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