‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Brings Color to Agatha Christie’s All-White America
Christie’s novel is a commentary on America as a mosaic, but the racially diverse film brings that commentary home
“I saw a perfect mosaic,” says Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot, discussing the passengers (and suspects) in Murder on the Orient Express. The implication is that, on this train, he can see America. There are twelve other passengers besides Poirot and the murdered Mr. Ratchett, an eclectic array of people with seemingly little to no connection to one another.
It’s the very eclectic nature of these suspects, from motormouth American Mrs. Hubbard to Italian car salesman Antonio Foscarelli to the Russian Princess Dragomiroff, that serves as the crux of Christie’s book, and of the solution. Everyone is, in the context of Christie’s vantage point, diverse, reflective of the United States. How else could all these random people on the train at the same time — and witnesses to a mastermind murder, no less? The novel serves as Christie’s commentary on America, its diversity, and its troubled idea of justice — but for modern audiences, it’s a commentary that doesn’t really land until Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 film. (Spoilers for both follow.)
Everyone is, for Christie, diverse, reflective of the United States. How else could all these random people on the train at the same time — and witnesses to a mastermind murder, no less?
Ratchett, it turns out in both novel and book, was only a pseudonym for a man named Cassetti, whose paranoia was rooted in the guilt that haunted him as one of the men responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong, the daughter of a famed pilot (a la Charles Lindberg) and granddaughter of an iconic stage actress. Cassetti was never charged with the crime, leaving a complicated web of suffering behind him, an intricate Rube Goldberg contraption of grief and death. But from where he escaped, and where the crime took place, is critical: “Ratchett had escaped justice in America,” despite the fact that “there was no question as to his guilt.” Poirot, considering the suspects, the twelve stab wounds, the impossible nature of their togetherness, correctly speculates: “I visualized a self-appointed jury of twelve people who condemned him to death and were forced by exigencies of the case to be their own executioners.” If the actual American justice system couldn’t ensure that justice be served for the murder of a child, then why not take matters into their own hands? The people on the train are, in essence, the jury of peers on which American justice theoretically relies — a justice that the criminal system can rarely be trusted to provide.
In fairness, Christie’s vision of America, and America’s conception of justice, was born of outsiderness. The Queen of Crime came from an affluent background in England, wrote most of her novels about and in England, and almost intentionally wrote with an insularity that highlighted how people within certain statuses dealt with outsiders, in terms of class, race, and gender. Her murders often involved someone of a marginalized background — someone poor or not male or something — falling under suspicion, only to find that in fact the rich folk that were the perpetrators. Or perhaps those outside the dominant group committed these crimes as poetic justice, as in Death on the Nile, where a young woman takes revenge on the rich best friend who’s emotionally robbed her for most of their collective lives. Christie’s murders either sought to subvert expectations in terms of what justice looks like for what she conceived as marginalized people, or to reify the idea that those already in power will do almost everything to keep that power.
In Murder on the Orient Express, published in January 1934, poetic justice is the primary M.O. and subtext. But this poetic justice — whose conclusion is structured, depending on the read, either like a the jury of a court or like a socialist utopia — serves to illustrate how Agatha Christie saw the United States and to what degree she understood its functions mechanically.
Though Christie would elucidate on her thoughts about how the criminal system works in books like Sad Cypress and Witness for the Prosecution, Murder on the Orient Express is concerned with an outline of what American justice looks like. In a conversation with Col. Arbuthnot about justice, Poirot says, “‘In fact, Col. Arbuthnot, you prefer law and order to private vengeance?” “Well, you can’t go about having blood feuds and stabbing each other liken the Corsicans or the Mafia,” the Colonel replies. Say what you like, trial by jury is a sound system.” Arbuthnot is firm when he says that, that the evaluative nature by “twelve good men and true” (said in the 1974 film) is the best way of ruminating on guilt and innocence. For Christie, at least as far as this book is concerned, she seems to doubt the institutional context of that approach; it is entirely possible for the trust we put into an institution, one whose goal is for liberty, justice, and goodness, to be betrayed. Something in the machine may fail and the only logical next step will be to act autonomously. For Christie, the United States was incredibly fallible in its institutions, if not its intentions. Her understanding of justice fluctuates between nuanced and shortsighted, understanding when things aren’t fair, but not exactly to what degree and what systems of oppression are at play.
It is mildly curious how clear-eyed Christie can be about American justice while remaining relatively myopic, or at least limited, when it comes to what diversity may mean for American national identity. Poirot’s “perfect mosaic” is actually made up of different shades of white — which means there are only so many ways that the justice system can fail the people on that train.
It is not that ethnic white people are not a form of diversity, exactly, but that conceptualizing of America coheres with Christie’s tendency towards whiteness in her stories. America is kind of exotic to her, but the exoticism she perceives — or at least the exoticism she’s willing to put in her book — is limited to different kinds of white: an Italian immigrant and a Russian socialite and a German maid. It’s exotic to have a random mass of people, a melting pot. But not so exotic that actually nonwhite people exist there.
America is kind of exotic to Christie, but the exoticism she perceives is limited to different kinds of white.
Neither Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of the book, with Albert Finney as the detective, nor the 2008 adaptation for the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, dig very much into the implications of the social makeup of the passengers, at least no more than the book already did. Though it’s crucial to hear Finney boisterously say “America” again and again, the former is a star-studded trifle, and the latter is a self-serious TV movie made in the “prestige TV” vein, belaboring Poirot’s moral dilemma about whether or not to let the passengers off the train, knowing they were the ones that stabbed Cassetti. Neither takes a necessarily empathetic view of the systems and hierarchies at play. But, perhaps shockingly, Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 adaptation of the book, with himself in the role of the detective, is willing to probe these questions of race, justice, and America — and it does so without becoming an overly dour affair.
Not only does the 2017 version seem more engaged with the politics of identity, there’s also a tacit understanding of the very racism that underlies much of Christie’s work. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green make some changes to the cast of characters: Greta Ohlsson (played by Ingrid Bergman in the 1974 film) is replaced by Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz); Col. Arbuthnot (Sean Connery), once stationed in India, is now Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), an amalgam of the Colonel and Dr. Constantine; and Foscarelli (Denis Quilley) is traded in for Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). This is not just colorblind casting or neoliberal lip service. With characters like Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), assistant to the late Cassetti (Johnny Depp) basically saying, “I’m not racist, but check up on that Cuban guy,” and Hardman (Willem Dafoe) just being a straight up white supremacist (and implied Nazi sympathizer) who makes snide remarks about Dr. Arbuthnot, Branagh’s version dares to challenge Christie’s reputation. The film acknowledges that not only were Christie’s characters racist themselves, but that she, by sidestepping the reality of how white people and non-white people interacted in favor of stereotypes and tropes, had a racist streak too.
Branagh’s version of Christie’s version of American national identity is not as concerned with the artificial or presentational Americanness that Christie envisioned, but it does not feel revisionist so much as it feels like a rectification of something that Christie overlooked. For all of her travels to Baghdad or on the Nile, Christie is unable or unwilling to imagine a version of diversity that would be meaningful today. Branagh’s reconceptualization of the passengers on the Orient Express makes her “mosaic,” and Poirot’s ethical questions, more potent and more real.
Branagh’s reconceptualization of the passengers on the Orient Express makes her “mosaic,” and Poirot’s ethical questions, more potent and more real.
The film feels more aware of the political values that would have existed at the time, making mention of American climate in the context of different approaches to how the U.S. views Stalin and communism (MacQueen and Arbuthnot both think the other is wrong about Stalin), how British colonialism either was an act of shattering or binding (Arbuthnot’s role as doctor of color serves to complicate his role in the British’s colonial history), the bigotry faced by mixed race relationships (Arbuthnot and Debenham), and the manner in which certain suspects try to throw others’ under the bus nods to how white privilege may operate in this space. There is, like in America, an intricacy to the operation of power and politics, right here on the train.
Branagh’s update is not only the next logical step for what an Agatha Christie adaptation should be — decadent with a dash of contemporary fun. It also deepens the source material with a much more nuanced understanding of American national identity. In adding more shades of black and white, it has more little grey cells than you would think.