Perhaps apropos of nothing — which is what I say when I’m about to discuss something of little or no importance — I notice that a new version of “Murder on the Orient Express” will be issued to theaters next weekend. Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Agatha Christie’s iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, this production promises a “stylish and suspenseful” viewing experience, as proclaimed by its promotional material, and it no doubt will be all it sets out to do. But considering the equally lavish adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” that appeared just over four decades ago, was another version of the tale all that necessary?
I have a different take on remakes of movies. They generally fascinate me until I see them, and I am left with the conclusion that the original version was better. New ideas introduced into the remake are okay with me, particularly if they show signs of originality or offer another take on what was so excellent about the first version. But too often the remake, updated to current sensibilities and attitudes, actors inadequate to the task at hand, or with the story placed in entirely new settings, fail to make the grade. At least in my humble opinion.
I have no wish to jinx the new “Murder on the Orient Express” or even condemn the producers for touching an enjoyable cinematic memory of mine I gained a few weeks prior to Christmas 1974. The producers may have chosen this Christie title, which first saw print as a 1933 magazine serial, “Murder on the Calais Coach,” because it is one of the author’s most recognizable works in an impressively vast field of novels, short stories and plays published prior to her death in 1976.
In fact, it was a prime consideration for actor David Suchet, the Poirot of the long-running ITV-produced television series and movies that dipped heavily into the well of stories centering on Poirot. The 2011 presentation of “Murder on the Orient Express” starring Suchet was serviceable, entertaining and more serious, focusing more on those qualities than on the production gloss of the 1974 movie and what we may expect from Branagh’s film. Branagh is a capable filmmaker, although the showy and operatic approach he provided to his director-star vehicle “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” gave me a headache when I first saw in the theater in 1994 and continues to do so whenever I have the fortitude to catch it on television or DVD.
How his interpretation of Poirot compares with Albert Finney from the original “Murder on the Orient Express” should be interesting, as Finney successfully captured the brilliance as well as the eccentricities of the character as Suchet did 15 years later on TV and expanded upon them. Some of the publicity for the new “Murder on the Orient Express” notes that Branagh is the sixth actor to portray Poirot since Finney’s conception was first seen; this either neatly speaks to short memory regarding (or ignorance of) the fact Tony Randall was the first major name actor to play Poirot on screen in “The Alphabet Murders” (1966), and didn’t do a bad job at that, especially for a thriller taken to task at the time of its release for mixing laughs with crime.
But I just wonder if that first adaptation of the Christie novel is any less lavish than the new take we will soon see. For in its day, and even at this late date, the Sidney Lumet-directed “Murder on the Orient Express” set a standard that subsequent Christie adaptations starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot had to meet. For the first version sweeps viewers into the 1930s and makes them a part of it for almost two hours through the plush settings of the train, fashions and accessories, and even historical events.
The new film boasts a supporting cast of Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley, about as fine a set of actors money can buy and no doubt a box office draw. That was also the intent of the ‘74 version, which included such luminaries of classic cinema as Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and others whose stars continued to shine brightly.
So are remakes of classic movies worthwhile? Yes if they arouse the same viewer response as to the first one. A quick view of the TV trailers point to the grandeur and mysterious elements of the “Murder on the Orient Express” that entertained Christmas season audiences 43 years ago. And that may be enough. I can think of numerous examples in Hollywood history in which the remake was a poor carbon of the original film, among them those filmmakers who tried to create new takes on such Alfred Hitchcock-made monuments to suspense, from “Rebecca” (for TV in the 1980s and ’90s) to “Psycho” in 1998. They try hard to capture the essence of the Hitchcock mix of peril, mystery and comedy, but are still lacking because Hitchcock isn’t directing. And there’s a world of difference between the recently resurrected thriller “The Old Dark House” with Boris Karloff from 1932 and its 1963 re-do as a comic vehicle for Tom Poston.
Even rarer are the remakes that actually are an improvement. One, the super-production of “Ben-Hur” from 1925 was impressive for what it accomplished without sound or color; the addition of those elements to the 1959 version with Charlton Heston in the title role made it an even greater experience for audiences then and now. Can’t really say anything about the 2016 version featuring Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman because I have yet to see it, despite the cascade of negative reviews it received. It’s up to you if you have an opportunity to compare both the original and the remake, which Turner Classic Movies occasionally offers back-to-back.
Speaking of movies, it was gratifying that “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive,” a presentation of PBS’s “American Masters” series that aired Oct. 30, included filmmaker Roger Corman as one of the many contemporary experts to discuss Poe and his themes. Poe’s literary accomplishments included the model (C. Auguste Dupin of “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget”) for all modern detectives to follow, including Poirot.
Corman, who made eight well-remembered Poe adaptations for the screen in the early-to-mid 1960s, all but one starring Vincent Price, earned a great deal of respect for these productions that counterbalanced the director’s initial reputation as a master of low-budget schlock cinema. Corman’s films gave him an appreciation and understanding of the works of Poe, one of America’s truly enduring writers, and it was great to see that at 91, the genial Corman remains a presence in Hollywood whose opinion and expertise still matters.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.