Adam, our Brussels correspondent (Twitter’s @artdecoist) marshals his little grey cells to probe the relative art deco-ness of the three film and TV adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express…
Adaptations of Agatha Christie novels have helped to revive and sustain public interest in art deco. Those of us who viewed the Poirot TV series with David Suchet from 1989 onwards were instantly transported by Pat Gavin’s pastiche of AM Cassandre’s poster graphics for the credit sequence; then captivated by expertly-chosen art deco locations from all over the UK plus period furniture, costumes, and especially those hats. The ITV series succinctly evoked the period in which the stories were set; but Suchet’s run has finished, replaced by darker Christie BBC adaptations, including the Poirot ABC Murders mini-series shown over Christmas 2018 which provoked purists. Even this revisionist retelling gave us a brief ‘to die for’ shot of Bexhill’s De La Warr pavilion in full sunny moderne glory.
Adapting Murder on the Orient Express is the ultimate challenge for film and TV productions because it is Christie’s most famous novel; and there is the challenge of recreating the train journey. Because the Orient Express is so famous as an Art Deco train, Art Deco is more central to the story, counter-pointing the glamour and the intrigue. Reality and myth merge. The train’s own 1980s renaissance was perhaps helped by the novel and its screen adaptations.
The three runners are the 1974 film adaptation with Albert Finney as Poirot; the Suchet TV version (2010); and Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 big screen outing, starring himself. A comment from one of the design team on this most recent adaptation prompted this piece, along the lines of “We wanted to avoid the art nouveau look of the train in the 1974 film and have something more contemporary.” This was a mini-mystery for me because the original train interiors are decorated in art deco style and the 1974 design team based their version on the train’s original interiors. After watching the two films back to back and undertaking a little research on the train itself, I understand this comment and the differing design aesthetics of both films.
The interiors of the Orient Express train were designed in the late twenties by René Prou, famous in his own time, but who then dropped out of sight until a new book appeared on his work recently, not yet translated. Prou was born in 1888 and grew up during peak art nouveau. His 1920s designs for the train interiors echo those of his art deco design contemporary Ruhlmann: noble woods like mahogany; Lalique glass; the best of the best. This dependence on craft and expensive materials is a point of continuity between the art deco of the twenties and art nouveau.
The 1974 film used some genuine Orient Express carriage interiors; so it is very faithful to the train’s actual décor. The designers of the 2017 film went for a more mid-thirties look, industrial 30s moderne rather than twenties art deco in the narrower academic sense. For instance, the carriages are brightly lit by sconces with the “falling water” motif popular in the 1930s. The novel is set in 1934 so this moderne reimagining of the interiors for today’s audience is still “in period” for a work of fiction with no obligation for strict historical accuracy.
The choices made by the 2017 design team stem partly from technical choices. The carriage interiors are vast because the film was shot in 65mm and big cameras had to move around; the train was built in a studio with CGI backdrops and unspoiled New Zealand countryside flashed through the windows using LED video. By contrast, Sidney Lumet really emphasises the claustrophobia of the period train in his 1974 film, an approach followed by the 2010 TV production.
I haven’t mentioned the TV version very much, but not because it lacks merit. Aesthetically it follows the line of the 1974 version and the original Orient Express carriage interiors. The sense of a real period train journey comes through both in 1974 and 2010. The 1974 version uses an actual train for its exteriors, with an engine that is a star in its own right, pulling out of ‘Istanbul station’ in clouds of chiaroscuro steam, heralding the swirling mystery and skulduggery to come. 2010 uses some lowering, atmospheric CGI for shots of the train going through the countryside; the adaptation is set in 1938 and storm clouds are brewing. The equivalent CGI in the 2017 version is like the bright colour picture on a chocolate box lid, a bit unreal.
So which version can I recommend? As in the story, all have a role to play. Go for the 1974 version if you seek glamour, a bevy of yesteryear‘s Hollywood stars and your best glimpse of the Orient Express. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score sets the tone of this production, from its opening dramatic chords, seguing into an elegant dance motif. Get the TV version to see the inimitable Suchet giving one of his best performances, with a script that highlights Poirot’s moral dilemma, plus a taste of original Orient Express décor. This is tight, economical film-making, with no need to slow down the narrative by allocating adequate screen time to costly Hollywood talent. The region 2 DVD extras include Suchet’s own trip on the Orient Express, with shots of the train as it is now.
Enjoy Branagh’s version with any young people you know, as its cast is familiar to them and provides a point of entry. Johnny Depp’s villain is almost certainly the best of the three productions and the film showcases period fashions well. It is the least faithful adaptation of the novel’s plot, with some uncanonical additions for US cinema’s young audience, “Poirot for a new generation”. I winced at the Americanisms and anachronisms in the dialogue, Poirot talking of “bunkies” and “bread crumbing.” Critics withheld their applause from this version; but global audiences brought eyeballs and cash to the box office: Death on the Nile is in production. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb had a major influence on 1920s art deco; so let’s see whether the designers of this new film take that into account.
Une petit clue on ArtDecoist’s next piece to get your little grey cells working…