Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Murder on the Orient Express (2010) is a joint production of ITV Studios and WGBH Boston staring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. As an adaptation of the original novel by Agatha Christie, this is an interesting attempt to reframe the story as a moral dilemma. It begins with Poirot conducting an investigation in Palestine which is abruptly concluded by the suicide of a man whom he was accusing of involvement in a murder. Regardless whether he was correct in his accusation, the immediacy of the man’s response to snatch up a gun, his blood splattering over Poirot, left Poirot with the sense he did not handle the entire affair well. When we get to Istanbul, a further street scene is added to the plot as he watches an angry crowd stone an adulteress. As viewers, we’re supposed to make a judgement about the act of retribution on behalf of the wronged husband. In this Turkish culture, stoning is the accepted form of punishment but we’re expected to condemn it as barbaric. We’re supposed to be predisposed to condemn vigilanteism by a crowd regardless of the perceived provocation.
There’s quite a heavy religious element running through this adaptation with Poirot shown praying and saying the rosary as a good Catholic should, except. . . Although Poirot almost certainly was a Catholic — most Belgians of that time would have been — there’s no real sign of religiosity in the particular book or, more generally, in the series as written by Agatha Christie. This is one episode of a long-running series of television adaptations and, although it’s an effective element in this one episode, it does rather skew the normal characterisation of the man. In the book, Poirot is a man of compassion who, while he does not approve the murder, agrees to allow the murderer(s) to go free. This version does not feel quite right.
If Poirot is inflexibly moralistic and we apply the tenets of the religion at that time, why should he decide to look the other way? The murderer(s) have paid their victim the compliment of imitation. Indeed, their premeditation probably makes them even less sympathetic than their victim unless we’re to assume the kidnapper always intended to kill the girl he abducted. A Catholic of that period would have been self-righteous and lack the will to lie to the police. The idea Poirot would cover up the crime and then walk away praying the rosary in the hope it would somehow wash away his sin is somewhat extraordinary. If the adaptation does offer a reason for this decision, we should consider Poirot’s refusal to act as the man’s bodyguard. He has seen the man in the hotel and observed him on the train. Regardless whether he recognises him as Cassetti, Poirot turns down the offer of a large sum to protect him. So, by omission, Poirot has some responsibility for the man’s death. He could have saved him but, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, chose to walk on the other side. Looking at the adaptations still to come to the small screen, this characterisation of Poirot could foreshadow Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. This more intense Catholicism and sense of guilt would fit more comfortably into the final mystery where much of the man’s narcissistic pride has evaporated and the little grey cells have lost some of their certainty.
In this respect, it’s interesting to compare Poirot with Jacques Futrelle’s creation Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen. As a detective, this man aspires to being a “calculating machine”. There’s no light or dark in his scientific approach to solving problems. He enjoys the challenge and leaves it to the world to deal with the morally grey areas in ascribing degrees of blameworthiness to the criminals. In most of his cases, Poirot is similarly free of moral doubts. He hands his solutions over to the police and courts, and rarely seems troubled by the human consequences of his work. This makes this adaptation somewhat heavy-handed. For example, at least one of the murders asserts the Lord was on her side. If this was believed real, the detective must step aside to allow divine retribution to prevail. In this battle between scientific methods of detection and religion, Sherlock Holmes is more clearly willing to work outside the law and exercise a personal judgement for mercy. Only once, in “Speckled Band”, does he flirt with the idea of taking the law into his own hands and dispatching the criminal. For all his trappings of science, Holmes remains a man rooted in the culture of his time. He’s more inclined to see the potential for destructiveness if pure science prevails over morality. It requires immense arrogance on the part of scientists or detectives using scientific methods, to assert only they can lead humanity to a new life of happiness.
Returning to this television adaptation and looking past the attempt to convert a murder mystery into a modern morality tale, we do find a nicely claustrophobic production. There’s been a very real attempt to put the characters on top of each other in the different compartments with little room to swing a small proverbial cat. Even the dining car feels narrow and cramped with everyone huddling together. This is reinforced by limited lighting with shadows cast into the hollows of eyes and sunken cheeks as sleep comes hard and the cold creeps in from the snow drifts outside. Curiously, the cast is not asked to do much. They are shuffled around and, when asked, offer the usual evasions. I suppose the point is to leave them as faceless as the crowd who stoned the adulteress. Only Toby Jones as Cassetti is allowed enough time to establish himself as thoroughly unlikeable.
So, overall, Murder on the Orient Express is an interesting effort. It seems to have offended the Christie purists but there’s nothing inherently wrong with an adaptation that challenges conventional wisdom. For me, it’s a moderately successful version of a classic detective story.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)