The best-selling novelist of all time (at least according to the Wikipedia and Infogalactic entries both citing The Guinness Book of World Records), and arguably the most popular murder mystery writer in the history of the genre is Agatha Christie (1890-1976). An absolutely fascinating woman. She acted as a volunteer nurse during WWI, struggled to get published for a very long time, married twice, had a fascination with paranormal and occult themes, and took an active interest in archaeology, often traveling to the Middle East with her second husband to go to digs. She also wrote a total of 73 novels over the course of her life, 66 of them being murder mysteries. Those, along with 165 short stories and 16 plays, cement her as a deeply prolific writer. She may not have been a pulp writer, but damn did she write at pulp speed.
Her most enduring creation is Hercule Poirot, an eccentric Belgian detective with an outrageous moustache and a knack for solving odd crimes. By the time she published Murder on the Orient Express in 1934, it was her 16th novel.
I'm laying all this backstory on you because when it comes to 20th Century Female Authors, Agatha Christie MATTERS. She's a BIG DEAL. So when the 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) was released, that too was a big deal, especially since she was still alive to see it. She approved of it, but felt Poirot's moustache needed to be bigger.
The plot is deceptively simple. Hercule Poirot is in Istanbul returning to England where he boards the Orient Express train to the port of Calais. A mysterious and dangerous-looking American named Ratchett tries to hire him as a bodyguard. Poirot declines, and the next day, Ratchett turns up dead in his bed with twelve stab wounds and train car full of suspects with motives. He has until the train is dug out of a snowdrift to solve the murder, and discovers that the victim was an important figure in the kidnapping and murder of a little girl five years prior in a case based on the real-life Lindbergh kidnapping.
The cast is outstanding. Albert Finney as Poirot, followed by Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role), Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, and Michael York, among others.
Lumet's directing and cinematography are top notch, and aside from a prologue sequence that provides important background on the baby kidnapping case that feels a little long, is grand in its presentation of the luxury of the Orient Express and the tight confines of a train car stuck in the snow. Everything works great and is a deliberate throwback to classic Hollywood filmmaking.
I wish there was more I could say about it, but its a murder mystery and it really is worth experiencing for yourself. Absolutely recommended. Its a classic.
There's a remake coming out later this year with another high profile cast and with Kenneth Branagh at the helm. Might be good, even thought its largely unnecessary thanks to the strength of the original. There's also a 2015 miniseries from Japan that I discovered while researching this review. It looks rather charming.