is silent. Poirot suggests Bianchi should choose which explanation they present to the police: the simple or the complex one. Bianchi decides that the simple solution will be more than enough to satisfy the police and that Ratchett deserved everything he got. Poirot agrees with the decision, and he departs to prepare his report to the Yugoslavian police, even though he admits he will struggle with his conscience. The train becomes free of the snow and leaves as the passengers celebrate at the outcome of the investigation.



The entire budget was provided by EMI. The cost of the cast came to ₤554,100.[2] Experienced members of the crew who were signed on included cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, editor Anne V. Coates and costume designer/art director Tony Walton.

Agatha Christie had been quite displeased with some film adaptations of her works made in the 1960s, and accordingly was unwilling to sell any more film rights. When Nat Cohen, chairman of EMI Films, and producer John Brabourne attempted to get her approval for this film, they felt it necessary to have Lord Mountbatten of Burma (of the British Royal Family and also Brabourne's father-in-law) help them broach the subject. In the end, according to Christie's husband Max Mallowan, "Agatha herself has always been allergic to the adaptation of her books by the cinema, but was persuaded to give a rather grudging appreciation to this one." Christie's biographer Gwen Robyns quoted her as saying, "It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn't in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn't he?"[5]

Cast members eagerly accepted upon first being approached. Lumet went to Sean Connery first, saying that if you get the biggest star, the rest will come along. Bergman was initially offered the role of Princess Dragomiroff, but instead requested to play Greta Ohlsson. Lumet said: "She had chosen a very small part, and I couldn't persuade her to change her mind. She was sweetly stubborn. But stubborn she was... Since her part was so small, I decided to film her one big scene, where she talks for almost five minutes, straight, all in one long take. A lot of actresses would have hesitated over that. She loved the idea and made the most of it. She ran the gamut of emotions. I've never seen anything like it."[6]:246–247

Unsworth shot the film in Panavision. Interiors were filmed at Elstree Studios. Exterior shooting was mostly done in France in 1973, with a railroad workshop near Paris standing in for Istanbul station. The scenes of the train proceeding through central Europe were filmed in the Jura Mountains on the then-recently closed railway line from Pontarlier to Gilley, with the scenes of the train stuck in snow being filmed in a cutting near Montbenoît.[7] Coincidentally, this area (part of Yugoslavia in the story) is part of the micronation of Saugeais. There were concerns about a lack of snow in the weeks preceding the scheduled shooting of the snowbound train, and plans were made to truck in large quantities of snow at considerable expense. However, heavy snowfall the night before the shooting made the extra snow unnecessary — just as well, as the snow-laden backup trucks had themselves become stuck in the snow.[8]

Richard Rodney Bennett's Orient Express theme has been reworked into an orchestral suite and performed and recorded several times. It was performed on the original soundtrack album by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden under Marcus Dods. The piano soloist was the composer himself.


Box office

Murder on the Orient Express was released theatrically in the UK on 24 November 1974. The film was a success at the box office, given its tight budget of $1.4 million,[9] earning $36 million in North America,[9][10] making it the 11th highest-grossing film of 1974. Nat Cohen claimed it was the first film completely financed by a British company to make the top of the weekly US box office charts in Variety.[11]

Critical response

The film received positive reviews upon release and currently holds a 95% "Fresh" rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 7.4/10.[12] Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, writing that the film "provides a good time, high style, a loving salute to an earlier period of filmmaking".[13] The New York Times' chief critic of the era, Vincent Canby, pointed out that "had Dame Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express been made into a movie 40 years ago (when it was published here as "Murder on the Calais Coach"), it would have been photographed in black-and-white on a back lot in Burbank or Culver City, with one or two stars and a dozen character actors and studio contract players. Its running time would have been around 67 minutes and it could have been a very respectable B-picture. Murder on the Orient Express wasn't made into a movie 40 years ago, and after you see the Sidney Lumet production that opened yesterday at the Coronet, you may be both surprised and glad it wasn't. An earlier adaptation could have interfered with plans to produce this terrifically entertaining super-valentine to a kind of whodunit that may well be one of the last fixed points in our inflationary universe."[14]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards Best Actor Albert Finney Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Ingrid Bergman Won
Best Adapted Screenplay Paul Dehn Nominated
Best Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth Nominated
Best Costume Design Tony Walton Nominated
Best Original Score Richard Rodney Bennett Nominated
BAFTA Awards Best Film John Brabourne Nominated
Richard B. Goodwin Nominated
Best Actor Albert Finney Nominated
Best Direction Sidney Lumet Nominated
Best Supporting Actor John Gielgud Won
Best Supporting Actress Ingrid Bergman Won
Best Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth Nominated
Best Editing Anne V. Coates Nominated
Best Film Music Richard Rodney Bennett Won
Best Production Design Tony Walton Nominated
Best Costume Design Nominated
Directors Guild of America Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Sidney Lumet Nominated
Edgar Award Best Motion Picture Paul Dehn Nominated
Evening Standard British Film Awards Best Film Sidney Lumet Won
Best Actor Albert Finney Won
Best Actress Wendy Hiller Won
Grammy Award Best Music Film Richard Rodney Bennett Nominated
National Board of Review Award Top 10 Films Won
Golden Satellite Award Best Classic DVD release Nominated
Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award Best British Screenplay Paul Dehn Won


  1. BBFC: Murder on the Orient Express Linked 2014-08-24
  2. 1 2 Can film-makers Carry On? Bell, Brian. The Observer (1901- 2003) [London (UK)] 11 Aug 1974: 11.
  3. Boost for studios The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 09 July 1975: 5.
  4. Lewis, Paul (12 November 2001). "Anthony Shaffer, 75, Author Of Long-Running 'Sleuth,' Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  5. The Agatha Christie Companion: The Complete Guide to Agatha Christie's Life and Work, by Dennis Sanders and Len Lovallo (1984), pgs. 438–441
  6. Chandler, Charlotte (2007). Ingrid: Ingrid Bergman, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 19, 21, 294. ISBN 0-7432-9421-1.
  7. Trains Oubliés Vol.2: Le PLM by José Banaudo, p. 54 (French). Editions du Cabri, Menton, France
  8. DVD documentary "Making Murder on the Orient Express: The Ride"
  9. 1 2 Alexander Walker, National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties, Harrap, 1985 p. 130
  10. "Murder on the Orient Express, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  11. "Murder on the Orient Express' tops US charts". The Times. London. 11 February 1975. p. 7.
  12. Movie Reviews for Murder on the Orient Express. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 23 September 2012.
  13. Roger Ebert reviews Murder on the Orient Express. Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 23 September 2012.
  14. Canby, Vincent (25 November 1974). "Crack 'Orient Express' Clicks as Film". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 June 2016.
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