My Favorite Crime Movie: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
If there's a crime movie I would enjoy more than the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, based on the 1934 novel of the same name by the inimitable Agatha Christie, I haven’t found it yet. I've seen the movie — starring Albert Finney as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot — a number of times. And even though I know whodunit, I can watch the movie over and over again and still be fascinated by it.
The appeal of this particular adaptation of the book begins even before the first scene, with the opening overture and the graphics against which the opening credits are listed. The music is jazzy and upbeat and the graphics are perfect — art deco, bright, snazzy. Everything fits the time during which the famous train ride is supposed to have taken place. Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express during the second half of the 1920s and the music and graphics in the movie suggest the Roaring Twenties as well as any novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
As the opening credits fade, the musical score becomes darker, more sinister, and we are plunged straight into the story of the kidnapping of the Armstrong baby. The flashback sequence in the movie is perfectly executed. There is no talking, only music and action. Newspaper accounts fill the screen and we get suggestions of how the kidnapping occurred. We catch fleeting glimpses of the kidnapper escaping with the baby, a woman tied to a chair, a car fleeing the scene. We see the aftermath of the kidnapping: the baby's body has been found, a couple too distraught to speak try to dodge all the reporters clamoring for a comment.
As a writer, what I find most interesting about the opening scenes of the movie is that they are a flawless example of the adage "Show, don't tell." Not a word is spoken until we meet Hercule Poirot five years later on a ferry about to cross the Bosporus, and yet we know everything that has happened. We've met the family, we know of their grief, and we've got an idea of how the crime was committed.
And now we get to the cast, one of the greatest strengths of the 1974 movie adaptation. The movie features, in no particular order (in addition to Finney), Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Jaqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, and Anthony Perkins, among others. The cast list reads like a Who's Who of the movie industry.
Finney manages to be both funny and serious. He's in his element, investigating a crime in a variation of the locked-room scenario, but he is world's greatest detective, after all, and he allows himself a certain amount of pride and preening. I laugh every time he puts on the hair net and the mustache protector to sleep, and when he dons gloves to read the newspaper or puts on his robe with the snakeskin pattern. He's a man of contrasts that Finney plays to perfection.
And every time I watch Lauren Bacall reveal her true identity (that's as close as I’ll get to a spoiler if you haven't seen the movie), I am shocked. The movie is that good.
I could go on, talking about certain cinematic nuances, like the train brakes that sound like a woman screaming or the snowstorm that strands the train on the tracks, but I won’t. I want you to see the movie for yourself. And see it before November, when the newest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is released.
—Amy M. Reade
USA Today Bestselling author Amy M. Reade writes women's contemporary and gothic fiction. Her books have been compared to authors such as Daphne du Maurier, Phyllis Whitney, and Victoria Holt. Her standalone novels feature vivid descriptions of exotic and fascinating locations, such as the Thousand Islands region of New York State, Charleston, South Carolina, and the Big Island of Hawaii. Most recently, she has been working on The Malice series, set in the United Kingdom.
Harlem’s Renaissance Man
The Golden Age of detective fiction coincided with a different sort of Golden Age among African-Americans: The Harlem Renaissance. Arguably no-one could have been described better as a Renaissance Man, than Rudolph Fisher, the author of The Conjure-Man Dies. A graduate of Brown University and Howard University Medical School, he was the author of scientific papers and political tracts promoting Pan-Africanism, as well as at least two novels and several short stories, all within the unbelievably short life-span of 37 years.
Fisher was not the first black author of a detective story. That distinction goes to the Jamaican-American writer W. Adolphe Roberts for The Haunting Hand (1926). (Quite a character in his own right, Roberts had love affairs with women as diverse as Margaret Sanger and Edna St. Vincent Millay, although the second may have been purely literary.) But Fisher’s novel was the first to introduce a black detective – along with a completely black cast of characters.
As he did in his first novel, The Walls of Jericho, Fisher self-consciously strove to portray both the upper classes and lower classes in Harlem equally. Thus, his hero, Dr. John Archer, “a tall, slender light-skinned man of obviously habitual composure,” and N’Gana Frimbo, the Conjure-Man, a Harvard-educated African prince who pencils notes such as “Fairclough, too has missed the great secret,” in a text titled The Philosophical Basis of Destiny, are balanced by Bubber and Jinx, who discover the body when they “jes’ come to get this Frimbo’s advice ‘bout a little business project we thought up.” In between these polar opposites stand Frimbo’s landlord and his wife, a railroad porter, Easley Jones, and Perry Dart, the police detective, who, unlike the usual bumbling police officers in Golden Age stories, “knew Harlem from lowest dive to loftiest temple.”
Perhaps not unexpectedly in such a rigidly-defined society, gradations in skin color play an important role in solving the mystery. Overall, however, The Conjure-Man Dies destabilizes epistemological and social norms rather than reinforcing them. The line between the rational and irrational is constantly blurred, culminating in the man of science, Archer, saying to Dart, “Frimbo would call me a mystic. I have implicit faith in something I really can’t prove.” Bubber and Jinx provide a comic reworking of this same debate between mysticism and detective work; however, they are the ones who actually solve the mystery by discovering the proof Archer cannot.
Perhaps most ambiguous of all is the figure of the railroad porter, a job that was at once a demeaning reminder of slavery and crucial to the dissemination of black culture (especially music) and the rise of the black middle class. Fisher shows how a similar dichotomy drives Archer’s life in a passage that is worth quoting at length:
“[My father] died shortly after I finished college. I wanted to study medicine. One of my profs had a wealthy friend. He saw me through. I’ve been practicing nearly ten years – and haven’t finished paying him back yet. Hardly dramatic, is it?’
“You have omitted the drama, my friend. Your father’s struggle to educate you, his clinging on to life just to see you complete a college training – which had been denied him; your desperate helplessness, facing the probability of not being able to go on into medicine; the impending alternative of teaching school in some Negro academy; the thrill of discovering help; the rigid economy, to the keep the final amount of your debt as low as possible – the summers of menial work as a bell boy or waiter or porter somewhere, constantly taking orders from your inferiors both white and black.”
Beyond being a stinging social commentary, the passage is also a brilliant apologetic for writers giving voice to characters and societies that are usually dismissed for being “hardly dramatic.” So read The Conjure-Man Dies not for its historical significance. Read it because it is a damned fine book.
My Favorite Crime Movie: In Cold Blood
As a 14-year-old in 1967, my principal reason for living was marathon listening to Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Distraction arrived at the end of the year in the form of a movie that immediately earned lifelong status as my favorite crime flick. From the standard list of film genres, it also rates near the top of my favorite drama and horror films. The accolades do not stop there. It was based on a book that is one of the best and scariest crime novels ever penned.
I am talking about Truman Capote's literary masterpiece In Cold Blood, and the black-and-white cinematic tour de force of the same name written for the screen and directed by Richard Brooks. It’s rare that both book and film work so magnificently. It happens here largely because both are honest, in depth studies of two soulless men stalking a twisted version of the American dream. The movie’s semi-documentary style is so authentic that at times it seems captured by the omnipresent security cameras we now endure in our post 9/11 world. That’s real. And real is scary.
The opening scene ushers the coming horror with a desperate warning from a muted jazz trumpet as a Kansas City-bound bus barrels straight toward the audience. From that head-on crash into our sensibilities, we’re essentially made accomplices to Dick Hickock’s and Perry Smith’s perverse road trip that unfolds in episodic chiaroscuro. From car, to motel, to roadside toilet, to flashback, and back to car — we witness the slow peeling back of their scorching pathologies.
We do not view the home invasion and quadruple murder until the middle of the film, long after fate has taken us by the hand. When we finally suffer their loathsome deed, it’s a morbidly visual patchwork of our most iconic fear — that of waking to find nervous, whispering men standing in our darkened bedroom. As bystanders, we see the victims grasp that these men are true sociopaths and that they will not live to see morning.
The final third of the film is a prison drama that ultimately delivers the audience a classic catharsis. We journey through our killers’ interrogation, trial, stint on death row, and finally their respective slow walks up the staircase to a hangman nicknamed “We the People.”
Perry Smith’s final words are, “I’d like to apologize, but who to?” The answer is: to us, the spectators of his wasted life. The dramatic soundtrack of his slo-mo execution is age old, but works with ageless theatrical impact: the beat…beat…BEATING of the human heart. It increases in volume. Then fades. Then stops.
I first saw In Cold Blood in Richmond, Virginia, a few weeks after reading the controversial non-fiction novel for extra credit as a high school freshman. Over the years, the film’s capacity to terrify has never dimmed, particularly the eerily transcendent performances of Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as Smith and Hickock. In his original four-star review, Roger Ebert wrote that the two are “so good they pass beyond performances and almost into life.”
Hollywood, too, knew it was important. In Cold Blood was nominated for four Oscars: Best Director, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score for Quincy Jones. It deserved to win all four. The fact that it won none was, itself, a crime. But then, it was up against In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie & Clyde, and Cool Hand Luke. Wow, good for you, 1967. What a great year that was for high quality crime movies!
Gray Basnight’s forthcoming novel, The Dear John File, a thriller centering on discovery of a secret FBI diary revealing historic government crimes, will be published in 2018. The Cop with the Pink Pistol, singled out by Library Journal as Novel of the Month, was published in 2012. Shadows in the Fire ( 2015) is a Civil War historical set in Richmond. Prior to writing fiction, Basnight worked for 30 years in New York City broadcast news as a producer, writer, editor, and reporter.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY — Murder Most Spousal
This is the third in our member-written series: My Favorite Crime Movie.
Despite our fondness for (obsession with?) serial killers, conventional wisdom says one is much more likely to be killed by a spouse than by a total stranger. And statistics say husbands do away with wives more than vice versa. But don't tell that to filmmakers. Much to the consternation of my husband, some of my favorite movies involve wives for whom a simple divorce is just not enough.
Number one on that list for me is Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson. As if those heavyweights were not enough, it was directed by Billy Wilder, with a screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and based on a novella by James M. Cain.
Double Indemnity was inspired by a 1927 murder committed by a New York woman and her lover. Ruth Snyder convinced her husband to take out an insurance policy with a double indemnity clause, which would pay double for an accidental death. Then she talked her paramour into murdering her husband. James Cain was among the journalists attending the trial.
In the film, insurance man Walter Neff (MacMurray) rings the wrong doorbell and lives to regret it when Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) answers. Actually she doesn't answer. The door opens and his first glimpse of the lady of the house is of her standing at the top of the stairs, wrapped in a towel.
No matter how cool Neff plays it — the word "baby" is sprinkled liberally throughout the script — Phyllis is in charge from the moment she walks down those stairs.
"There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour."
"How fast was I going, officer?"
"I'd say about 90."
Who wouldn't want to deliver lines like that? And when did a piece of jewelry (the famous anklet) ever arouse such passion? Walter Neff, for all his hipster, cigarette-smoking, hat-twirling swagger, is toast. And so are we.
Enter the boorish, inconvenient husband. Exit, the husband. It won't really be a spoiler to say that the briefly-seen husband isn't the third member of this noirish triangle. That honor goes to Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Keyes, a fast-talking, no-nonsense claims adjuster who almost married once but called it off after investigating his fiancé's family and finding them disreputable. One of my fave Keyes lines — "Margie. She sounds like she drinks from the bottle." Can any worse be said of a woman? Not to Mr. Keyes.
With his internal "little man" calling the shots, Keyes refuses to believe Dietrichson's death was an accident.
But the plot of the film is almost the least of it. The snappy dialogue laced with innuendo. The camera angles. The 1940s southern California vibe. The cars. Even the crazy blonde wig Stanwyck wears. These two murderous lovers are spiraling toward disaster the minute they meet, and I love every bit of it.
Rosemary Harris is a former president of MWA-NY and of Sisters in Crime New England. She is the author of the Dirty Business mystery series featuring amateur sleuth Paula Holliday.