The idea to talk this week about another score by James Newton Howard after I saw him at a live concert performance in the Royal Albert Hall at Friday, November 3rd, I had to skip after seeing Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of this classic novel by Agatha Christie.
When I was a teenager I saw the classical adaptation by Sidney Lumet from 1974. British Actor Albert Finney who the younger generation perhaps remember as Ed Masry, the boss of Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” (2000) who finally got Roberts an Academy Award, played the first and only time Hercule Poirot. Even though Peter Ustinov’s performance of the great Belgian detective with his famous grey little cells is perhaps more famous, Finney’s performance is marvellous.
The prologue gives the audience the background story about the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong, the infant daughter of wealthy British Army Colonel Hamish Armstrong. Lumet created this prologue in special black and white setting and interrupt the scenes with newspaper reports. English composer Richard Rodney Bennett created a haunting music for this scene, and this whole prologue is one of the most haunting scenes I ever saw as a teenager, especially because of the twirling sound of Rodney Bennett’s music.
The movie itself is for me the best adaptation of the novel by Agatha Christie. Lumet brought a star cast together: Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, and Michael York – just to mention a few of them. Agatha Christie was normally not very pleased with film adaptations of her books, but this one she thought it was well made except Albert Finney, she did not like his moustache. Perhaps that is the Kenneth Branagh put so much effort into his one.
I read that director Lumet first approached Connery as the biggest star: If you get the biggest star first, the others will come along, he said. Interesting is also that Ingrid Bergan was offered the role of Princess Dragomiroff, but she refused and wanted to play Greta Ohlsson. Lumet decided to give her one big scene where she talks for almost five minutes. The short was all done in one long take. Bergman loved this idea, gave a great performance and won the Academy Award for this role.
Overall, this movie is so good, for sure, one of the best adaptations of Agatha Christie – Billy Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution” (based on her stage play) from 1957 is for me still the best – that a new adaptation of this famous novel might be a very difficult approach.
I have the feeling that Kenneth Branagh wanted to do it so much better that he put too many ideas into this new adaptation. The setting is amazing, the scenes with the sun setting are beautiful, and the cast fabulous, but overall the movie is too melodramatic. I did not read the novel so far, but this very melodramatic scene when Poirot confronts all the murders and Michelle Pfeiffer has her great scene is far too over the top. Here is the trailer
Michelle Pfeiffer said in an interview that Branagh opened the murder mystery and made it very big and romantic. Perhaps that was the mistake? The original story is complicated enough and critics were not very pleased with the ending of the story, and perhaps Branagh thought he had to give Poirot more dominance in the story because he is playing this character, but in my opinion, the movie is best when Branagh focuses on the murder mystery.
I was highly irritated when I saw one scene and Branagh put the camera high on top like the camera position in the second murder scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, but I still have no idea why Branagh did it for his scene. You expect more because you know this scene from “Psycho”, but then nothing exciting is coming. Also, Branagh tries to get some humour into the scenes, but I often was not sure if some scenes are meant to be humours, e.g. when Poirot says he is the greatest detective on earth. Why is he saying it? To introduce himself? This is highly arrogant, and Poirot would never do this. Or is this a kind of being sarcastic? I still do not understand this.
Overall this movie is not very balanced, and I think that directly compared to Sidney Lumet’s version this movie is not as good. What is always good, is the music of Patrick Doyle, and his score and especially the song he wrote for Michelle Pfeiffer, are the reasons I am talking about this movie this week. Here is an interview with Michelle Pfeiffer:
Kenneth Branagh’s long-term composer Patrick Doyle composed the soundtrack, and the album has 24 tracks, including the song “Never Forget”, sung by Michelle Pfeiffer as end credits. After Doyles’ fabulous score for “Cinderella”, one of my favourite soundtracks in the last years, I was highly looking forward to it. Here is an interview with the composer:
The tracks are mostly short, except one track called “Justice” (9:29 minutes long), the song and the last track called “Orient Express Suite” which closes the album. Track 1 “The Wailing Wall” opens the movie in Jerusalem and starts unexpectedly with some oriental action music, quite fun to listen to. Track 2 “Jaffa to Stamboul” introduces the lyrical moments of the score, a wonderful track. With “Arrival” (track 3), we have the first of a lot of suspense and mystery tracks. This is my first highlight of the score.
Track 4 “04 The Orient Express” introduces finally the main theme, this is a very elegant theme with dominance of the string section, a fast-forward driving piece of music, perhaps a musical translation of the feeling of travelling in such a luxury train. A fabulous track and just because of this theme the score is worth buying. Track 5 “Departure” continues the musical translation of travelling. Track 6 “Judgement” is a lyrical one that builds up the tension. The main instrument of this score is the piano, in the song played by Doyle himself, and this track is a good example how Doyle uses the variety of the piano in the score.
The music follows the dramaturgical structure and the way Branagh is telling this murder mystery very much. Except for one action scene during the investigation, there is not really a lot happening. Therefore, most of the tracks are short and pure suspense or atmosphere tracks, starting with “Touch Nothing Else” (track 7). The following tracks “MacQueen”, “Twelve Stab Wounds”, “Mrs Hubbard” (better one because of the orchestration), “This is true”, “Geography”, “One Sharp Knife”, “Ma Katherine” and “True Identity” does not really stand out, so it is difficult to recommend one. It seems they are all belonging together and can considerate as one big musical suite. “Dr Arbuthnot” (track 19) and ““Keep Everyone Inside” (track 13) are different because they feature some nice action, and track 10 “The Armstrong Case” (track 10) is more composed in the chamber music style while “Confessions” (track 14) is a very sad one that will touch you before the emotions run high in the final showdown.
“It is Time” (track 20) is an introduction to the longest track called “Justice” that underscores Poirot solving the case and showing us his emotional suffering. This track is a summary of the whole soundtrack and worth listening to it. Doyle created a beautifully sad piece that transforms the emotions of the murder and Poirot’s conflict what to do in a timeless musical language. Track 22 “Poirot” is a pure piano piece that does not fit to the tone of the other tracks. With the next one, we have Michelle Pfeiffer’s song, for me the highlight of the whole soundtrack before the last track called “Orient Express Suite“ repeats the main theme and closes the album. Another interview with Doyle:
In conclusion, “Murder on the Orient Express” is not Doyle’s best score, but he underscores the atmosphere of the movie. The weakness of the score, e.g. no variation of the theme so that not really a track that stands out, is a result of the movie. Overall, it is a nice and elegant score with a very nice main theme and a beautiful song that brings Michelle Pfeiffer finally back again on an album. This is the best reason to buy this score, and Thank you, Patrick Doyle to do this!
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