Film and Plot Synopsis
In Murder on the Orient Express, the famed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, finds he must unexpectedly return to England from Istanbul, Turkey. His good friend, Signor Bianchi offers him a spot on the Orient Express. After one of the passengers informs Poirot that he’s been receiving anonymous threats, he asks Poirot to be his bodyguard. Poirot declines, but the next morning, that man is found stabbed to death. Now Poirot starts an investigation into the matter. When he questions the passengers onboard, he finds that several of them have an interesting connection that leads to more intrigue than he bargained for.
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‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Movie Summary
Five years pass
We come to the Asian side of Istanbul in December where the famous detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) boards a ferry to the European side so he can return to London. As he meets with his good friend, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam), over dinner, the two discuss his plans to return home. Bianchi is the director for his company’s Orient Express line, and he offers Poirot a cabin on it as he’s getting ready for the same trip. However, Bianchi finds this particular journey is oddly booked solid. Bianchi, not taking no for an answer on his own train, orders his conductor, Pierre-Paul Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to add Poirot to a shared cabin.
One by one, the other passengers arrive to the station to board this particular coach. We meet an American widow named Harriet Hubbard (Lauren Bacall); American businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark); his English butler, Edward Beddoes (John Gielgud); his secretary, Hector McQueen (Anthony Perkins); the elderly Russian Princess, Natalia Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller), with her German maid, Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts); Hungarian diplomat, Count Rudolf Andrenyi (Michael York), and his wife, Elena (Jacqueline Bisset), née Grünwald; British Indian Army officer Colonel, John Arbuthnot (Sean Connery); Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), a British teacher working in Baghdad; Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), a Swedish missionary; Italian-American car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli (Denis Quilley); and Cyrus Hardman (Colin Blakely), an American theatrical agent.
The intrigue begins
The first day of the journey is uneventful and mundane, however, morning after, the very gruff Samuel Ratchett asks to have a word with Poirot. He wants to hire him for as much as $50,000 as his bodyguard. He claims someone’s sending him death threats, and needs Poirot’s help. Poirot has all the money he needs, so he can not be bought. Also, Ratchett’s demeanor rubs him the wrong way, so he declines the offer.
That night before bed, the ever gracious Bianchi gives Poirot his own sleeping compartment for use while he goes to another coach. The cabin is noisy from the other passenger’s bustling around or complaining to the cabin’s conductor, Pierre. It’s not until the train is forced to stop in Yugoslavia from a heavy snow blockage that he’s able to go to sleep. By that time, it’s after 1:00 a.m.
A chilly reception
The next morning, Beddoes can not get Ratchett to come to the door. Poirot and Pierre use the passkey to unlock it, but a door chain keeps anyone from entering. The two men break it open to find Ratchett stabbed to death. Bianchi, not wanting a scandal on his line, pleads for Poirot to solve the case while the train is stuck in the snow.
Traveling in another coach is a Greek medical doctor named Stavros Constantine (George Coulouris). He examines Ratchett’s body, and finds someone stabbed him 12 times. What puzzles him though is that while three of them were certainly fatal, some were so slight, they would not have cause him any more harm than a scratch.
Based on the noises from the passenger activities the previous night, in addition to a broken watch found on Ratchett, Poirot believes he died around 1:15 a.m. That coincides with the doctor’s estimate that the victim died between midnight to 2 a.m. Because the doors to the other cars are locked, the murderer is most likely one of the passengers in Poirot’s coach, or even Pierre.
In an ashtray next to the body rests a piece of a burnt letter. Poirot uses his detective skills to examine it. He finds that Ratchett was actually a mobster named Lanfranco Cassetti. He’s the man who orchestrated the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong five years prior.
Death after Daisy
Poirot is still quite disgusted over that case because in the aftermath of that crime, a pregnant Mrs. Armstrong went into premature labour. She died giving birth to a stillborn baby. Afterwards, authorities came to suspect their French maidservant, Paulette, of complicity in the kidnapping. She committed suicide before authorities found her innocent of all accusations. Colonel Armstrong, committed suicide from grief at all the tragedy.
Meanwhile, Cassetti betrayed his partner when he fled the country with the ransom money, and that partner betrayed him with a deathbed confession as to Cassetti’s involvement. In total, five innocent people died due to Cassetti’s actions. So, there’s little sympathy for his murder.
Poirot quickly finds several clues which suggest the assassin boarded the train during the night (while stuck in the snowdrift), murdered Cassetti, and then left as quickly as he/she came. Mrs. Hubbard, whose compartment shared a door with Ratchett’s, says she had an unknown man in there over night sometime around 1 a.m. She also finds a button in her sleeping car from a conductor’s uniform, but upon investigating Pierre’s outfit, Poirot finds it in tact.
Poirot begins his investigation
Poirot asks for all passenger passports and requests that Pierre bring him the passengers one by one for an interview. What he learns is quite interesting. He starts with Pierre who reveals he lost his daughter from Scarlet fever when she was little, and his wife died from grief shortly after.
Ratchett’s secretary, Hector McQueen, turns out to be the son of the attorney who prosecuted the Armstrong case. He lost his own mother at a very young age, and was very, very fond of Mrs. Armstrong who befriended him. McQueen claims to have no knowledge of Ratchett’s true identity. His coming to work for the man a year ago is just a coincidence. As he leaves, Bianchi is convinced he’s the killer.
Edward Beddoes was a British Army batman (a commissioned officer as a personal servant) in World War I. Ratchett hired him from a service back in the United States. He still has references there if needed. He too didn’t have a clue to Ratchett’s true identity. Bianchi now thinks he’s the killer.
Harriet Hubbard is an annoying widower, and both Bianchi and Poirot want to quickly get her interview over. However with her claims that there was a stranger in her room, her finding the possible killer’s button, and soon the murder weapon itself, Mrs. Hubbard proves to be of great value in the investigation.
The Hungarian diplomat, Count Rudolf Andrenyi and his wife, Elena can claim diplomatic immunity, but they agree to the interview. Poirot finds the Count’s passport off because his wife’s name has a very convenient smudge over her name. (Back then, the wife shared her husband’s passport.) Upon further questioning, she reveals that her maiden name is Grünwald. As they leave, Bianchi is now convinced they did it.
Poirot’s questioning turns up the heat
Poirot’s interview with Colonel Arbuthnot and his subsequent separate one with Mary Debenham proves to be quite confrontational. While he has knowledge of Armstrong’s military decorations, he claims the two never met. However, Arbuthnot is hiding something. When Poirot sternly questions, Mary, Arbuthnot breaks into the room to protect her. He reluctantly reveals that he’s going through a messy divorce, and if his current wife caught wind of his affair with Mary, whom he plans on wedding once that ordeal is over, things would get messy with the current Mrs. Arbuthnot. Poirot thanks him for his honesty, and promises that secret will remain with him. Bianchi’s verdict? These two did it.
Greta Ohlsson is a sympathetic Swedish missionary with limited knowledge of the English language. Poirot finds she’s been to America once and for only three months to get donations from wealthy people. That’s the extent of her experience there. Bianchi doesn’t suspect her. Poirot says he will be happy to donate to her cause when his investigation is over.
The Russian Princess Dragomiroff
Next, Poirot heads to the elderly Princess Dragomiroff’s compartment to interview her. He finds that’s she’s such a good friend of Linda Arden, Sonia Armstrong’s mother, the Princess was Sonia’s godmother. Furthermore, she reveals the Armstrongs had a butler, secretary, cook, chauffeur, and nursemaid for Daisy. He thanks her for her time, and goes to see the Princess’ maid, Hildegarde Schmidt.
In her compartment, Poirot asks her about the Armstrong’s maid, Paulette. She says she knew the woman, and when he ask’s for a photo of her, she says she has one in her suitcase. However, when she opens it, an extra conductor’s uniform is mysteriously sitting in it with a spot that’s missing a button which exactly matches the one found previously. There’s also a spare conductor’s pass key in the pocket.
While Hildegarde claims she doesn’t know how it got there, she’s still able to give him Paulette’s photo. As Poirot leaves, he flatters Hildegarde when he says that she must be a good cook as he always knows a good one when he sees one. She smiles and replies that all her previous employers though so.
The Italian-American car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli denies ever being anything other than a salesman. He was never a private chauffeur, but his Italian blood thinks the killing was a mafia hit. When Mrs. Hubbard pops up with a bloody dagger she found in her makeup box, Poirot agrees with the man. Dr. Constantine too confirms the blood is human, and most likely is the murder weapon.
Finally, Poirot interviews American theatrical agent, Cyrus Hardman. However, Hardman he’s actually a hired detective from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. His job was to guard Cassetti (Ratchett). When Poirot shows him Paulette’s photo, Hardman breaks down because he knew the maid.
Poirot now has all the information he needs
Poirot has Bianchi bring everyone together for a big murder/mystery reveal. He tells the assembled group that he has two theories. The first one is straightforward—Cassetti’s murder was a simple Mafia hit. However, the second is much more complex, but more plausible. It’s a long reveal which connects all the suspects on the coach to the original Armstrong murder. Here’s what he believes based on several self-incriminating statements:
When he asked Princess Dragomiroff what Mrs Armstrong’s maiden name was, she replied, “Greenwood” which is the English version of the German name, Grünwald. This allowed him to deduce that Countess Elena is Mrs Armstrong’s sister as her maiden name too is Grünwald—Count Andrenyi would then be Sonia’s brother-in-law.
Furthermore, when the Princess claimed the Armstrong’s secretary’s name was Miss Freebody, Poirot deduced Mary Debenham was actually their secretary based on the London department store called Debenham and Freebody along with the Princess’ play on words.
As he continues on, Poirot reveals that Pierre’s daughter didn’t die from Scarlett Fever like he claimed. When he shows Pierre the photo of the dead maid Paulette, he breaks down. We learn that Pierre is really her father.
Beddoes we learn was Colonel Armstrong’s army batman and the family butler. Poirot figures Miss Ohlsson was actually Daisy’s nursemaid as she inadvertently revealed her understanding of complex English words. The Colonel Arbuthnot was Armstrong’s close army buddy. Foscarelli was the Armstrongs’ private chauffeur, and Hardman was originally a police officer assigned to the Armstrong case. He fell in love with Paulette during that time. Finally there’s the annoying Mrs Hubbard with all the valuable clues. Poirot reveals her to be Sonia Armstrong’s mother, Linda Arden.
How the murder was really pulled off
He believes that McQueen and Beddoes conspired to drug Cassetti so each of the 13 passengers could stab him—the Andrenyis stabbed Cassetti together. This would explain the 12 puncture wounds and doctors confusion over the different strength of each one. The noises that kept interrupting Poirot’s sleep were contrived to make the time of Cassetti’s death less evident. It actually happened a bit later than he originally suspected—somewhere around 2 a.m. In the end, it seems that Bianchi was right all along—each one played a role in Cassetti’s death.
Since Bianchi is in charge of the train, Poirot has him choose one of these two solutions are best to present to the police once they arrive. Poirot believes that the Yugoslavian authorities will likely prefer a simple solution.
Bianchi thinks that Cassetti got his just deserts. He decides to go with the simple mob hit theory. Poirot agrees with him while admitting he will struggle with his conscience when he has to give his report to the police. The relieved passengers celebrate with a champagne toast as officials finally remove the snow block to free the train. It resumes its journey with smiles all around.
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