Albert Finney, who was then 37 years old, was the third choice for the much-older Poirot. The role was offered to Alec Guinness, who was unavailable, as was Paul Scofield. Special make-up was created, to give Finney the appearance of the 55-60 year old beloved, but peculiar, Belgian detective.
84-year-old Agatha Christie attended the movie premiere in November 1974. It was the only film adaptation in her lifetime, that she was completely satisfied with. In particular, she felt that Albert Finney's performance came closest to her idea of Poirot (though was reportedly unimpressed with her sleuth's moustache). The premiere would be her final public appearance: she died fourteen months later, on January 12, 1976.
Since Albert Finney's required many hours of make-up procedures before shooting each day, and because he was performing in a stage play at the same time, he didn't have much time for his badly-needed sleep. A daily routine was developed, where an ambulance arrived to pick-up the sleeping actor at his house, in his pajamas, carefully, trying not to wake him up. During the half-hour commute to the studio, the make-up artists would begin the rough work on his face. The rest of the fine detail work was completed at the the studio on a still sleeping Finney.
The final scene, in which Poirot shares his solution of the case, required more shots and camera angles than could be captured in a single take on the cramped set. The cast had to shoot the scene multiple times, as the required number of cameras didn't fit in such a small space. This was especially hard on Albert Finney, whose monologue was eight pages long.
The poem that the Princess's maid reads aloud is "Kennst Du das Land" by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The poem contains a line that translates as "What have they done, oh wretched child, to thee?" a reference to the murder of Daisy Armstrong.
The luxury food that is inspected and carried aboard the train early in the film had been stolen from the set just before shooting. All the food had to be bought again, in the middle of the night, on location in Paris.
After several disappointing film adaptations, Agatha Christie initially refused to sell the film rights to any more of her books, but EMI chairman Nat Coleman enlisted the aid of Lord Louis Mountbatten to persuade Christie to allow the filming of her 1934 novel. It turned out to be her favorite film adaptation of any of her books. Mountbatten was the father-in-law of the film's producer, John Brabourne.
The actual Orient Express trains were no longer in existence at the time of shooting. However, the real Orient Express engine was used in the film although it couldn't travel very far. Only portions of the carriages still existed in museums, mostly in Belgium, and sometimes had to be recreated from real portions borrowed.
Wendy Hiller was second choice for Princess Dragonmiroff. Sidney Lumet's first choice was vetoed by the producers. The role was also turned down by Ingrid Bergman, who chose instead to play Greta Ohlsson, the somewhat crazy Swedish nanny, even if this part had fewer scenes than the part of the Princess. Ingrid Bergman had good instincts, since she won an Oscar for the role.
Although the producers agreed to all the other suggestions from Casting Director Dyson Lovell, they balked at his choice of Marlene Dietrich as the Princess, believing it was "too campy." Wendy Hiller ultimately played the role.
After Poirot finds the scarlet kimono in his luggage, and brings it into the car, where Bianchi, Doctor Constantine, and Colonel Arbuthnot are waiting, Arbuthnot asks, "Are you opening a dress shop?" In the novel, another character mistakes Poirot for Paul Poiret, the famous French couturier and costume designer.
There is a frequent mention of the place 'Shimoga' in the movie. At the time that the novel was written, and the film is set, Shimoga was part of the kingdom of Mysore, which ceased to exist after Indian independence in 1947. Shimoga is now one of the popular districts in the state of Karnataka, which happens to be in South India.
Richard Rodney Bennett was originally hired to arrange 1930s tunes for the soundtrack, but persuaded the studio that this was a cliché and that he should write an original score. Bennett said "Sidney Lumet wanted Eddy Duchin ... I wanted the Warsaw Concerto... the waltz [theme] was a combination of the two."
The film boasts 58 Oscar nominations and 14 wins (not including 2 Honorary wins) from its principal cast and crew. Martin Balsam (1), Ingrid Bergman (3; 7 nods), Sean Connery (1), John Gielgud (1; 2 nods), Wendy Hiller (1; 3 nods), Vanessa Redgrave (1; 6 nods), Paul Dehn (1; 2 nods), Geoffrey Unsworth (2; 4 nods), Anne V. Coates (1; 5 nods), Tony Walton (1; 5 nods) and Jack Stephens (1; 2 nods) are Oscar winners; Lauren Bacall and Sidney Lumet are Honorary Oscar winners. Albert Finney (5), Bacall (1), Anthony Perkins (1), Rachel Roberts (1), Richard Widmark (1), Lumet (5), Richard Rodney Bennett (3) and producers Richard B. Goodwin (1) and John Brabourne (2) are Oscar nominees.
The actor John Moffatt, who is listed in the cast as 'Chief Attendant', would later go on to provide the voice of Poirot in the BBC audio dramatization of 'Murder on the Orient Express', broadcast from December 28, 1993, to January 1, 1994. Additionally, Moffatt portrayed Poirot on BBC radio in 24 other stories.
There are two musical references to Shirley Temple films: (1) in the restaurant where Bianchi (Martin Balsam) and Poirot (Albert Finney) dine, a trio plays "On the Good Ship Lollipop" from Bright Eyes (1934) and (2) Poirot later sings two lines from "Animal Crackers in my Soup" from Curly Top (1935).
The Cordon Bleu chef aboard the Orient Express, seen preparing elaborate gourmet meals for the wealthy passengers, is played by George Silver, who was, in real-life, the proprietor of several low-cost fast-food restaurants.
Mrs. Hubbard mentions several times about the fact of being married twice. Lauren Bacall was really married twice (with Humphrey Bogart and Jason Robards. Coincidentally, the name Hubbard sounds a little like Robards and both were the second husband of character and also of the actress. Ironically, in 2016 it was announced that Michelle Pfeiffer was cast as Mrs. Hubbard in the Orient Express remake. Pfeiffer has also only been married twice, once to actor Peter Horton, and presently to David E. Kelley.
In 1974, Sir John Gielgud also worked with Ingrid Bergman when he directed her on stage in "The Constant Wife". When asked what he thought of her, he famously remarked, "Ingrid speaks five languages, and can't act in any of them."
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
When she has finished giving her evidence, Poirot thanks Mrs. Hubbard for "playing your part". When she later appears with the dagger, he asks "Why did you bring this dagger from the place?". This indicates that Poirot has long identified her as Linda Arden, an actress famous for her performance as Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth and the line "Why did you bring these daggers from the place?"
In the final flashback scene, five of the thirteen conspirators (Mrs. Hubbard, Mary Debenham, Countess Andrenyi, Princess Dragomiroff, Masterman) name Mrs. Armstrong as the reason for their actions; Mrs. Hubbard and Countess Andrenyi, along with Greta Ohlsson, also name Daisy Armstrong. Colonel Arbuthnot and Beddoes name Colonel Armstrong. Hardman and Michel name Paulette Michel. Count Andrenyi is alone in naming a person still living; he names his wife. Foscarelli and Hildegarde Schmidt do not name anyone, but utter imprecations in their respective languages; Foscarelli mutters "vigliacco", which means "coward" in Italian, and Hildegarde Schmidt says "schweinehund", which literally translates from German as "pig-dog" and loosely translates as several English-language vulgar epithets.