Home > TV and anime > Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)

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.

David Suchet who has made the role of Hercule Poirot his own

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.

David Suchet and the crowd

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.

Toby Jones as Cassetti after meeting the crowd

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

  1. January 28, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Interesting review. I tend to agree that the unconventional interpretation makes for intriguing viewing. I would add that I like the exploration of Poirot’s more troubled, melancholy side here, that we sometimes glimpse in the books.

    • January 29, 2012 at 12:00 am

      In a sense, the opportunity offered to those who produce visual adaptations is to bring out shades of emotion and indications of character that might only be hinted at in the text. A slight shift in expression can take more than a page in a novel to set up and describe. Although I think this particular interpretation goes slightly further than is legitimate on a literal reading of the books, it does nevertheless open the door to a more honest view of the man necessary to make sense of the final years and the last case he handles.

  2. Lee
    April 17, 2012 at 7:04 am

    I didn’t demand that this adaptation of Christie’s novel be faithful. Not even the more superior 1974 version was completely faithful or perfect. But there was something frantic and over-the-top about this particular movie that did not sit well with me. Also, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” has always been a dark tale. Even the 1974 version has an air of melancholy hanging over it – especially in the movie’s montage at the beginning and the revelation scene. The problem with this movie is that the tale’s darkness was handled with a great deal of heavy-handedness.

    One, the acting – especially during the movie’s last 15-20 minutes is ridiculously hammy. David Suchet and David Morrissey were the worst offenders.

    Two, I don’t agree with your assessment that Poirot could have saved Cassetti. How would he have achieved this, if Cassetti had asked for protection while the train was already on its way to Calais?

    Three, the use of the stoned Turkish woman as a comparison with Cassetti’s death was so clunky and again, over-the-top. More importantly, it made both Poirot and Mary Debenham look like hypocrites.

    Four, why make Cassetti a member of the Chicago mob? The Mafia in the 1930s did not engage in kidnappings of wealthy or famous personages or their children. Criminals like Alvin Karpis or John Dillinger would have committed such crimes. And the screenplay made a mistake in identifying Cassetti as a member of the Chicago mob. And there was no way the Chicago mob would have had New York judges, lawyers, etc. in their back pockets . . . not without arousing the ire of the New York mobsters. The Chicago mob would have asked the New York mob to intervene on Cassetti’s behalf. This was sloppy writing on the screenwriter’s part.

    If you would check Poirot’s ticket, it informed viewers that his trip on the Orient Express took place in late September 1938. Is the weather in the Balkans usually that cold in late September that it would produce heavy snow?

    I’ll give this movie points for some kind of effort to be different from both the novel and the 1974 movie. But I feel that the heavy-handed approach to the mystery and the topic of morality failed in the end. There was only so much I could take.

    • April 18, 2012 at 3:17 am

      We completely agree that no adaptation should ever be faithful to a written source. What works on the page as a novel or short story, may be dead in the water as visual or spoken drama. The broad themes of the content need to be reimagined so that they fit the means of presentation. So, if the work is to be read aloud for recording purposes, editing will be needed to make it an appropriate length and, where appropriate, to fit the work to the speaking rhythm of the artist performing it. Similarly, whole pages of a novel may be caught in a single expression or there may have to be establishing shots to make sense of a switch of location that’s implied in the written structure. So there should never be a literal translation from the novel form to a filmed version.

      We also agree that this is a dark story. Revenge is ever so because, if the cause of the desire to retaliate is a murder, it’s morally no better than the original killing. Indeed, since the revenge is always premeditated, it can be worse than the original offence. The self-righteousness of the killers is always hypocritical. There’s nothing morally superior about an eye for an eye. This makes the frame scene of the stoning particularly appropriate. Neither the detective nor the potential killer dares intervene. They value their own physical safety above the threat to the woman. If intervention was a moral imperative, they should both rush to defend her regardless of the danger to themselves. That they both turn away indicates their complicity in the injury and possible death of the woman. It’s within the scope of their intention that she might die. At the very least, they should report it to the local police. It’s the same when Poirot refuses to lift a finger to protect Cassetti. He has made a judgement about the man and prefers not to involve himself. He’s reckless as to whether the man will be killed. Whether he would actually have prevented the death is not the point. Ironically, when he refuses to identify the killer(s) to the police, he’s confirming that initial judgment. He values the lives and reputations of the actual killer(s) above the life of the victim. If ever there was a case crying out for solution, this is it. In a sense, that’s why Poirot needs to turn for comfort to his religion. He knows he has sinned and therefore hopes his faith will somehow offer some relief from the guilt he now shares with the killer(s). Adding this to my original thoughts, I still think this production is moderately successful.

  3. drush76
    April 21, 2012 at 10:24 am

    The problem for me is that the entire scene regarding the Turkish woman was pointless to me . . . and unnecessary. In fact, the idea of comparing Poirot and Mary Debenham’s refusal to intervene on behalf of the woman and Poirot’s refusal to protect Cassetti is all pointless. There was no way Poirot, Miss Debenham or Colonel Abuthnot could have saved that woman, even if they had tried. There was no way Poirot could have save Cassetti. The writers added these points to make some kind of statement on prevention of a crime. Yet, it was pointless, because there was no way any of them would have succeeded.

    The writer added elements to this story that I found irrelevant. That is why I have such a low opinion of them. I guess you feel differently and that is your prerogative. However, I don’t agree with you. And I have no admiration of how Christie’s story was handled in this adaptation. I’m not demanding that it should have been completely faithful to the 1934 novel. I just wish it had been better written . . . and performed.

    • April 21, 2012 at 12:49 pm

      To either a Catholic or to someone who accepts the philosophy of Kant and others, there are obligations to act. For the Christian, failure to intervene is a sin. For others, it’s a breach of a categorical imperative. The scene with the couple walking away and making no effort to save the Turkish woman shows them knowingly committing a sin or a moral wrong. It is also morally wrong for Poirot to refuse Cassetti. This deliberately sets up Poirot’s decision to condone the murder. I am an old atheist, steeped in philosophy so, to me, everything relating to religion of any kind is pointless and unnecessary. Yet I accept the Kantian notion that human selfishness needs to be mitigated by the acceptance of moral laws. It saddens me that, perhaps, you do not accept this view. That’s your prerogative. It simply demonstrates that we have different worldviews on the nature of guilt and what, if anything, the guilty should do in an attempt to relieve their self-disgust. For Poirot after this sequence of events, it’s the decision to pray even though he’s not usually a religious man.

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