‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is an original whodonit

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For murder mystery fans, Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel set the industry standard. Sure, there had been super sleuth Sherlock Holmes, but “Murder on the Orient Express” took the genre to another level. The iconic story tells of thirteen stranded passengers and one man’s challenge to solve the mystery before the murderer strikes again.

Of course, it all begins and ends with the requisite quirky detective. In this case, the flamboyant Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, who also directs) is impeccably dressed and topped with an outlandish moustache. The behavior of the famed Belgian borders on obsessive compulsive, but helps heighten his power of deductive reasoning, “My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”

The great investigator is traveling on holiday. While crossing the Alps, this polar express is temporarily halted by a massive avalanche. Meanwhile, a murder is discovered in the first class cabin. Despite the finite area, there are no witnesses to the crime. Poirot is asked to solve this case from disparate and seemingly contradictory evidence.

First adapted to the screen in 1974, when Christie was still alive, this version brings the classic to an entirely new audience. Some of the tactics seem “elementary” by today’s standards, but viewed as a 1934 period piece, the level of analysis, judgment and interpretation of false clues still surpasses some of today’s television shows.

Beyond the standard procedural, this is a gorgeous and visually stunning production.  Notable are the cinematography, set pieces, costumes and soundtrack. Traveling between Istanbul and Paris, the renowned train represented a lavish lifestyle of the day. Sweeping mountain vistas and 1930s urban structures are offset by opulent Pullman sleeping cars. Some of the more interesting scenes are shot from overhead.

Most of all, the story relies on a cast of bizarre characters, also setting the tables for games such as “Clue.” Johnny Depp leads the supporting cast as the gangster Edward Ratchett, who offers Poirot a large sum of money for protection. The detective declines, “If you will forgive me for being personal, I do not like your face.”

Josh Gad plays Ratchett’s suspicious assistant Hector MacQueen, while Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a sleazy dame that talks a lot without say anything. Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) demands to be served while Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) brings a sense of logic and reason to some of the more emotional situations. Penelope Cruz and Leslie Odom Jr. round out the charming cast.

Screenwriter Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”) includes enough snappy dialog at the beginning and end, but the middle third loses steam as he tries to give each of the numerous characters enough to say during the dizzying hunt for the assailant. Poirot is dismayed by the fracture of the human soul, declaring, “Everyone is a suspect!” It seems each has something to hide. So, he gets to the truth by uncovering lies, one by one.

When Agatha Christie actually rode the Orient Express, it was temporarily halted by rain and flooding. When she had heard an avalanche had once stopped it, thankfully, her remarkable mind and pen went to work. It’s as if Poirot was there, “I see the world how it should be, so when something is out of place, it sticks out like the nose on your face.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” is 114 minutes and rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements. Almost every TV and movie detective, from Columbo, Jessica Fletcher, Monk and even Castle were inspired by Sherlock Holmes and/or Hercule Poirot. The most outrageous take off of Poirot might be Inspector Jacques Clouseau.

As Poirot, the peculiar Branagh even out-quirks Johnny Depp. The colorful suspects, who are all carrying more baggage than the porter, are made to squirm by the detective’s peculiar approach, “It is the brain, the little gray cells on which one must rely. One must seek the truth within, not without.” No, we don’t know what that means either, but it’s pure poetry. As they say, it’s not the journey it’s the destination.

Ron’s Rating: B   Leigh’s Rating: B+

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Ron & Leigh Martel