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"Murder On the Orient Express" from PBS Masterpiece – Propaganda for Torture and Vigilantism [revised]

[spoiler alert]

I have not been an avid mystery reader, even of the old classics. I do, however, groove on dramatized mysteries, and especially -- in the past decade -- those produced by PBS Masterpiece Theater.

These adaptations are professionally and brilliantly done. The writing. The acting. The direction. The cinematography. I have appreciated all the generations of Marple, for example. Each actress has brought a unique and exciting flair to that savvy old woman.

It has taken me a good while to come to appreciate Christie’s Hercule Poirot. The convincing and formidable David Suchet finally brought me on board. However, after seeing a recent adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, I am tempted to de-board. Not out of disappointment in Suchet’s performance, but in watching this famous fictional detective endorse torture in the name of profoundly-motivated vigilantism. To make Poirot OKAY with that. To make him a moral “relativist”.

IMHO … this is NOT OKAY!!!!

Two scenes, not dramatically presented as I understand it in Christie’s novel, introduce this episode. They are jarring and no doubt aspire to give a quick-fix foreshadowing and faux-support to Poirot’s eventual abandonment of “law” at the end of the narrative, or more accurately, his collusion with "lawlessness" of a righteous and dramatically wronged group of people.

The story launches with the close of a Poirot case whereby an unexpected suicide occurs before Poirot’s eyes. (Apparently this scenario does have a fleeting mention in Christie’s original.) A man prosecuted over a less than capital offense takes his own life after some rigorous shaming by Poirot in the courtroom. The suicide is unsettling to Poirot and produces an uncharacteristic melancholic affect on him.

The second scene is Poirot witnessing a pregnant, adulterous, Middle Eastern woman being stoned to death in Istanbul by an angry mob. Poirot, according to this presumptuous adapter, uncomfortably watches but with girded detachment. He is clearly honoring the rules of the Istanbul tribal society. Its horror seems to impact and darken his mood further. I did not buy his choice of passivity in this instance.

What follows these unsettling scenes for Poirot and the viewer is an earnest dramatization to inspire revulsion in the audience for the despicable murder victim and sympathy for what will turn out to be the entire trainload of twelve (as in a jury) murderers. "These are good people," his official ally pleads to Poirot once the truth of collective murder is discovered.

The original five-year old crime the murdered man committed was heinous, and it had a domino effect of victims which is why the network of conspirators is so large and passionate. The mastermind of this crime of revenge is a seemingly gentle and compassionate governess who early on in the episode vigorously objected to the woman’s stoning in Istanbul, as opposed to Poirot.

This same woman much later rushed in to save Poirot when a threatened conspirator announced he would assassinate him to avoid their collective prosecution. This governess even brought him tea, knowing he was about to doom her to jail.

“No. If we kill him, we become like gangsters just protecting ourselves,” she had pleaded with her boyfriend who intended to kill the seemingly implacable Poirot.

So killing for others is okay according to her? It is noble? But, according to her argument about the second potential killing, to kill to selfishly protect oneself is not right.

“But, we don’t do what is wrong, my darling,” she stressed to her boyfriend. She, it seemed to me, was the true voice of this Poirot/Christie episode adapter.

The group had conspired to torture to death the horror-of-a-human-being in the most grizzly manner possible. They drugged his drink so that he could not cry out loudly during the extended multiple stabbings by the multiple killers. They wanted maximum suffering, not a quick kill. They wanted torture as well as death. They wanted him to witness and listen to each avenger as he or she dug and twisted the knife into his abdomen.

“We don’t do what is wrong, my darling” was what the governess had declared about the second murder? But the first one? No prob! PULLLLEEEZE!!!!!

Poirot at first reams the group of vigilantes in a most satisfactory way. Tells them they are no better than “savages in the street.” My favorite line of the speech (if I managed to capture it correctly):

"The rule of law -- it must be held high! And if it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all society -- for all civilized people -- will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed."

When the governess insists their vengeance was a “higher justice” and from God, he volleys back, “Let God administer it!” Well said, Hercule! I felt satisfied by David Suchet’s brilliance in this scene. It was reminiscent of Paul Scofield’s speech from A Man for All Seasons.

"This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

“But I did what is right," the governess declared passionately to Poirot.

"The plan had great beauty," the princess, powerful Eileen Atkins asserted.

"Evil got over the wall. And we looked to the law for justice. And the law let us down," argued the compelling Barbara Hershey.

The train is blocked by snow in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia has a “brutal police” force adding to the plight of the "noble" vigilantes, apparently.

And, after all, Alan Cumming’s in his introduction had warned us viewers that this adventure would “shake him [Poirot] to the core.”

NO, NO, NO!!! He wouldn’t be shaken to the core so profoundly that he betrayed the law and the system of justice he had been an agent for all of his life, would he? Poirot honors the law as it should be honored. Yes, it fails. But it must not be replaced by vigilantism. That is not the answer to injustice.

It is out of character for Poirot to let them off the hook. And it is sending a very strange, DANGEROUS message.

But maybe not an unpopular message to our troubled and troubling American and British societies. Our cultures that have enabled illegal wars. That presume capital punishment is just. In which in one case an insane degree of vilification of an abortion doctor brought about his death. In which the deaths of foreign citizens, the rendition and torture of innocent – and even guility – foreign citizens inspire scant protest from the vast, vast, vast majority of American citizens. In which one poll revealed a while back that approximately fewer than one in four Americans were totally against a torture policy.

Societies in which wars are waged by righteous leaders, blood-lusting or pseudo-blood-lusting but really oil-lusting after the admittedly anti-humanitarian horror of 9/11.

THE ENDS JUSTIFIES THE MEANS!!!! God forbid, America having been wronged not get to strike out super-violently in super-power magnitude against all the world, even if it does it irrationally and vengefully and unjustly.

“Poirot is about the truth,” one character declared during the investigation. But, alas, not in this one.

This episode was not about legitimate empathy but it pretended to be. This was about faux-empathy of the worst kind. Let men and women take the law into their own hands and wreak vengeance, capital vengeance? Let the ends justify their means?

Amorality prevailed in this PBS not-for-me-classic episode. The war-on-real-empathy continues with a false face here, on my beloved PBS.

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Submitted by Elliott Lake on

the murderers had NOT colluded, it was a series of that would have been changed as well. I love Poirot (though I cannot abide Miss Marple, for the cheating endings) and agree this is totally unlike him. But not, sadly, totally unlike PBS now, with its increasingly large emphasis on military themes that seem slanted to please the Republican party...a leap to justifying torture and vigilantism is not such a large leap nowdays I guess. Still hideous.

Submitted by libbyliberal on

alas, the pbs adapter was not flipping like I thought in terms of Christie's original... a nuancing I didn't like ... boldly nuancing...yes, but I was all wet and revised my commentary above humbled. I still stand by my "truthiness" though. (maybe I should send a resume to Fox, sigh).

Submitted by lambert on

In the book, the gimmick is that "they're all in on it." (Great metaphor for how the legacy parties operate, now that I think about it. "Murder on the Obama Express," or perhaps the "Obama Depress" ....)

"They" being all the passengers on the train (except for Poirot, and the victim), and even the porter, all of whom are collaborating to see justice done; the victim was a child killer, and all the passengers turn out to be from the child's family, or family retainers.

And at the end, Poirot sums up the case, and proffers two solutions to be offered to the authorities: One, the truth; and the second, that an outsider snuck into the coach and did the deed.

And everybody accepts the second, in the interests of justice (and not law).

And as for the "torture," at least in the book, the idea of the multiple stabbings was not to inflict suffering -- how could it be, if the man was drugged -- but to make sure that everybody had equal responsibility for carrying out what they regarded as a justified death sentence.

Now, I can grant the the sickness of our torture-loving and degraded elite culture could have infected this version of MoOE, but I could use a bit more precision in the indictment. In particular, in the book, Poirot quite clearly allows justice to be placed above law.

Submitted by libbyliberal on

I did not read the book and should have visited the library or bookstore before shooting off this review and my mouth to speak for Christie if I am wrong on this, her leaning to the second ending (escape from legal justice)? Is that the ending you are saying Christie was actually promoting or at least her Poirot? Not raising the question, that is clear, but promoting???

I relied on hearsay validation of several people re book ending and past movie endings, which over time may have fuzzed up for all of us, and some comments on a couple websites annoyed with the pbs version. I must read book now, since it troubled me obviously and I wrote this immediately after watching program and being horrified by my sense of it all.

The Masterpiece I just watched horrified me, too, in its manipulativeness. And it seemed the drug was like a date rape drug so the victim could feel the pain but not cry out. And there seemed such a heavy thumb on the scale, the in your face references to the absolute "goodness" of these earnest people to carry out justice. The "righteous" torture graphically shown and focus at the women's hands especially, not the men's. Especially when torture seems such a perversion from the darkest masculine fraternity cultures. Making the women the primary agents creeped me out.

It does horrify when injustice occurs in the legal system, the system is gamed and rigged by money and cronyism which is how the murderer escaped in the history of this scenario and what we are watching IRL. A broken justice system. Wachovia launders Mexican drug cartel money, gets a non-hurtful fine and chastisement and bought by Wells Fargo, but no one goes to jail, but lock up a user of drugs for years and years mercilessly. No empathy, no rehabilitation system. The two Americas. But though we relate to the travesty of the justice system in this movie and IRL, that should not be a smooth transition to the savage and righteous vigilantism shown and the torture thrown in is a stunner, especially with the torture policy now in place, but denied, in Bagram and God knows where else. IT WAS SO SHALLOW AND YET TITILLATING in its psuedo-morality this movie. imho.

Also, there is much invoking of God's name among the murderers, too, in this to imply that God was on the side of the vigilantes. That, too, was chilling. And the gentle packaging of the mastermind of the revenge sequence is this lovely, soft spoken woman.

Poirot's speech to them was so like Thomas Moore's in A Man For All Seasons it was such a relief when it came, and then the ending flipped and I was stunned and enraged. All I could think of was what especially Glenn Greenwald keeps calling out Obama administration and called out the Bush administration on ... profound disrespect, horrifying callousness for the law... domestic and international. Cherry pick what works in the short run, ignore what doesn't, little things like habeas corpus and the rest of the bill of rights. And that G-D exceptionalism. And keep it wrapped up in righteous and exceptional state secrecy. Forget Geneva Convention. Forget Do Unto Others ...

I am reading a book called Getting Away with Torture and am about to write up the stuff about Yoo and his writing permission slips to be used SECRETLY by Bush cartel to do whatever they wanted .... military commissions, rendition and torture, because this small fry with big connections attorney, 34 and on loan from Berkeley, was willing to justify Prez "commander-in-chiefness" as blank check for any horror. And our checks and balances to restrain executive abuse of power is broken, the two other branches pretty much -- cronyism and corruption and cowardice. Money for military ... "terrorism" the magic word that causes the enabling of "terrorism" which in Orwellian terms is presented as anti-terrorism.

And Bradley Manning faces 52 years for whistle blowing and these rat bastards who caused such incalcuable damage and suffering are walking around still preaching their jingoistic amorality. Bush begins his book tour soon.

As for me, I should have done better foundation homework apparently. But I needed to protest what I saw on that screen.

Submitted by gmanedit on


(I thought I posted this already, so it's probably floating out of context in another thread.)

Submitted by gmanedit on

I haven't read the book or seen the TV show, but:

The suicide shakes him with the real-life consequences of his courtroom theatrics.

In Istanbul, he chooses the law over justice (and mercy).

On the train, he tosses the responsibility to another: the law or justice?

If the law is against justice, do you still go with the law?

Submitted by libbyliberal on

at first he decides to have the 12 arrested. Then he lies for them to the authorities to their shock and relief.

In this case, their "justice" was committing murder. I do not find that moral. I'm talking beyond "legal law" here.

I believe in civil disobedience. I think that is necessary at times. I believe whistleblowers do a great service sometimes.

In the context of this movie and what was lawless, I do not believe in murder as vengeance. I don't believe the "legal law" should murder either.

I also think it is telling when Poirot threatens to have them arrested, one of the men wants to kill him. Shows the slippery slope, too, of what can be considered "justified" in an isolated revenge killing and how "justified to some" the next murder out of protection becomes. Desensitization to killing will grow.

I felt with this movie something was being played fast and loose. And something about collective "group think", too ... if we all are guilty we can't be held responsible.. maybe something reminiscent of cronyism here, too. That emboldens people and makes them also feel protected. Kinda like the entire capitalist class and gangster capitalism. Kinda like Congress with the lobby money. Dodd once saying, "Just cuz they give it to us, doesn't mean we'll necessarily vote their way." Good grief. I also felt the more they went on and on about the badness of the victim, the more they wanted that to justify the torture and death.

fwiw :)

Submitted by lambert on

Poirot doesn't threaten them in the book, and nobody threatens to kill him. It's all very genteel, which is part of the book's power.

Submitted by libbyliberal on

I felt so tasered by my shame in being wrong about Christie I couldn't even get indignant over more of your rapier snark. Spoiler alert, indeed! :)

This was on odd blog for me to write, topic wise, but it struck a chord with me, that tv movie. I feel like it jumped the shark in terms of letting Poirot do his Poirot thing and gave the voice of conscience to the seemingly empathetic and maternal governess. The seductive face of amorality in the episode.

Submitted by jawbone on

Thnx everyone! Added to The List of Books to Read.

Only, for whatever reason, since my burn accident, I'm having trouble concentrating on reading books. Wonder what's behind that. I'd been on such a roll. Had the time, didn't have the focus...and, now, at home, being told I can only be on my feet two hours total a day until the skin graft is better healed, I still am having trouble focusing on reading....

Re: keeping my foot elevated, oh do I miss those neat hospital beds!

Submitted by libbyliberal on

Glad you are healing. What an ordeal!

I, too, need to read the original..... to do penance for Agatha. (Did you know she wrote her novels (or so I have read so God I hope this is true) sitting in the bath tub eating green apples?) Anyway, I was asking friends about her ending and I don't know if they were just bobble-heading me more than listening as they affirmed Poirot did not let the guilty off the hook in original. I have that problem of assuming I will hear what I want to hear, too.

I know Agatha was floating a huge values issues. In these trying times where executives in government are trashing law or twisting it and torturing it so it loses its essence and only helps the capitalist cronies, I see how we need to live by an honorable law St. Thomas Moore was so dedicated to.

Still, I stand by my gut angry reaction to the Masterpiece movie but am humbled by my popping off about Christie without firsthand knowledge.

I did see the next one Poirot from pbs, The Third Girl and am back on track with the series and Poirot. But the Murder on Orient Xpress.... a hard watch.

You take care of your precious self. Have missed you and thought of you often.

Welcome back, Kotter!