More star-studded whodunits, the inspiration for the story, plus the mystery of the author herself.
If you’re a faithful reader of my Movies to Watch After lists, you did your homework and watched Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express prior to seeing Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie‘s iconic detective novel. Now I present you with recommendations for what to see after both.
Apologies to the classic mystery films (including the Christie adaptation And Then There Were None) and the classic Orient Express-set movies (including From Russia With Love) and the classic mystery on a train movies (including Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes), because I’ve only selected titles released after the Lumet.
Silver Streak (1976)
The first and one of the better pairings of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (though there’s not enough Pryor), this action comedy from screenwriter Colin Higgins (Harold and Maude) and director Arthur Hiller, who’d helmed many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, owes a lot to The Lady Vanishes, Murder on the Orient Express, and more classic mystery and thriller films. It’s not a parody, though, just a funny take on Hitch’s plots in particular.
Wilder plays a book editor who, like Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, is looking forward to a relaxing long-distance train ride. But, like Poirot, his rest is disrupted by a murder. From there the plot strays more into North by Northwest territory, though Higgins hinted at this inspiration in a roundabout way: “I wrote Silver Streak because I had always wanted to get on a train and meet some blonde,” he told The Stanford Daily in 1979. “It never happened, so I wrote a script.”
Death on the Nile (1978)
At the end of Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot (played by Branagh) receives a telegram that he needs to go to Egypt for a case on the Nile. Obviously that’s a reference to Christie’s later Poirot novel “Death on the Nile,” and maybe the hope is that Murder on the Orient Express is successful enough that Branagh will return for a sequel adapting that work. Paramount and producers John Brabourne and Richard B. Goodwin did similar with this version, which followed the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express movie but features a new director (John Guillermin) and a recast Poirot (Peter Ustinov) because Albert Finney declined to return to what’s otherwise a sequel.
Again, there is an all-star cast, including another aging Golden Age actress, Bette Davis, plus Angela Lansbury, Olivia Hussey, Mia Farrow, Jane Birkin, Jack Warden, George Kennedy, Lois Chiles, and Maggie Smith and David Niven, both of whom had recently played parodies of detectives Nick and Nora Charles in Murder by Death. This time, instead of a train the ensemble and the death occur on a riverboat. In both the novel of “Death on the Nile” and this adaptation, Poirot makes a reference to the murder on the Orient Express. A sequel to the new version surely would, too.
Ustinov went on to play Poirot again in another Christie adaptation for Brabourne and Goodwin in 1982’s Evil Under the Sun, which was made at Universal with director Guy Hamilton. Also contradicting its qualification as a sequel, maybe, is that Birkin and Smith appear as different characters than they play in Nile. Ustinov continued as Poirot in a few TV movie adaptations plus the all-star 1988 theatrical release Appointment with Death., though none of these were by from Brabourne and Goodwin. The producing duo had one other Christie movie between Nile and Evil Under the Sun, however: the Hamilton-helmed 1980 Miss Marple mystery The Mirror Crack’d. A complicated cinematic universe, for sure.
One of the greatest mysteries associated with Christie is her own. In 1926, the author disappeared for 11 days and the truth of what happened during that time remains unknown. Christie didn’t address it in her autobiography, and at the time she was said to have suffered amnesia and didn’t know the truth herself. Speculative fictions have been created to fill in the gap, though, including an episode of Doctor Who and this movie made three years after Christie’s death.
Directed by Michael Apted, Agatha stars Vanessa Redgrave as Christie with Timothy Dalton as her husband Archie and Dustin Hoffman as an American reporter who uncovers what she’s up to: a suicide made to look like she’d been murdered by her cheating spouse, who’d just asked for a divorce. He also falls for the author during his investigation, of course. The theory that spawned the script for Agatha has persisted in some form and may have also inspired Gone Girl. Kathleen Tynan, who co-wrote the script, had even initially meant to make a documentary about the mystery instead.
For a more truthful Christie biopic, or at least one that I don’t think her estate opposed like Agatha, there’s a decent TV movie from the BBC starring Olivia Williams and Anna Massey as the author at different points in her life. Called Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures, it also revolves around her disappearance, though mainly for a framing device. There the amnesia/fugue state explanation is stuck with.
I’ve already mentioned one of the best mystery parodies of all time, Murder by Death, and that’s definitely recommended. The Neil Simon-penned comedy features a lampoon of many iconic mystery detectives, including the aforementioned Charleses, as well as Poirot (renamed Milo Perrier and played by James Coco) and Marples (renamed Miss Marbles and played by Elsa Lanchester). But I slightly favor this similar movie, based on the board game of the same name.
Featuring a smorgasbord of comedic talents, including Madeline Kahn, Tim Curry, and Michael McKean, the cult classic murder mystery is about a group of strangers invited to a dinner party at a mansion where the host is suddenly murdered. Unlike Murder by Death, it doesn’t attempt outright spoofery and so works a little better on its own rather than as a good Mad magazine-type sendup. It also stands apart from the board game for the most part.
Without going so far as to spoil any of its three endings — released separately in theaters as a failed gimmick to attract repeat business — the plot of Clue follows a path relevant to that of Murder on the Orient Express in that its characters start to show coincidental connections to one another along the way, allowing for suspicion of any one of them (which works for the varied conclusions), or perhaps all.