One of my favorite movies is the 1974 classic Murder on the Orient Express. It’s hard to hate with its stellar cast (including Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Martin Balsam and Lauren Bacall), its sparkling and witty dialogue and mostly its beautiful, lush scenes. The film itself, in the words of its director Sidney Lumet, is homage to the films of Old Hollywood. It is simply one of those movies that’s not the most clever, or most action-packed, but it’s a treat for the eyes- one that never tires me.
In case you didn’t know, the movie is an adaptation of the classic murder mystery by Dame Agatha Christie. It’s a hallmark Christie novel- an exotic locale, a cast of varied stereotypical British and foreign subjects, and Christie’s famed Belgian detective- Hercule Poirot. Poirot, whilst traveling in style from Istanbul to London via the Orient Express, has a case thrust upon him by his friend, the director of the train line, when a mystery occurs aboard the train, which incidentally is trapped in the snow- keeping all the passengers and the murderer (!) on the train. The inevitable search for the killer and solution follows, in one of the most famous moments in Agatha Christie fiction.
Interestingly enough, since the almost all of the action occurs on the titular orient express, many of the scenes were filmed on actual Orient Express carriages. If you did not know- the Orient Express was a line that ran trains across the continent in lavish style, most notably in the 20s and 30s when train travel reached the pinnacle of its popularity. The Orient Express has remained famous for a few reasons. The first is that the Orient Express was par none when it came to quality travel, service and elegance. Many of the cars were lavishly and beautifully decorated, each a work of art in itself. These factors are what initially endeared it to the public, or at least the exclusive group that could afford it. Secondly, multiple films and books take place aboard the train, including the Bond classic, From Russia with Love. Finally, and least importantly, in the last forty years or so, the train was completely restored by some wealthy Brits, and now runs its former route at a great cost to its passengers.
Now, when Lumet filmed the movie, the Orient Express was still running, but at a much lower quality than in the 30s (as pictured in the film). However, he managed to get together some old carriages that still reeked of their former glory, prettied them up, and created a lasting impression of the train for those who cannot afford the elegance of the restored Venice-Simplon Orient Express.
In the film, Poirot interrogates the suspects onboard the Pullman Carriage on the train. Specifically, it was Pullman 4146, a former member of the Venice-Simplon Orient Express line. Evident in the film, and in 4146’s partner if you will, 4141, are these beautiful panels, to which I, after much introductory work, dedicated my post to.
These panels are known as the Bacchanalian Maidens, and, as you can tell, adorn the carriage throughout. They were designed by the revolutionary glass designer, Rene Lalique, who most famously worked in the Art-Nouveau style. According to the restored train’s companion book, Lalique designed multiple items for the train in the “Cote d’Azur” style. These panels, the Maidens, if you will, adorned the mahogany walls of the carriage, as apparent in the film.
Lalique also designed jewelry, clocks, vases, all with a combination of glass and other materials.
Now, obviously, these panels were not created for the film. They were created for the train which appears in the film. Therefore, this artwork serves to further enhance the setting. Originally, they enhanced the beauty and elegance of the Orient Express. But in the film, they help create the ambiance of graceful beauty that was stressed throughout the entire piece.
Still, they are important to appreciate for the artwork they are in themselves. Furthermore, the appreciation of these panels creates a greater appreciation of the bygone elegance of the Orient Express.