Twelve Angry People: Conflicting Revelatory Strategies in Murder on the Orient Express

By Hark, Ina Rae | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1987 | Go to article overview

Twelve Angry People: Conflicting Revelatory Strategies in Murder on the Orient Express


Hark, Ina Rae, Literature/Film Quarterly


The first time Sidney Lumet teamed with screenwriter Paul Dehn to adapt an English thriller for the screen, the book was John Le Carre's Call for the Dead and the style of the resulting film, The Deadly Affair, was, as Leslie Halliwell comments: "deliberately glum, photographed against the shabbiest possible London backgrounds in muddy colour."1 Le Carre's complex, psychically tortured characters, gray moral ambivalence, and naturalistically detailed settings meshed well with the predilections of the director who would explore the pressures of urban life in such films as The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, and Prince of the City. When Lumet and Dehn collaborated again, they had exchanged Le Carré for Agatha Christie, and the style of Murder on the Orient Express had been chosen by producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin as one of all-star cast glamor and glittering period detail. Many reviewers agreed with Paul Zimmerman that Lumet was out of his element in the plush, stylized ambience of the film: "But a rough, scrappy, hustling inventiveness, full of gritty textures, has always characterized his best work. He simply has no feel for high style"2 After completing the film, Lumet himself admitted the stylistic difficulties it had presented: "I did Murder on the Orient Express because I love melodrama. That's all. I wanted to have fun. It turned out to be some of the hardest work I've ever done, because the piece was highly stylized."3

The stylistic differences involved not only mise en scene but significant variations in the concept and revelation of character. In Christie's novels, the efforts of the detective and the unfolding of the narrative produce gradual revelations of previously concealed information about characters. The process, moreover, is constantly circumscribed by the structural necessities of the mystery genre. As Charles Derry remarks: "Thus the omniscience is rhetorically selective in regard to which characters it can reveal as well as in regard to the comprehensiveness with which it can reveal them. Of course, if any character were to be revealed completely, he could no longer be a suspect."4 In a Lumet film, on the other hand, vey little stands in the way of a character's steady and full psychological disclosure, and the way characters reveal themselves and the factors that compel their revelations are crucial.

Lumet uses his characters' manifested behavior as a text between whose lines he probes for an authentic reading. His whole visual style, which stresses camera movement and editing that start with the distant and proceed to zero in on the intimate, invites the viewer to participate in the unveiling process. Nor is the process particularly arduous. Once two or more characters settle in for a shouting match, the revelations usually come thick and fast; critics rarely accuse Lumet of being overly subtle. What Polito says of cops in Prince of the City applies to a majority of the director's neurotic, tormented protagonists: "In their hearts they want to admit their guilt."

Christie, on the other hand, has little use for psychologically complex characters. She writes in her autobiography: "At that time, the time of the 1914 war, the doer of evil was not a hero: the enemy was wicked, the hero was good; it was as crude and simple as that. We had not then begun to wallow in psychology. I was, like everyone else who wrote books or read them, against the criminal and for the innocent victim."5 The secrets her characters conceal , in addition to criminal guilt, concern social identity . They really have different names, occupations, personal histories, or relationships to the other suspects or the victim than their initial testimony acknowledges. But even when the characters fulfill Poirot's prediction in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that everyone in a murder investigation has something to hide, they are hiding actual facts, not the traumas that the secrets of the past may have wrought on their psyches. …

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