Home > Reviews > MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – Richard Rodney Bennett


murderontheorientexpressMOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Craig Lysy

Producer Richard Goodwin secured film rights for Murder on the Orient Express from author Agatha Cristie, determined to create a “glamorous star-studded film that was gay in spirit… a soufflé.” He recruited some of the finest stars of the day, which included Albert Finney (Hercule Poirot), Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Hubbard), Ingrid Bergman (Greta), Sir John Gielgud (Beddoes), Sean Connery (Col. Arbuthnot) and Venessa Redgrave as Mary Debenham. The famous Orient Express was a train that ran from Istanbul to Calais and provided transit from Europe to the Middle East. Set in 1935, the story finds renowned and fastidious Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, as a late addition passenger who needs to get back to London immediately. As fate would have it a fellow passenger is found murdered in his stateroom. As Poirot questions the train’s valet, the victim’s accompanying staff, and the first class passengers he finds that many have both opportunity and motive. He soon realizes that several passengers have a connection to the Armstrong family kidnapping and thus he begins to solve a very complex crime. The film had sensational success commercially and received critical acclaim. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score was nominated for both Academy and BAFTA awards, and secured the BAFTA Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music award.

Director Sidney Lumet wanted Stephen Sondheim to score the film, but unfortunately he was already attached to the film Stavisky. Yet upon Sondheim’s recommendation he was solicited Bennett to score the film. Lumet stated that he originally wanted a contemporaneous sound for the score based on Gershwin tunes and Cole Porter songs. However Bennett after viewing the film convinced him that the film was not a thriller, but instead “elegant and glamorous entertainment, and that is what the score should reflect.” Indeed to provide this ambiance Bennett used a small ensemble, which featured adornment by harp, alto flute, muted horns and marimba. For the film Bennett provided two themes, the piano carried Main Theme and lastly, the Waltz. The Main Theme carries a Golden Age sensibility and draws inspiration from famed American pianist Carmen Cavallaro for its use of glittering and rippling arpeggios that augment the main melody, which is arranged in sumptuous and lush triple and quadruple octave chords. This theme is pervasive in the film and indeed animates it. Of note is that Bennett himself played the piano. The second theme, the Waltz is an elegant expression of the classic Viennese form and is employed for vista shots and of the train as it travels through the picturesque countryside.

The score opens in grand style with the dramatic “Overture” where the Main Theme bursts forth gloriously atop piano a la Cavallaro before flowing into a piano led salon-like free-flowing line. The ambiance here is just wonderful and clearly imparts a Golden Age sensibility. Bravo! At 2:10 we segue into “Kidnapping” where we see a flashback to the kidnapping of the Armstrong boy. This is an ambient piece carried by eerie, wailing strings with muted percussion, which sow a dark and ominous disquiet. Discordant flailing strings bring us to a dark conclusion. My skin just crawled during this passage.

“Stamboul Ferry” opens darkly and features passengers in transit at Istanbul. Bennett creates a wondrous and exotic Eastern sensibility by use of flowing low register strings, alto flute and twinkling harp. “The Orient Express” is a score highlight and a massive cue, which features interplay of the Waltz and Main Theme. As we open, slowly, inexorably the Waltz comes alive as the train prepares to depart the Istanbul station. As the train at last departs, the Waltz burst forth with horn fare and flows with the wondrous celebratory elegance of yesteryear. With a scene change at 2:30 we see Ratchett in fear of his life trying to recruit Poirot to protect him. Bennett sows disquiet atop eerie violins as he informs us of something sinister with the Main Theme, now performed atop a chilling glockenspiel. This simple approach perfectly supports the scene. At 3:45 we change scenes to the dinning car where we see the passengers all engaged in dinner conversation. Bennett treats us to an extended statement of his themes in beautiful interplay. We hear his Main Theme in a flowing dance-like form by violin, clarinet, guitar, bass and percussion. The Waltz Theme joins to and fro as the Main Theme returns in many guises, including a Tango! Ole! At 6:24 the Main Theme returns atop the glockenspiel, harp and dark strings as Ratchett’s peril grows. We conclude the piece with this ominous ambient writing often highlighted by bass and clarinet.

“The Body/Remembering Daisy” is an ambient cue full of mystery and disquiet with the gruesome discovery of Ratchett corpse. We open with a stinger and the Main Theme performed darkly on contrabassoon and later alto flute with eerie harp glissandi and wailing violins. This is nicely attuned to the film imagery. In “Entr’acte” we open grandly atop piano a la Cavallaro with another fine expression of the Main Theme, which flows sumptuously with a wondrous Golden Age elegance. At 2:00 a bridge of strings and percussion lead to a horn fare declaration of the Waltz, which flows with the elegance of 19th century Vienna. The joining of these two themes for the Entr’acte is a score highlight. Bravo! In “Princess Dragomiroff” we see the Princess being read passages of Goethe by her servant. Bennett opens with regal horns from which arise romantic lyrical strings that establish the royal bearing of the Princess.

“The Knife” is an ambient non-thematic cue, which speaks to the discovery of the murder weapon. We open harshly with ominous interplay of contrabassoon, alto flute and solo piano, which join in creating a truly dark tapestry. “Prelude To Murder” sets the stage for Ratchett’s murder. Bennett creates a dire and truly ominous soundscape by using a contrabassoon to play fragments of the Main Theme, with interplay by alto flute, growling bass, clarinet and eerie stings. This really works in context and creates palpable tension and anxiety. We proceed into “The Murder”, another ambient cue which opens with eerie, slithering violins, wailing horns and muted percussion, which make your skin crawl. A series of bell tolls herald Ratchett’s doom. Ambient bass, harp and piano mark his passing as the music fades to nothingness.

The score concludes gloriously with “Finale”, a score highlight. The cue opens darkly until horn fare lifts the pall as we see the passengers toasting the end of their ordeal. Bennett treats us to a wonderful expression of the Main Theme, first tenderly by solo oboe, then by violins and finally for a grand statement by full orchestra. As the train is freed from the snow bank we launch into a sterling performance of the Waltz, whose free-flowing elegance brings us to a wonderful conclusion with a flourish. Bravo!

This long sought album was reissued by Quartet Records in memory of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett who passed away on 24 December 2012. The music was sourced from the original EMI album master and provides much better quality than the original LP release. Despite being written in 1974, this is in reality a classic Golden Age score. Bennett uses his two themes to recreate the lush, sumptuous and refined classical elegance of the 1930s. The support of the murder with a dark, ominous and unsettling soundscape is expertly crafted and well attenuated to the film’s imagery. I believe Richard Rodney Bennett offers a road less traveled and heartily recommend that you take time to explore this gem of a score.

Rating: ****

Buy the Murder on the Orient Express soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture and Kidnapping (5:35)
  • Stamboul Ferry (1:03)
  • The Orient Express (11:21)
  • The Body/Remembering Daisy (3:04)
  • Entr’acte (3:43)
  • Princess Dragomiroff (1:08)
  • The Knife (1:27)
  • Prelude To Murder (3:55)
  • The Murder (3:45)
  • Finale (4:38)

Running Time: 39 minutes 18 seconds

Quartet Records SRSCE-053 (1974/2013)

Music composed by Richard Rodney Bennett. Conducted by Marcus Dods. Performed by The Royal Opera House Orchestra. Album produced by Jose Benitez.

  1. indy2003
    August 1, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Happy that this one has received a proper release – it really is a fun score. I’ve had a CD rip of the LP version for years, but the poor sound quality has prevented me from revisiting it as often as I might have otherwise. Will try to pick this one up.

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