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Friday, August 17, 2018

Music on the Orient Express

Twelve suspects, two composers, one train.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kenneth Branagh (left) and Albert Finney sport their mustaches as Hercule Poirot
in two very different versions of Murder on the Orient Express. Images © 2017 and 1974.
So in the middle of writing this year's Metropolitan Opera Preview (currently three posts done out of twenty-five) I found the time to watch Kenneth Branagh's 2017 remake of Murder on the Orient Express. And this tale of train-board derring-do gives me the opportunity to write about one of my favorite subjects: film music. In this case, we'll be discussing the scores of both the new movie and the 1974 classic, directed by Sidney Lumet. It should be noted that I approached the Branagh remake with some trepadition, as the Lumet film is one of my all-time favorite movies.

For those unfamiliar, Orient Express is the second big screen adaptation of Agatha Christie's famous locked room mystery, in which a passenger is found stabbed (repeatedly) to death in a locked compartment in the Calais Coach of the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which for many years ferried the wealthy from Istanbul (not Constantinople) all the way to Calais on the north coast of France. The historic train was considered to be the height of fashionable travel in the years before the jet age.

Mrs. Christie set her story, one of the most famous to feature her detective hero Hercule Poirot, on the snowbound train somewhere in what is now Serbia. There are twelve passengers and twelve suspects. It was originally adapted for the screen in 1974 by Sidney Lumet, in what was Hollywood's first serious effort at setting a Poirot story. Two TV-movie versions exist (starring Alfred Molina and David Suchet, respectively) The new film by Mr. Branagh features the director and actor as Poirot.

The 1974 version features a jaw-dropping cast, with Ingmar Bergman (who won an Oscar for about ten minutes of screen time) Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave among the old-school actors populating the Calais coach. However, this writer's favorite star of that film was Richard Rodney Bennett, the brilliant British composer who wrote the score for the film. The Bennet score is built around the music styles of the 1930s, from the rich piano melody that dominates the opening credits to the triumphant, skipping waltz that accompanies the train when it is under way. And it uses an actual steam effect!

Live performance of a suite from Richard Rodney Bennet's score for Murder on the Orient Express.

However, not all is sugary sweetness. The film opens with a disturbing sequence chronicling the kidnap and murder of Daisy Armstrong, the daughter of a wealthy American family. The Armstrong kidnapping (based on the Lindbergh case) is the heart of the movie's plot, and it is accompanied by slithering strings, keening notes in the woodwinds and a general sense of minor-key dread. That ominous music is used again for the re-creation of the murder of one of the passengers. But in the end, the waltz is triumphant as the train resumes its trek across Europe.

Kenneth Branagh tells the same story, with some differences. The cast is more multi-cultural, with familiar faces like Michelle Pfeiffer and Derek Jacobi joined by Leslie Odom Jr. as "Dr. Arbuthnot" (essentially the Connery role) and Penelope Cruz as the overly religious governess originally played by Ingrid Bergman. For the most part, it works. The Orient Express is disabled not by a mere snowdrift, but by a violent avalanche.  This sequence features thunderous, apocalyptic music by longtime Branagh collaborator (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing) Patrick Doyle. The Doyle score relies less on dances but on long melodic lines, with tuneful themes in the wind and strings that convey a sense of grandeur to this fateful journey.

"Justice"" an excerpt from Patrick Doyle's score to Murder on the Orient Express from the 2017 film.

The other major difference of the new film is a liberal use of trad jazz in the scenes before the murder. Standards like Duke Ellington's "Merry Go Round" and Artie Shaw's "Any Old Time" (sung by billie Holiday) put the viewer squarely in the film's period. "I Get a Kick Out of You" (played by Leo Reisman and his Orchestra) makes an appearance. The closing credits feature an original song by Doyle and Branagh, sung by the film's female lead, Michelle Pfeiffer.

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