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Murder on the Orient Express (1974) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • In December 1935, when his transcontinental luxury train is stranded by deep snow, detective Hercule Poirot is called on to solve a murder that occurred in his car the night before, with a multitude of suspects.

  • The first class compartment of the December 1935 departure of the Orient Express from Istanbul is full, unusual for this time of the year. Regardless, famed and fastidious Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who needs to get back to London immediately, is able to secure last minute passage in the compartment with the assistance of his friend, Signor Bianchi, one of the directors of the train line who is also making the trip. Some of the first class passengers seem concerned about Poirot's presence on the train. At least one of them has reason to be concerned, as later, another first class passenger, who earlier in the trip asked Poirot to provide protection for him due to several death threats, is found murdered in his stateroom by multiple stabbings. At the time the victim is found, the train is unexpectedly stopped and delayed due to snow in remote Yugoslavia, which may be problematic for the murderer in getting away now that Poirot is on the case, which he is doing as a favor to Bianchi as not to get the Yugoslav police involved. Poirot quickly learns that the victim was not who he presented himself to be and has a connection to a five-year-old American kidnapping and murder case of infant Daisy Armstrong, murdered in spite of the fact that her parents had paid the requested ransom. The murderer in that case has long been convicted and executed but the ransom moneys were never recovered, a known accomplice never captured, and both the Armstrong parents have since tragically died. As Poirot questions the train's valet, the victim's accompanying staff, and the other primarily well off first class passengers and their accompanying servants, who are all on the surface more than cooperative, he finds that many had opportunity and motive, the latter which may not be obvious. There is also a great deal of evidence discovered on the train, which pulls his thoughts in many directions. These pieces of information may complicate the deduction of who is the murderer.

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  • Hoping for a well-deserved and much-needed rest, the renowned Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, returns to England aboard the luxurious Orient Express, along with an eclectic array of high-class passengers. But when the rapid locomotive's journey comes to a halt due to a massive avalanche, the moustachioed detective will use the unfortunate mishap to his advantage, to investigate the brutal murder of a fellow traveller. Inevitably, in a confined space where everyone is a suspect, Poirot must work fast before the unknown killer strikes again, as a strange coincidence links the remaining commuters together. Is the methodical detective worthy of his reputation?

  • The Belgian detective Hercule Poirot boards the Orient Express. One of the passengers requests his protection, but Poirot declines. The next day the passenger is found dead in his compartment and Poirot is asked to solve the case. The train is forced to stop due to a snow drift blocking the tracks. This gives him a few hours to figure out the murderer's identity before the local police take over the investigation. During his investigation, Poirot discovers that many of the passengers have some connection. This could be the vital clue to crack the case, but can he do it in time?

  • Unexpectedly returning to England from Istanbul, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot finds himself traveling on the Orient Express. One of the passengers informs Poirot that he has been receiving anonymous threats and asks Poirot to act as his bodyguard. Poirot declines but when he is found the next morning stabbed to death, it is apparent that the threats he received were very real. As Poirot begins to question the dozen or so passengers on the train, he realizes that several of them have a connection and he begins to form a solution to a very complex crime.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • The murder

    Having sorted a matter out in the Middle East, detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is returning to England aboard the Orient Express. During the journey, Poirot encounters his friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which owns the line. The train is unusually crowded for the time of year: every first-class berth has been booked. Shortly after the train's departure from Istanbul, a wealthy American businessman, Ratchett (Richard Widmark), tries to secure Poirot's services for $15,000 since he has received many death threats, but Poirot finds the case of little interest and turns it down. That night the train is caught in heavy snows in the Balkans. The next morning Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his cabin. Poirot and Bianchi work together to solve the case. They enlist the help of Dr. Constantine (George Coulouris), a Greek medical doctor who was travelling in another coach with Bianchi as the only other passenger and thus not a suspect. Pierre Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the middle-aged French conductor of the car, also assists the investigation, as well as being a suspect. Poirot soon discovers that Ratchett was not who he claimed to be. The victim's secret past indicates a clear motive for murder, even justification, but who was the killer?

    Clues

    Dr. Constantine's examination of the body reveals that Ratchett was stabbed 12 times. Some wounds were slight, but at least three of them could have resulted in death. The stopped watch in the victim's pocket, as well as Poirot's reconstructed timeline of passenger activities the night before, indicate that Ratchett was murdered at about 1:15 a.m. The train had stopped, surrounded by fresh snow, before that time. There are no tracks in the snow and the doors to the other cars were locked, so the murderer is almost certainly still among the passengers in the coach in which Ratchett was killed. Most importantly, Poirot realizes that Ratchett was in fact a gangster called Cassetti. Five years previously, Cassetti and a henchman kidnapped and murdered Daisy Armstrong, the baby daughter of a wealthy British Army Colonel who had settled in America with his American-born wife. The body was found after the ransom had been paid. Overcome with grief, the pregnant Mrs. Armstrong went into labor early and died while giving birth to a stillborn baby. A maidservant named Paulette who was wrongly suspected of complicity in the kidnapping committed suicide. Colonel Armstrong, consumed by these tragedies, later killed himself as well. Cassetti's accomplice was arrested and executed, but Cassetti himself fled the country with the ransom, as he was only revealed to be the leader on the eve of the execution. Having established these facts, Poirot, Dr. Constantine and Bianchi summon the other passengers one by one and proceed to interrogate them. (The fictitious Armstrong case was inspired by the real-life kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's child.)

    Suspects

    The thirteen suspects are: Hector McQueen (Anthony Perkins), a tall, young American man, the victim's secretary and translator; Edward Beddoes (Sir John Gielgud), the victim's British valet; Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), a young British woman, returning home to England after working as a teacher in Baghdad; Colonel Arbuthnott (Sean Connery), a British officer in the British Indian Army returning to England on leave; Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller), an elderly Russian royal; Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts), a middle-aged German woman, the Princess' personal maid; Count Rudolf Andrenyi (Michael York), an aristocratic Hungarian diplomat; Countess Elena Andrenyi (Jacqueline Bisset), née Grünwald, his beautiful young wife; Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), a middle-aged Swedish missionary returning to Europe on a fund-raising trip for her mission in Africa; Mrs. Harriet Belinda Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), an older, fussy, very talkative American pluri-widowed socialite; Antonio (Gino) Foscarelli (Denis Quilley), an exuberant Italian American car salesman from Chicago; Cyrus B. "Dick" Hardman (Colin Blakely), a Pinkerton's detective masquerading as a talent agent; Pierre-Paul Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the French conductor of the sleeping car.

    Motive

    Poirot soon comes to realise that all the suspects were connected to the Armstrong family and had reason to seek revenge for the tragedies that followed the kidnapping. Some openly admit their connections to the Armstrongs, while other ties must be uncovered by Poirot. McQueen was the son of the District Attorney who prosecuted the case and was very fond of Mrs. Armstrong; Miss Debenham was Mrs Armstrong's secretary; Beddoes was Colonel Armstrong's army batman and the family butler; Col. Arbuthnott was an army friend of Col. Armstrong; Princess Dragomiroff was Sonia Armstrong's godmother; Miss Schmidt was the Armstrongs' cook; Miss Ohlsson was Daisy's nursemaid; Foscarelli was the Armstrong's chauffeur; Hardman was, at the time, a policeman who was in love with Paulette; Michel was Paulette's father; Countess Andrenyi was Mrs Armstrong's sister; Mrs Hubbard was Mrs Armstrong's mother; Count Andrenyi was Mrs Armstrong's brother in law. Ratchett was sedated by Beddoes and McQueen. Each of the passengers then stabbed him in turn. Poirot presents this explanation for the murder to the assembled passengers, describing it as the "complex" solution to the crime. Yet he also offers another explanation, a "simple" one. In the course of the inquiry evidence has been found of an intruder on the train, who may have murdered Ratchett and then escaped evidence planted by the suspects. Poirot suggests that Ratchett/Cassetti may have been involved with the Mafia and murdered as the result of a feud. He leaves it to Bianchi, director of the line, to decide which explanation to present to the local police. Bianchi decides that this "simple" solution will be enough for the local police and that Ratchett deserved everything he got. A cover-up is therefore instigated. Poirot is satisfied that justice has been done, though he does admit to a struggle with his conscience.

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