Original vs. Remake: Murder on the Orient Express

MurderOnTheOrientExpressThis time on Original vs. Remake I’m comparing the Academy Award winning Agatha Christie adaption Murder on the Orient Express with the 2010 TV remake which is a part of the highly beloved Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, starring David Suchet (I will forego the more derided and modernized Alfred Molina version)…

Spoiler Alert: As this is a who-done-it, the blog will treat the subject matter in a way that will reveal important plot-points. If you have not seen either version of the film, I recommend you stop reading now.

The Similarities

Both films are directly inspired by the Agatha Christie novel of the same name. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is called on an urgent case from Istanbul to London and boards the fully booked Orient Express. He is approached by Mr. Ratchett who believes his life is in danger, but Poirot refuses to work as his bodyguard. After a restless night when the Orient Express gets stopped in Yugoslavia by a snow-drift, Mr. Ratchett is found dead in his cabin, stabbed 12 times.

Through questioning the socially and ethnically diverse passengers of the Calais Coach where the murder took place and gathering a number of important clues (too many, Poirot suspects) he comes to two conclusions. Either that Ratchett, real name Cassetti (an extortionist who murdered a kidnapped child and got away with the ransom money), was murdered by an unknown mafia assailant masquerading as a conductor or that everyone in the Calais Coach, who are known to be related the Cassetti’s victim Daisy Armstrong, participated in the murder and tried to throw Poirot off the track with planted clues and diversion.

The Differences

Original: The film starts by showing the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong, intercut with news-paper headings – thus giving the Armstrong kidnapping more presence in the beginning.

Remake: The film begins during Poirot’s prior case in Istanbul, during his typical “revelation tirade” when the soldier being questioned suddenly commits suicide.

Original: Poirot overhears Debenham and Abernathy’s conversation during his boat-ride from the Asian side of Istanbul to the European side.

Remake: Poirot overhears Debenham and Abernathy’s conversation in the streets of Istanbul before witnessing the stoning of an unfaithful woman.

Original: The director of the line is Signor Bianchi, an old friend of Poirot’s (not in line with the novel, a part probably created specifically for Martin Balsam).

Remake: As in the book, the director of the line is a Belgian Mr. Bouc, whom Poirot knows but is not familiar with.

Original: Apart from a few name changes, the conspirators are largely the same as in the novel. Ms. Ohlsson is played by famed Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman, and therefore speaks with an authentic Swedish accent (“I saw Ye-sus!”). Ms. Debenham’s role is considerably less central to the story. Linda Arden is revealed during Poirot’s “revelation tirade”.

Remake: Apart from some name changes, the conspirators are largely the same, except for Cyrus Hardman who is omitted entirely as Dr. Constantine is one of the conspirators. Ms. Ohlsson is considerably younger and doesn’t speak with an observable Swedish accent, except for the occasional “Ja!”. Ms. Debenham is more central to the story and is shown to have suffered paralysis in one arm due to being struck by Daisy’s kidnappers. Linda Arden reveals herself during the film’s finale by removing her wig which hides her grey hairs (she is also shown to wear false teeth).

Original: Dr. Constantine is helpful to the investigation though, much like Bianchi, makes several erroneous conclusions about the murderer.

Remake: Dr. Constantine is one the conspirators and intentionally tries to lead Poirot off the scent by suggesting the murderer escaped through Ratchett’s window (though there are no tracks in the snow). He also counts the number of stabs incorrectly and it’s Poirot who makes the conclusion that some of the stab-wounds were done left and other right-handedly.

Original: Poirot is one of the people who discovers Ratchett’s corpse. He immediately recognises Ratchett’s true identity, when he burns the once burnt note to reveal the hidden writing which says “aisy Arms” (the remnant letters of Daisy Armstrong).

Remake: Poirot is only shown Ratchett’s corpse the next morning when he wakes up. He doesn’t innitially manage to decipher the meaning of the burnt letters but during his conversation with McQueen, suddenly realises who Ratchett really is.

Original: Ratchett/Cassetti is said to be the mastermind of the kidnapping but got away since the police only captured his accomplice who murdered Daisy. McQueen says his father  was the prosecutor on the case, but he appears motivated by his semi-Oedipal affection with the late Mrs. Armstrong.

Remake: Like in the novel, Cassetti was tried but the mafia forced McQueen’s father to rig the trial by threatening McQueen (explaining his complicity in the murder).

Original: The drugged Ratchett appears entirely unconscious when the Jury of Conspirators take turns stabbing him to death.

Remake: The drugged Ratchett is conscious but unable to move as the Jury rapidly stabs him while Princess Dragomiroff tells him he is going to hell.

Original: Cassetti’s threatening notes are non-specific threats on his life.

Remake: Cassetti is carrying the exact sum of his ransom demanded of Daisy  as the notes indicate he must pay the sum at Calais. After the murder, Princess Dragomiroff hides the money in her dress and intends to give it to Armstrong Foundation.

Original: After revealing his conclusions, Poirot admits to being of two minds and allows Signor Bianchi to decide which version of the murder’s solution he will present to the Yugoslav police. Bianchi, wanting to avoid scandal and having all the planted clues to present, elects to go with the mafioso story.

Remake: Poirot appears firmly against the Jury of Conspirators taking the law into their own hands, despite Bouc wanting him to choose the mafioso story. When the Yugoslav police arrive, Poirot has a change of heart and presents the conductor’s uniform and all the other false evidence.

Original: The train remains entirely operational while being stranded. A snow-plow eventually breaks away the snow-drift and the two trains are hooked together to continue the voyage.

Remake: As the train remains marooned, the train’s generator fails. The train’s crew are shown trying to dig the snow off the tracks with little success. By the end, the passengers are forced to huddle into the restaurant cart for warmth.

How is it better?

Original: The film has excellent production values and due to its more generous running time, concentrates more on the interrogations. The film features an all-star cast (Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Antony Perkins, Michael York just to name a few) which makes the mystery more palpable as any one of them could be the potential murderer.

Remake: The film’s tone is darker and the moral ambiguity of the case comes through much better. David Suchett plays the role of Poirot with great conviction. Equally, while the cast is not as star-studded, it also adds mystery as to who could be the killer. Despite being a TV movie, the effects of the snow-bound Orient Express look very convincing.

How is it worse?

Original: On the off-set the dialogue can appear a little rushed. Also, emphasizing the Armstrong case at the beginning robs the Cassetti revelation some of its impact. Albert Finney plays Poirot a little over-the-top with an over-emphasized French accent and being generally more comical. The film’s finale seems incredibly tacky with the cast taking turns clinking their glasses after Bianchi elects to tell the mafioso story to the police. This finale seems to lack any moral ambiguity.

Remake: The film’s darker mood may be a little depressing for some. Also, the film lacks a good “revelation tirade” and is more subtle with Poirot and the passengers forced to huddle together in the dining cart.

Final verdict – Which one to see?

Remake: While the 1974 version has a more star-studded cast and admittedly follows the novel closer in various ways, the remake in my view captures the seriousness of Poirot’s conclusions. The original is lighter, entertaining and certainly a very good version of the story (except for Finney’s Poirot and the finale), but I feel the remake just handles everything much better.