I liked this version. I liked the Albert Finney version and the David Suchet version, too. The book? It has its good points and its not-so-good points which are sometimes hard to translate onto the screen.
What I sensed both sides of the argument about the movie lacked was understanding the meaning of this film’s particular take on justice and revenge.
Agatha Christie sold a lot of novels, pretty much with the same basic story line. It would be safe to suggest she helped solidify the “English cozy” mystery genre along with Nagio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers and many one or two others. It is also safe to suggest that she has been imitated to death. The cozy was not the most favorite of Raymond Chandler, the much mimicked author of “The Big Sleep.” The English tended towards mysteries of manners, puzzles, and the cozy. American’s favored hard-boiled, noir, and the silly.
But even the most manufactured beach read in the modern era might once in a while stumble upon a good story. It is every author’s dream to hit upon some novel that could become a world-class best seller and a movie. Close readers can see what drives the writing to match some preconceived notion what the product would look like on the screen.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is about revenge. Therefore it is also about justice, which when compared to the early 30s, probably seems a bit crude. That era is long before those great Supreme Court rulings that opened up personal freedoms —at one level a stand against injustice— on a large scale. Justice and revenge must go hand in hand whether the crime is shop-lifting or murder. Sincere legislatures know the matching is extremely hard to do.
But, does revenge by one person or by twelve persons, as in this story, make any difference? We are buried under nonsense revenge movies like the Charles-Bronson-Death-Wish horrors from years ago. It seems to never end. Would it be out of bounds to suggest “Batman” as an avenger/revenger?
Americans talk a lot about justice but we should probably admit there is justice and there is man-made law. What we really have in the US is process: “due process.” The law might be “wrong” from numerous points of view but we have the process —we hope— to change or address shortcomings. You are supposedly guaranteed your day in court. But it is also true that justice is unevenly administered. The rich are different than you and I, like we need reminding.
Most of us know justice may be blind but we also know it can smell money a mile away. But, process is still what counts and Christie throws process out the window in both “And Then There Were None” and in “Murder.” What we’re left with in the movie is a puzzle to solve without being forced to ponder “Is it right?” Whether that was her purpose or not, I don’t know, but having a moral or not alters the whole thrust of the story.
We like to think of ourselves as a nation of laws and we have to continue that belief if only because to not do so opens the doors to unimaginable violence and anarchy. Our belief is that the process —the judicial system— trumps revenge.
“Murder” is a story of cold-blooded, mean, pound-of-flesh revenge. Many of us may have wanted to go down this road. We’re taught that vengeance is the Lord’s, but the aggrieved parent or spouse might feel better delivering justice upside someone’s head with a two-by-four. To take years for the wheels of justice to turn ever too slowly and then leave us with a wholly unacceptable result, leads to the dilemma posed by the snow-bound passengers on the Orient Express.
Charles Moore lives in Johnson City.