Tag Archives: Sidney Lumet

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: They all did it.

The time is December, 1935 and world-renown detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) boards the Orient Express as an unexpected guest who’s able to find a spare compartment due to his friendship with the train’s owner (Martin Balsam). During the night one of the other passengers (Richard Widmark) is found dead and it is up to Poirot to solve the crime while the train remains stalled by a large snow bank.

This production is considered by many to be the best film version of any of Agatha Christie’s novel-to-screen attempts and in fact the author herself said as much when she attended a showing of the movie on the night of its premiere. Director Sidney Lumet’s ingenious touch is on-target the whole way as he creates a nice blend of kitsch and camp until the over-the-top costumes, playfully sharp dialogue, and glossy camerawork become more of the fun than the mystery itself.

In fact it’s Lumet’s ability to capitalize on the little things and control every minute detail that makes it so captivating even on repeat viewings. Their ability to turn an abandoned warehouse into a bustling train station is just one example. I also enjoyed the moment when the train leaves the station that gets done to the sound of a waltz composed specifically for the film by Richard Rodney Bennett. Originally they were going to have train sounds edited in and had hired a sound engineer who had spent his whole life recording these noises for specifically this purpose only to get the disappointment of his life when he was told that they had decided to go with the music alone, which crushed him so much that his eyes welled up with tears and he never returned.

Finney’s performance is outstanding. He was not someone you’d have in mind initially for this type of part, but through his brilliant acting and effective make-up he disappears into the role and immerses the viewer in the presence of this highly eccentric character and his unusual habits including the way he puts both his hair and moustache into a hair net before going to bed and reads a newspaper while wearing gloves.

The star studded supporting players are perfectly cast for their parts too. Anthony Perkins nicely plays-up his nervous man routine while Wendy Hiller is enjoyable as the caustic aging Princess who wears a constant frown because her doctor advised her that smiling ‘was not good for her health’. Widmark has an amusing conversation with Poirot particularly with his inability to correctly pronounce the detective’s last name and Ingrid Bergman shines in a small bit as a poor, but devoutly religious woman, which was enough to net her the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Spoiler Alert!

The murder scene in which all the passengers file into Widmark’s cabin and systematically take turns stabbing him is, like with everything else, astutely captured particularly with the way it’s shot by using only a blue tinged light as its sole light source. Lumet craftily uses a two-camera set-up here in which one camera captures the characters and the other focuses on Lauren Bacall’s character’s reactions to it as she stands at the doorway as a lookout. Bacall was never known as an actress to show much vulnerable emotion, but here, at least through her facial expressions, she does quite well. However, this segment also reveals a fatal flaw as Poriot’s cabin was right next to Widmarks’s and earlier in the film he was able to hear the conversations going on in the cabin next him almost perfectly, but then as each participant takes turns stabbing Widmark they say something out loud and yet for whatever reason Poirot never hears this, which makes you wonder why.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The script, by Paul Dehn, gets talky but is saved by its amusing verbal exchanges and Lumet’s use of different lenses to capture it, so I didn’t find it a problem in a movie that deserves its classic status both a mystery and cinematic achievement. The remake directed by Kenneth Branagh is set to be released in November.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: November 24, 1974

Runtime: 2 Hours 8 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2, A/1)

Serpico (1973)

serpico

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: A cop fights corruption.

One of the followers of this blog has requested that I review this movie, so today we take a look at Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) a policeman who fought against corruption that plagued New York’s police department during the ‘60s. Even though many of his partners on the force would accept under-the-table payouts from criminal elements in exchange for ‘looking-the-other-way’ he wouldn’t and when he would tell his superiors about it nothing would get done. Instead they would transfer him to other precincts only for him to find the same problems there. It was only when he decided to report the issue to the New York Times that people started to take action, but in the process he also made himself a mark and vulnerable to having his unhappy comrades set him up to be shot while on-duty.

The film is based on the Peter Maas novel, which in turn recounts the life of the actual Frank Serpico and the events he went through while working on the force between the years of 1959 to 1972. Not only does he remain alive today, but according to recent reports is even considering, at the ripe old age of 79, a run at political office. Equally interesting is that he and Pacino roomed together during the summer that this was filmed and became close friends.

It’s been years since I’ve read the novel, but I felt this film sticks closely to what actually happened and the always reliable Sidney Lumet manages to keep things exciting and insightful. The dialogue is sharp and the on-location shooting, which was done in every borough of New York except Staten Island, gives the viewer an authentic feel of the city as well as the police environment.

The film also does a successful job at showing the drawbacks of accepting bribes without ever getting preachy or heavy-handed. One might think, like many of Serpico’s partners do, that taking some kickbacks isn’t that big of a deal, but then the film shows in one brief moment a policeman shoving another man’s head into a toilet when he doesn’t ‘pay up’, which hits home how the police become no better than organized crime who would notoriously demand ‘protection money’ from business owners.

The only thing I didn’t like was the music, which was too loud and jarring. Fortunately it’s put in only sparingly, but its melodic quality takes away from the grittiness and the film works far better by simply relying on the ambient sounds of the locations that the scenes are in. In fact this is one movie that could’ve done fine without any music at all.

Pacino is fantastic and I loved how the character starts out as this clean shaven, boyish looking fellow only to grow into a bearded, long haired guy as the story progresses, which symbolically connects with the way he becomes savvier to the system. The character also sports earrings long before it became vogue for males to wear them.

Tony Roberts does well as one of the few cops that sides with Serpico and tries to help him in his fight and F. Murray Abraham can be spotted near the end as a member of a vice squad who tries setting Serpico up to be killed. This movie also marks the film debuts of character actors Alan Rich and Kenneth McMillan. In my mind this is also the debut of Judd Hirsh. Some sources state that his first onscreen appearance is in Jump, which came out two years earlier, but I watched that film and couldn’t spot him anywhere, but her I was able to spot him right away.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 5, 1973

Runtime: 2Hours 10Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

The Morning After (1986)

the morning after

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: She can’t remember anything.

Alex (Jane Fonda) is an out of work actress and alcoholic who is prone to black outs. One morning she wakes up to the find that the man lying beside her has been murdered. She isn’t sure if she did it or not as she can’t remember anything. She cleans up the place and then by chance meets Turner (Jeff Bridges) a former cop who tries to help her prove her innocence.

Starting out right away with her waking up to find the dead body doesn’t work. Some background to the character would have been better as without it the viewer doesn’t particularly care about the character’s predicament. It took me a long while before I could get into it and even then it was only at a lukewarm level. The laid-back and melodic jazz soundtrack doesn’t help. For a thriller it is completely out-of-place and as good as a director as Sidney Lumet is he seems to have problem in that area as the musical score selected for Family Business another film that he did was also a terrible choice.

The film has one interesting twist near the middle, but the pacing is so slow that whatever intrigue it gave me quickly subsided, which is the film’s biggest problem. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a thriller, mystery, drama, or love story. Too much time is spent dealing with Alex’s budding relationship with Turner, which isn’t interesting. By the time they do get back to the mystery you really don’t care anymore. There are also not enough suspects and I had figured out who the culprit was long before the revelation comes about.

Fonda is competent particularly in a teary-eyed emotional sequence where she tries to somehow justify her pathetic self-destructive existence. The character though is unappealing and it may take a while for the viewer to warm up to her if at all. I did like her in the blonde, puffy 80’s hairstyle, but at the half way mark she changes back to her more natural brunette look, which I felt made her look older.

Bridges character helps stabilize Fonda’s and in that regards his presence is helpful, but having them meet by complete chance and then having him get so involved in her quandary seemed implausible. It would have been better and made more sense had he been a longtime friend who she turned to in her time of crisis. Although Raul Julia has a less screen time he still adds a lot more energy than Bridges.

Kathy Bates, Bruce Vilanch, and Frances Bergen (Candice’s Mom) can all be seen in brief bits. I also want to mention Richard Foronjy who nails the caricature of a streetwise big city cop perfectly.

Although the film is now 27 years old it really isn’t too dated. Only two issues in this area come to mind. One is when Alex can’t get any money out of the bank because it is closed due to a holiday and there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as ATM machines. Another occurs when a police investigator asks the Raul Julia character if he is gay by using a derogatory term, which wouldn’t go over today. However, Julia’s comeback line “How bad do you want to know?” is a good one.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Lorimar Productions

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video