I went to see Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express with the grandiose motive of examining the film in light of claims one writer recently made about “theological and ontological” aspects of what I have always thought of as the lowly craft of the whodunit. And I went also for another less-grandiose motive: I wanted to see how Branagh’s treatment of Christie’s whodunit measured up to previous portrayals on film and on TV.
Mustache as Red Herring
As you probably know, a red herring is something that misleads or distracts, and it can be intentionally or inadvertently used. The effect was inadvertent I’m sure, but I was so fascinated during the first part of the movie by Branagh’s elaborate, salt-and-pepper version of the Hercule Poirot mustache that I could hardly pay attention to anything else. I kept gazing at it and asking myself not-very-profound questions such as, “Why did he choose such a ridiculous mustache?” And, “Where have I ever seen any man wearing such a thing on his face?”
Google “kenneth branagh’s mustache (or moustache),” and you can see for yourself: I am not alone in being distracted by Branagh’s facial hair. Here’s a favorite from the many, fanciful descriptions applied to that big, grey, thing: “the kind of extravagant moustache you could spot from a passing train—and maybe even from space.”
My memory of where I have seen a man wearing such a mustache was jogged when a Variety reviewer mentioned both a “circus strongman” and “turn-of-the-century unicycle salesman,” although I never remember seeing either a strongman or a unicyclist portrayed with a four-pointed mustache before. As the cleverest put-down, there was also a review perhaps unfairly but amusingly titled, Murder On The Orient Express: A Mustache in Search of a Film.
Branagh offers interviewers his explanations for his disconcerting choice. He recounts that Christie’s heirs wanted to make sure he got the mustache right, and—although Agatha liked the 1974 film adaptation—she thought the mustache worn by Albert Finney in his role of Poirot just didn’t do justice to the size of Poirot’s mustache as she had portrayed it.
We knew Poirot’s mustache was a sort of critical visual and a chance to mark this as a new departure…. It is his superpower. It’s his people-tester: Why would you take that guy seriously? And then suddenly he’s got you by the throat.”-“Kenneth Branagh on Poirot’s mustache as superpower and his reboot of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’,” LA Times. Retrieved 12/07/2017.
Maybe that superpower conceit was left over from Branagh’s being the director of the first Thor movie. He might have gotten his genres mixed up. Could someone pass this along to the inestimably talented Mr. Branagh: detectives don’t have superpowers? In this decision as in others he made about the film, I think it’s safe to say he was guilty of over thinking.
CGI: Another Red Herring
Just a few days beforehand, I had watched the 1974 version of the movie. So the contrast for me between the atmosphere of train, the station, the landscapes through which the Orient Express traveled, along with the snow that brought the train to a stop in both movies, could not have been greater.
The frost on the windows and the snow around the train were too obviously painted and constructed for me and the backgrounds were too obviously augmented with CGI. I much preferred the lush and seemingly authentic beauty of the 1974 movie, in the era before it was possible to concoct this type of much-inferior, color-cast-controlled, artificial rendering with CGI.
Murder and Its Mysteries as Theology?
Some discussions surrounding the release of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express brought up this other non-grandiose question in my mind: Why do people read whodunits or watch TV shows or movies about them?
Sean Fitzpatrick’s recent Crisis essay titled, “Murder on the Orient Express and the Theology of Murder,” posits high reasons. “Murder is theological because it is ontological, and its mysteries are even more so. “ According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Ontological arguments are arguments, for the conclusion that God exists ….” By that definition, isn’t the author of the Crisis essay claiming that murder and, derivatively, whodunits, are arguments for the existence of God? That seems quite far fetched to my own admittedly not-subtle way of thinking.
Others agree with Fitzpatrick’s idea that whodunits are theological, although I haven’t come across anyone else besides Fitzpatrick claiming the same about the act of murder itself. For one random example, a guest blogger identified only as Jobloggs at a Faith and Theology website made this much more appropriately modest claim and grounded it with some solid observations:
Detective fiction is about the corruptions of the human heart, the painstaking search for truth, and the complicated relationship between justice and the law. Almost inevitably, therefore, even the most formulaic detective story has something to say to the theologian. (“Must-read detective fiction for theologians“)
Whodunits do describe the corruptions of the human heart, the painstaking search for truth, and the relationship between justice and the law, but I would argue they are not “about” those things. I’ll get back to what they actually are about and what is behind the enormous popularity of the genre a bit further down.
But before I go on, I just have to add I seriously doubt that whodunits actually have anything substantive to say to the theologian, beyond what is already knowable from other—shall I say higher?—sources.
The Low-Brow Status of the Whodunit
When I used to read widely about literature as an aspiring writer of deathless fame I learned that whodunits, because they were formulaic and low-brow in their appeal, were not even considered to be literature.
The bar for what qualified as literature was extremely high, so high that, for one example, the enduring and deeply endearing works of enormously popular Charles Dickens didn’t make the cut. To be considered as literature, a work had to be both remarkably unique and appreciated by those of cultivated tastes. For example, James Joyce did not achieve worldwide fame for his realistic novels and short stories, but he now is considered one of the world’s most influential and important authors for his authorship of his novel Ulysses—partly because it was so startlingly original, partly because, for better or worse, it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to write about (remember the pornography trials against its publishers), and even perhaps partly because it was full of obscure references and well-nigh impossible to read.
Whodunits are on the other end of the literary scale. Soundly putting the whodunit in its low-culture niche, Raymond Chandler, a whodunit writer himself, wrote in his 1959 essay “The Simple Art of Murder” that whodunits are “average, more than middling dull, pooped-out … utterly unreal and mechanical fiction.”
Why Do People like Murder Mysteries?
Murder mysteries are genre fictions, like romance novels, or like the variation, romance novels about vampires, and they are written to a pattern. In whodunits, as Chandler wrote in his essay, the story is offered as a problem of logic and deduction. Whodunits are usually high on contrivance and low in character development. Chandler contrasted construction and character and believed that one reason whodunits are not high art because both sets of skills are rarely well-developed in any one writer.
In a whodunit, a murder is artificially constructed, an assemblage of possible murderers is described, clues are discovered, and motives are revealed, some of them real and some of them bogus distractions (intentional red herrings).
The reader/viewer tries to figure out who did the murder based on the information the author provides. Along the way the story usually leads everyone down one or more blind alleys, until finally the all-knowing investigator shows everyone his completed puzzle where all the pieces fit together to show the picture of the author’s contrivance.
As a result of this approach, I’d hazard that the pleasure from reading or viewing a whodunit is somewhat like that derived from doing a jigsaw puzzle. No, this is a more-accurate comparison, it is more like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle and then watching someone finish the puzzle for you. But then, where’s the fun in that?
Why do people like whodunits then? I think it’s for simple reasons. They like to be entertained and read about other people’s troubles. They like to be taken outside of themselves. They enjoy the solving of puzzles. Even if they don’t get to complete the puzzle themselves, they enjoy seeing all the loose ends tied up. And they enjoy seeing justice done.
Motives Moving the Murder on the Orient Express
Murder is a horror because it is the unjust taking of a human life. Whodunits don’t dispute whether or not the act is evil. It’s taken for granted. Where did we as a society learn that murder is wrong?
The question is a big one, and the answer is arguable, depending on your belief system. But Jewish and Christians believers learn from the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill” –God (Exodus 20:13). Others have to construct their own rationale for why murder is wrong, and at least some of them notoriously fail, such as serial-killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who told an interviewer after his conviction, “If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”
Murders are committed for all kinds of reasons. Money, Power, Cruelty, Insanity, Perverse Pleasure, Jealousy, Envy, and Revenge come to mind. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that Murder on the Orient Express is only one of the two Agatha Christie works that I can think of (the other is Poirot’s last case, Curtain) that reveal that a murder was committed to enact judgement on a evil killer who could never be brought to judgment by the law.
The main differences for the viewer of the 2017 movie and the reader of the 1934 book are in the way the ending is handled and in the temperament of Poirot. In both versions, after Poirot puts all the piece of the puzzle together, he comes up with two solutions, one simple (and less true to the observable facts) and one complex. In the book, the detective’s observations that build up to his complex solution are methodically made clear; in the 2017 movie, the facts from which he derives his complex solution are not clearly explained.
In the book, Poirot matter-of-factly lets another character decide which solution to give to the police. In the movie, Branagh warps Poirot’s character, and his Poirot gets bombastically emotional about what he has discovered and what he threatens to do with the information.
As it turned out, when I went to see the Branagh movie I was too over-prepared. Seeing the 1974 movie and watching the BBC adaptation again beforehand removed any possible freshness out of my experience. Another interest was seeing how Branagh would handle it, and that was not enough to satisfy. Ontological or theological questions? He didn’t bring up any of those.
Branagh’s resolution, however, does raise this question: Is it ever allowable to take justice into your own hands? The answer for Branagh’s Poirot is yes, and the character ends by being effusively magnanimous in the absolution he offers.
But Branagh’s answer is not theological: murder is still a sin even if the person you killed is a criminal. If you take the law into your own hands, you are still guilty of breaking the commandment.
Another weakness is that Branagh cluttered the movie with extra scenes not in the book. He added an opening scenario with Poirot solving a case in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall, which perhaps he thought necessary to illustrate Poirot’s abilities and quirks for those who have never been introduced to the character. Branagh also added a black character who is a conflation of two of the characters in the book, and an inter-racial romance, and he made other big and small changes. Always when adaptations are made to well-known stories, those who do the adapting must be careful not to upset the balance that was carefully constructed by the writer. By emphasizing such novelties, including too-long scenes with Poirot mooning cloyingly over the photo of a lost love, several important details about how he came to his conclusions at the end of this movie got short shrift.
Maybe someone who didn’t know the ending would experience the movie differently, but for me the movie lies flat in my memory with the unreality and insipidness of the CGI. Except for the mustache. I’ll never forget that mustache.