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MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – Patrick Doyle

November 10, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The concept of the ‘whodunit’ in contemporary literature was essentially invented by British author Agatha Christie, who during her lifetime wrote more than 50 detective stories and mysteries. Possibly her most famous work was the 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express, which features as its protagonist one of her most beloved creations, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Without giving too much of the plot away, the story unfolds as Poirot is traveling from Istanbul to London on the famous eponymous train. A passenger is murdered in his cabin, and Poirot is implored by the train’s director to help solve the case. With the train stuck in a snowdrift, Poirot has time to investigate each of the other passengers in the first class compartment where the murder took place, and slowly develops a theory linking the murder to the abduction and subsequent death of a wealthy child heiress several years previously. This is the second big screen adaptation of the story, after Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film; it was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who himself plays Poirot, and has an all-star supporting cast that includes Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley.

The score for Murder on the Orient Express is by Scottish composer Patrick Doyle, as is the case for all Branagh’s films. This is their 13th film together, a collaboration that stretches back to 1989 and Henry V, and includes such outstanding scores as Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hamlet, Love’s Labours Lost, and Cinderella. There is a wonderful chemistry, and an artistry, that emerges whenever Branagh and Doyle work together, and this is certainly the case again here. In an attempt to allow the film to have a sense of scope –remember, much of it takes place in one carriage on a train stuck in a snowdrift – Branagh encouraged Doyle to be as direct and musically expressive as possible, and Doyle responded to this direction with a score that allows Poirot’s powers of intellectual deduction to remain at the forefront of the score, but also allows for some magnificent moments of expansive grandeur, deep emotion, and even a little action.

The score is written for a large symphony orchestra, with special emphasis on strings and piano, augmented by a number of specialty instruments that provide a little local color and flavor. Thematically, the score is built around a trio of recurring ideas: one for Poirot himself, one for the train as it travels across Europe, and one for the Armstrong family and the legacy of the previously murdered little girl that looms over the entire story. A secondary minor motif, which I’m calling the ‘mystery theme,’ also establishes itself during the middle of the score to accompany the inner workings of Poirot’s mind as he digs deeper into the mystery at the heart of the story.

However, the score actually begins in the Middle East, for the story’s prologue piece in which Poirot solves a completely unrelated case in Jerusalem. “The Wailing Wall” is a fun piece of regional color, full of whirligig string writing and more than a hint of the bazaar. Doyle also makes grand use of a number of regional instruments including a psaltery, a ney flute, a mass of exotic percussion, and most notably the duduk Armenian oboe, the sound of which continues into the rest of the score and forms a core part of the Mystery Theme.

The next three cues introduce the Traveling Theme, a more lyrical idea with sweeping strings that establish a sense of scope. Its performance in “Jaffa to Stamboul” features more elegant duduk writing, and although “Arrival” begins with a little more uncertainty and hesitation, it quickly picks up a set of playful chugging strings that speak to the sense of mischief inherent in Poirot’s character (as well as his occasionally sassy one-liners!). Finally, “Departure” sees the Traveling theme played at its largest and grandest, full of cymbal crashes and sweeping strings, accompanying the great locomotive as it heads off on its epic journey.

Poirot’s Theme is introduced on dancing strings in “The Orient Express,” an energetic piece full of forward motion that captures the boundless optimism and enthusiasm one feels at the beginning of a great adventure. The fanciful rhythmic undercurrent, a mass of rattling tapped snares, mimics the sound of the train as it leaves the station, although its construct is very similar to the rhythms Doyle used in his theme for the 1994 film Exit to Eden. This is the piece that will inevitably draw comparisons with the famous piece written by Richard Rodney Bennett for the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express, although Bennett’s theme is more traditionally English-sounding than Doyle’s, with a waltz time structure and more florid orchestrations. Both are excellent in their own way, although it’s unlikely that Doyle’s theme will leave a lasting mark on public consciousness the way Bennett’s did.

As one would expect, the Traveling Theme abruptly vanishes from the score at the moment the train stops moving – caught in the snow high in the mountains of Yugoslavia – and is replaced instead by a middle section that is much more understated and muted. It is here that Doyle introduces the Mystery Theme, a four note motif that shifts around from strings to piano to duduk, depending on the scene and the cue. Doyle peppers the music with tinkling cimbaloms, moody string sustains, and little harp glissandi, giving the music an interesting texture, but I can certainly foresee how some will find this long section difficult to sit through; unless you’re listening closely for the detail, it’s easy for it all to pass by unnoticed.

However, I thought that many moments were cleverly rendered. In “Judgement” the duduk carries the 4-note Mystery theme while the piano seems to be contrapuntally playing the chord progressions of Poirot’s theme without the melody. “MacQueen” features another deconstructed version of Poirot’s theme for piano accompanied by pizzicato textures. The subsequent “Ma Katherine” features a soft, emotional version of Poirot’s theme for slow pianos and a string wash, accompanied by faraway solo female vocals, as he gazes longingly at the portrait of his private lost love. There are also two brief action sequences, “Keep Everyone Inside” and “Dr. Arbuthnot,” the first of which is filled with dashing string runs, and the second of which goes through 90 seconds or so of tense buildup – including a ticking watch idea – before it explodes into a thrilling 20 seconds of frenzied, pulsating string and brass writing.

However, by far the most important element to emerge during the second half of the score is the Armstrong theme. It’s almost impossible to talk about this theme in detail, and how it relates to the film, without giving the plot away, suffice to say that it represents the major turning point in terms of who is responsible for the murder, and provides the context for the film’s finale – not just the whodunit, but also the reason why. The theme first emerges in “The Armstrong Case,” a beautiful, emotional, desperately sad piano theme accompanied by a gorgeous solo violin. It subsequently weaves its way into several other cues, with Doyle cleverly attaching it to pre-existing ideas. In “Mrs. Hubbard,” Doyle combines the melody of the Armstrong theme with some of the orchestrations from the Mystery theme (pizzicato strings, cimbalom) and the rhythmic undercurrent of the Poirot theme as the connections begin to reveal themselves to the great Belgian. Later, in “Geography,” the piano ideas from the Armstrong theme are again cleverly juxtaposed against the duduk Mystery motif, with an added touch of whimsy from a pizzicato plucked bass.

Everything comes to a head in the score’s piéce de resistance finale. After a performance of the Armstrong theme for solo violin, piano, and determined but soft horns in “It Is Time,” the 9½-minute “Justice” track provides the culmination of the score, a piece of breathtaking lyricism and devastating emotional impact. The cue underscores the scene in which Poirot gathers together his suspects and reveals his final solution to the crime; the Armstrong theme, naturally, takes center stage, building across several extended statements, most notably for solo piano performed by Doyle himself, and a sublime solo violin. With each subsequent recapitulation the main melody becomes more tragic and emotionally heightened, and although the piece does have some vague similarities to the conclusion of his song “In Pace” from Hamlet (albeit without any vocals), the emotional force of this cue in context is magnificent.

The score concludes with two score cues – “Poirot,” a solo piano version of Poirot’s theme performed with florid embellishments and jazzy flavors, and a fun restatement of the traveling theme for the end credits in the “Orient Express Suite.” There is also an original song, “Never Forget,” written by Doyle with lyrics by Branagh, and performed by Michelle Pfeiffer. The song is based on the Armstrong theme, with Doyle performing the melody on piano, and Pfeiffer singing Branagh’s lyrics to the chord progressions. Pfeiffer hadn’t sung professionally since The Fabulous Baker Boys in 1989, but was convinced to do it by Doyle and Branagh; she subsequently went through a course of training to brush up on her singing voice, and ultimately recorded an emotional, intimate, sensitive performance that is tinged with an appropriate amount of bitterness and regret.

For me, Murder on the Orient Express is one of the scores of the year. Although it’s true that the middle section of the score does slow things down a little, and while I acknowledge that it may be too understated for some listeners, I personally feel that Doyle judged everything perfectly, allowing the inner workings of Poirot’s mind to take center state as he quietly, methodically solves the case. This, combined with the wonderfully evocative opening sequence in the Middle East, the ebullient and sweeping Traveling sequence, the brief explosions of action, and the extraordinarily powerful finale in Cue of the Year contender “Justice,” reminds me why I have always held Patrick Doyle in such high esteem, and why his collaborations with Kenneth Branagh should always be something to be greatly anticipated.

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

Track Listing:

  • The Wailing Wall (1:43)
  • Jaffa to Stamboul (1:27)
  • Arrival (2:02)
  • The Orient Express (1:28)
  • Departure (1:00)
  • Judgement (2:29)
  • Touch Nothing Else (2:53)
  • MacQueen (2:19)
  • Twelve Stab Wounds (2:58)
  • The Armstrong Case (1:21)
  • Mrs. Hubbard (1:33)
  • This is True (2:51)
  • Keep Everyone Inside (1:24)
  • Confession (1:50)
  • Geography (1:24)
  • One Sharp Knife (2:23)
  • Ma Katherine (1:09)
  • True Identity (2:07)
  • Dr. Arbuthnot (1:53)
  • It Is Time (1:06)
  • Justice (9:29)
  • Poirot (2:39)
  • Never Forget (written by Patrick Doyle and Kenneth Branagh, performed by Michelle Pfeiffer) (3:58)
  • Orient Express Suite (3:19)

Running Time: 56 minutes 56 seconds

Sony Classical (2017)

Music composed by Patrick Doyle. Conducted by James Shearman. Orchestrations by Patrick Doyle. Recorded and mixed by Nick Taylor. Edited by Robin Morrison, Graham Sutton and Cecile Tournesac. Album produced by Patrick Doyle.

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  1. November 10, 2017 at 10:19 pm

    Spot on again, Jon.
    I’m not a fan of the directing and acting performances from Branagh but that’s always been made up for by Doyle.

  2. M P Wright
    November 11, 2017 at 12:55 am

    For me, my favourite score of 2017. I concur that the mid section looses momentum, but the overall work is a winner for me. In regard’s Doyle, we meet, Jon and sat next to each other at a Philharmonia film music concert of Doyle’s work, presented by the composer and conducted by Fred Talgorn on the evening of Tuesday 13th May 2003 at the Demontfort Hall here in Leicester. Great concert and I recall a wonderful rendition of Grand Central Station from Carlito’s Way performed, if you remember, among other great performances that night. All seems, and is a very long time ago … Best, M P

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