Poirot (Classic): S12E03 “Murder on the Orient Express”

Well, well, well.

Let’s get this out of the way toot sweet – there will be massive, non-tagged spoilers for the duration of this post, so if you somehow have not had a chance to either read this, watch this episode, or watch the 1974 film with Albert Finney, be warned that, honestly… you really should do at least one of those three things before continuing on here, because, yes, it really is that good.

So, then.

We’ve talked before about different ways to approach Christie adaptations, and how this series has done so in various guises. We’ve also talked about how difficult it can be to bring something fresh to a well-known story, particularly in the case of detective fiction. Both problems present themselves here, with a retelling of one of the most famous murders in all of fiction.

To solve the first problem, in its approach Poirot wisely understands that any filmed adaptation lives in the shadow of the 1974 film, which was nominated for six Academy Awards (!) and remains one of my personal favorite movies of all time.

That film was a star-studded “let’s put on a show” affair, with grand theatrics, self-awareness, and a murderer’s row of terrific actors on vacation in Vienna having a grand time hamming it up, with Finney as Our Belgian existing on a steady diet of scenery. It’s campy, it’s over-the-top, and it is a tremendous amount of fun. (Weirdly, in contrast to everything that will come afterwards, the movie has one of the most chilling opening sequences I’ve ever seen, in its ominous flashbacks to newspaper clippings of Daisy Armstrong’s kidnapping and murder.)

This film is decidedly not that.

This film is more akin to a Christie adapted as a horror or noir film, with its claustrophobic Calais coach corridor, the weirdly angled close-ups, and keening repetition of its clarion-call score. The rocking camera when the train is in motion keeps everything unsettled, and there’s a pervasive sense of general unease in every single scene.

The episode sees Poirot made uncomfortable at every turn, and delights in disrupting the rhythms we’ve become accustomed to. Not only does his triumphant revelation in the opening minutes backfire spectacularly, he’s denied a chance to check into his hotel; he’s interrupted when trying to wax his moustache; he is jostled among the train corridors and squeezed between passengers; he is frequently cold. There is astonishingly little comfort to be had on this “luxury” train ride, and it mirrors the discomfort Poirot feels and will come to feel as the plot progresses.

(Side Note: Crucially, none of this is played for laughs, as it would have been earlier in the series. This is a man who is most definitely not at peace internally or externally, and time and again the episode goes out of its way to show us a Poirot whose world is rapidly being shaken. Classic noir, I tells ya.)

It’s dark, both literally and figuratively; even the daytime scenes are shot with a cold, harsh, unforgiving white light, and most of the scenes either take place at night or are lit solely by lanterns due to the power failure on the train. The eerie landscapes, ominous “train speeding through darkness” scenes, and general feel of isolation is absolutely nailed in this noir/horror (noirror?) retelling. And thematically, hoo boy we are in “full dark, no stars” territory.

I mean, it starts with Poirot delivering an unrelated Denouement to an Army officer, of the kind we’ve seen before a thousand times, with Poirot righteously condemning the officer for lying repeatedly, even though he’s committed no murder; the difference is that this time, the target of Poirot’s soapboxing then shoots himself in the head right in front of Our Belgian, blood spattering him. The consequences of Poirot’s moralizing and code of ethics literally get thrown in his face.

Then while in Istanbul, he witnesses the horrible stoning death of a woman by the menfolk, for the crime of adultery. Poirot initially rationalizes this as something of a “when in Rome” situation – she knew the rules, then broke them, and must suffer the consequences – but it’s clear that he’s not necessarily in agreement with the punishment, and both of these events have caused him some deep internal angst about his role in dispensing justice and his own moral inflexibility.

And this all happens in the first ten minutes of the film, before anyone’s even mentioned a train.

The episode is full of pain, and rage, and desperation, and there’s never the sense that everything is going to be alright by the end, because this is a broken train full of broken people – Poirot included – who find themselves turning into monsters in their own eyes. Everyone here arguably ends up even more damaged than they were before they set foot on the train.

Even pincushion-in-waiting Ratchett – played here with a wobbly American accent and that sweaty, out-of-his-depth desperation that Toby Jones does so well, who nonetheless manages to at least introduce a miniscule amount of sympathy for this particular monster – is given something of an attempt at making amends for his horrible crime. Here he’s on his way to Calais to give back the ransom money from the Armstrong kidnapping, hoping to satisfy the anonymous party that’s been harassing him and just maybe square things with The Man Upstairs. He throws money at Poirot to protect him, but Poirot isn’t having it, and so Ratchett’s potential redemption is doomed, as he’s kept conscious but paralyzed while 12 people take turns stabbing him in the chest.

This thing is dark, man.

The second problem – how to keep things fresh and interesting for a story millions already know backwards and forwards by this point – is nimbly solved in a way that only this series could do, and that’s by keeping the mystery and solution fundamentally the same, but focusing on Hercule Poirot himself. The result is what might be Suchet’s most powerful performance in the series.

His Poirot is old, and tired, and shaken by recent events, and irritated beyond belief at damn near everything. There’s virtually no trace of the cheery, joie-de-vive-having Poirot of the earlier episodes, someone happy to help solve problems great or small. Here, Suchet plays Poirot like he’d just as soon hermit away the rest of his days in his apartment, away from people he’s coming to realize will never listen to him, never stop making bad decisions, never stop churning out crimes to solve. He’s drinking alone in the bar car when Ratchett approaches him for protection.

Poirot in this episode is coming to terms with his own significance (or lack thereof); witness the scene where he introduces himself in line waiting for the bathroom on the Calais coach, and then having failed to make the desired impression, stares off into the distance and just mutters, “Hercule Poirot” to himself.

Even the Denouement – almost always the grand unveiling of Poirot’s solution to the crime, presented triumphally with a flourish – is turned on its head here. Suchet here is pure bitterness and disgust, snarking sarcasm in response to the suspects’ halfhearted defenses, not even holding court in the center of the room as usual but slouching at the end of the Calais coach as he slowly and quietly explains what he knows, venom dripping from his every word. Until.

Until the magnitude of the crime and the plot is out in the open, and the killers try to rationalize their act morally, and Suchet just explodes at the lot of them, summoning tears of rage at these people taking the law into their own hands, decrying their efforts as uncivilized and unjustifiable before God; when Greta Ohlsson throws religion back in his face, the Denouement morphs into something totally unseen in the series before, becoming more an uncomfortably relevant question of whose responsibility justice really is when society’s institutions won’t dispense it.

It’s Suchet’s finest hour, unleashing all of Poirot’s pent-up frustration at the years of seeing his efforts amount to drops in an ever-enlarging bucket and at seeing how people will go to ever more absurd lengths to break the laws of man and God; when the confrontation is over, there’s no doubt in his mind that these people must be turned over to the police, and it ends with Poirot’s taking-no-bullshit direction to M. Bouc to “Lock. The. Door.”

And then, after sleeping on it, the next day when the police arrive and Miss Debenham (Jessica Chastain, in a soft-spoken, half-paralyzed version of the character) brings Our Belgian tea, she makes a final attempt to justify their actions. The exchange in full:

DEBENHAM: “You said of the woman in Istanbul that she knew the rules of her culture and knew what breaking them would mean. So did Cassetti.”

POIROT: “And so did you.”

DEBENHAM: “When you’ve been denied justice… you are incomplete. It feels that God has abandoned you in a dark place. I asked God – I think we all did – what we should do, and he said ‘do what is right’. And I thought if I did, it would make me complete again.”

POIROT: “And are you?”

DEBENHAM: [pause] “But I did what was right.”

It’s that conflict – Poirot’s unyielding insistence of the rule of law and the moral relativism of the crime before him as the only possible route to something approaching justice – that throws an already self-doubting Poirot into something we’ve never seen before, a Poirot who cannot internally rationalize either choice he must make.

In a tense, wordless sequence Poirot then proffers the “Mafia assassin” solution to the crime to the police, and after he does so he walks off into the snow, breaking down in tears and grasping his rosary and praying. He has done the moral calculus and refused to add more pain to these twelve people’s already shattered lives — done “what was right” — but never has “what was right” been in such stark contrast to his entire moral compass.

It’s an absolutely fascinating moment, as Suchet leaves wearing a mask of raw despair and turmoil, knowing that like Debenham, he too will feel incomplete despite doing what was right. It is an unconscionable state to live in for one whose existence is centered around the concept of order.

And that’s the real twist in this version of Murder on the Orient Express – not the mind-blowing murder plot itself that 99 percent of viewers already know, genius as it is. It’s that Poirot has to reckon with his own arrogance and moral code, and that it’s not just a revenge story but just as much a story of redemption, however flawed and half-measured it might be, and how the two are inextricably linked and can be two sides of the same coin.

No other adaptation could have gotten away with this and have it play as anything other than change for change’s sake, for two reasons:

  1. Poirot (the series) has already been steadily laying the groundwork for this portrayal of Poirot (the character), in the increasing depictions of his faith and spirituality, as well as showing him becoming increasingly tired of cleaning up after immoral peoples’ messes. The kettle boils over here, as Poirot finds himself in the company of nothing but murderers, and it’s a thematic match to him feeling alone against the world made literal here on the Calais coach. (For contrast, witness a similar attempt to do the same in the Malkovich ABC Murders, where they had to hastily invent a backstory of him being a wartime priest who got children killed (uh, spoilers I guess for something not worth watching) to invest him with moral angst.)
  2. David Motherf—-ing Suchet, who must have known this was likely to be the most-viewed episode in the series canon and leaves everything on the screen. He’s magnificent here, and I think it’s a gutsy move on the part of the writer Stewart Harcourt to invest the episode with so much character development when most folks were probably expecting comforting familiarity.

As far as other stuff? Well, as I said, it’s pretty dark proceedings overall, and the obligatory tinkering around the edges with who and who’s not an actual killer that happens pretty much every time the story gets adapted is present here as well (though made a little obvious early on). There’s still a hankie with an “H”, a red kimono, and a burnt paper that a hatbox brings to light. Hey, if you’re gonna play the hits you gotta know the words.

Supporting character work here is fine, though not really the point of any of it – I will give special mention to Eileen Atkins, whose Princess Dragomiroff manages to be the most imperious, terrifying, and downright badass I’ve ever seen her. But aside from her none of the suspects are even halfway as fun to spend time with as the 1974 bunch – and that’s OK, because “fun” really isn’t on the menu here.

Early on in the series, Faithful Reader Robert Maitland, Architect threw out a comment about tracking Poirot’s arc from genial sleuth to disappointed, embittered detective, and looking at it through that lens and watching all these episodes in sequence has made a world of difference not only in how I viewed these latter episodes in general but this one in particular. Agree with the direction in the character or not, I think that’s undeniably the viewpoint of the series as well.

I had a much more viscerally negative reaction to this when I first saw it years ago, mainly because I hold the ’74 movie in such high regard. But upon rewatching this – and I felt compelled to rewatch it twice, because I got so much more out of it this time around – I’m inclined to say now that it’s a stunning episode stylistically and thematically. It won’t ever be my Orient Express, but it sits comfortably alongside the other, campier take as a more thematically rich counterpoint and as a milestone in the waning days of Our Belgian’s career and the series overall.

Next Week, on Poirot: A blind woman who owns a bunch of clocks! Some people from Canada, who also own a clock! Col. Race’s son, who also probably has a clock! Is it finally a Christie espionage story that works? Find out in… “The Clocks”!