One of the key scenes in Murder on the Orient Express involves Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) exposing Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) as a fake Austrian scientist as a result of his failure correctly to pronounce Turin. Hardman – if that is his real name – pronounces it TURin, whereas a genuine Austrian, as Poirot reminds us, would have pronounced it TurIN.
Given the importance that the film places upon pronunciation as a sign of authenticity, it is notable that on two occasions we hear the Belgian sleuth incorrectly pronounce the plural of the French word for eggs. The singular, œuf, involves the pronunciation of the f: ‘urf.’ However, when said in the plural, French speakers drop the f sound and say ‘uh’: des œufs (‘des uh’). Poirot, however, on both occasions persists incorrectly with the f and says ‘urfs.’
If it is an incorrect pronunciation that exposes Hardman’s act, then by the same token Poirot’s incorrect pronunciation exposes his own act. That is, if it is because he cannot correctly pronounce words that Hardman is revealed as not Hardman, then because he cannot correctly pronounce words, Poirot is similarly revealed as not Poirot. In other words, it is because of an f that the Poirot of Murder on the Orient Express is revealed as a fake.
What are we to make of this?
On a primary level, we can simply say that it is an error that any actor (here, Kenneth Branagh) might make when saying words in a language that is not his own. That is, the slip is meaningless – the sort of slip that should not be the basis of an entire argument about the film.
But, given that the film itself involves sleuthing based upon such slips, then by the film’s own standards, we can mount a case against the film as a result of its linguistic inaccuracies. If Hardman’s slip is deliberate, in the sense that it provides a clue as to the real nature of what it is that we are witnessing, then so must we read Branagh/Poirot‘s slip as deliberate.
Hercule Poirot finds himself on a train where 12 people have gathered ritually to murder a man (Edward Ratchett/John Cassetti, played by Johnny Depp) who himself abducted and killed a child in the USA some time prior to the titular train journey taking place. Each has a link to the victim and the victim’s family – and each is sufficiently devastated by the original murder that they are willing to take part in the murder from which the novel – and subsequently the film – takes its name.
The film presents to us as if it is by chance that Poirot happens to be on the titular train. Indeed, the murderers would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for the pesky Poirot’s presence – and an avalanche that happens to keep the train stuck for a day or more near Brod, in what at the time of the film’s setting (1934) was the recently formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and which today finds itself in the Muslim-majority country of Kosovo.
But what are the odds that all of these people with a connection to Cassetti happen to be on the same train – at precisely the same time that the world’s greatest detective happens to be there, too?
As the odds are extremely slim that so many people with connections to Cassetti can be on the same train as him by chance, so, too, are the odds slim that Poirot would be on the same train as all of these people and as Cassetti by chance.
Indeed, as it is not by chance that all of these same people are on the same train as Cassetti (they are here specifically to murder him), so might it also not be by chance that Poirot is on the same train. For, as Hardman is not Hardman, so is this Poirot not Hercule Poirot.
Instead, as indicated by his fake f, this Poirot is in fact an actor playing the part of Hercule Poirot – the world’s greatest detective – precisely so that he can uncover the crime and then use his credentials as a great moral arbitrator in order to excuse those who commit the murder of Cassetti.
That is, this Poirot is not on the train by chance, but, like all of the 12 perpetrators, he is equally on the train as a result of engineering. This Poirot is there not just to uncover the murder, but to justify the murder. He is part of the plot to allow murder to happen justifiably. For if the world believes that even Hercule Poirot allows these people to get away with murder, then everyone will allow these people to get away with murder. It is necessary to fake Poirot’s presence in order to justify murder.
But why do this?
On one level, this must be done in order to keep the train’s owner, Bouc (Tom Bateman), at bay. Where Bouc might otherwise blow a whistle about the murder, thanks to Poirot’s presence and his condonement of the killing, Bouc will keep quiet and let the killing happen ‘in peace.’ Bouc thus is a kind of bouc émissaire, or scapegoat, for the murder – not because Bouc literally takes the rap for what happens, but because Bouc’s naïve belief in the fake Poirot reconfirms (the fake) Poirot’s (fake) verdict that the killers are justified in their actions.
Except that Bouc specifically invites Poirot to take the train when Poirot is called to London to investigate the Kassner case. That is, Bouc is necessary in order to corroborate that this curious man whom we see is Hercule Poirot, while at the same time providing the necessary setting for the murder to take place. Bouc is in on it, too.
It is not simply that Poirot is part of the plot to murder Cassetti, then. It may even be that Poirot – this fake Poirot – is the mastermind behind the plot, a man playing the role of the Belgian detective in order to allow a murder to happen that he himself will expose and then condone precisely so that it takes place without consequence.
What evidence do we really have that Ratchett is Cassetti? None. That is, we have 12 liars who insist that this man is Cassetti, a child murderer who was never caught and the evidence for whose crime is never revealed to us. And then we have the word of a fake Poirot, whose explanations of the crime may be ingenious – but they explain to us neither who has been killed nor why.
Murder in Yugoslavia, or more specifically Kosovo, is therefore justified by the word of a fake authority. Indeed, because of the authority of a fake Belgian who justifies it, it becomes the perfect murder. Collective murder is perfect.
At the outset of the film, we see Poirot asking for the eggs that are the centre of this argument. Four minutes, he says, which presumably means that Poirot likes his eggs with a bit of unboiled snot in them given that five minutes is in my experience the best time to achieve a soft-boiled egg – give or take 30 seconds depending on the size of the egg.
(Furthermore, the boiling point of water falls with decreasing atmospheric pressure, and so it takes longer to cook an egg when one is at a higher altitude, since the boiling water there is not as hot and thus not as speedy a cooking medium as it would be at sea level.)
Having received two eggs that simply by appearance he does not like, the fake Poirot dismisses them and demands two more, which duly arrive.
Poirot (the fake Poirot) then takes out a ruler and measures the eggs, even though the eggs are visibly not the same size.
What is more, having dismissed the initial pair of eggs, he now accepts the second set of eggs, even though they are visibly disparate – and even though measuring them will not help him to know whether they have been boiled for the four required minutes.
In other words, first the insistence, then the refusal and then the nonsensical measurements are carried out in order to convince those around him (and we viewers) that this man is Hercule Poirot, the sort of man who would do such nitpicking. But of course, this is simply a performance by an impostor.
When Poirot makes it on to the Orient Express, he is served two much more equally-sized eggs for breakfast by the train steward Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari). How Michel knows to prepare the eggs this way is not revealed to us – and this is Poirot’s first experience on the titular train. In other words, Michel would seem already somehow to know Poirot. And Michel will eventually be revealed as yet another part of the plot to kill Ratchett, whom the murderers also claim to be Cassetti.
What is more, when Ratchett endeavours to employ Poirot to protect him from what he senses is imminent danger, Poirot (the fake Poirot) refuses – in part because he does not like Ratchett’s face.
In other words, not only would it seem that Poirot (the fake Poirot) is known in advance to at least one – but perhaps more – of the criminals who murder Ratchett. But it would also seem that Poirot himself has something against Ratchett. Perhaps it is for this reason that this detective who jumps up and who leaves his berth upon the slightest sound also somehow manages to sleep through 12 humans piling into a berth, stabbing a man and leaving again… because he also was a part of it.
But then who is this fake Poirot?
When the fake Poirot arrives at Istanbul train station with Bouc, he is told that there is no room left on the train – and that he therefore cannot travel in spite of his friend Bouc’s promise that he can.
At the last minute, however, someone suggests that an Englishman named Harris has not made it on time to catch the train. Passengers must arrive 30 minutes before departure, otherwise they forfeit their right to travel – and Harris has not arrived before departure and therefore cannot travel.
What has happened to Harris? Harris may have forgotten or missed his train. Or, given that Harris was otherwise booked on to a train where all of the passengers and even some of the staff members know each other, as an outsider he has been conveniently forced to miss the train – so as not to disrupt the murder that is about to take place (Harris is the victim of a second, earlier murder?).
Or, more simply, Harris does take the train. For the man who claims to be Hercule Poirot is really an Englishman called Harris, hence his inability correctly to pronounce the plural for eggs in French (des œufs/des ‘uh’).
Perhaps it is for this reason that MacQueen (Josh Gad) initially expresses surprise at seeing Harris/Poirot – for he does not recognise his friend in disguise, prompting Harris/Poirot to express his own dismay at MacQueen’s appearance. That is, Harris is indirectly expressing his own disappointment at having to look like Hercule Poirot.
Everything that follows is persiflage, pure show, or simply noise like the whistle of a train (per-siffle-age), including a somewhat nonsensical ‘action’ sequence in which Poirot chases MacQueen along a wooden bridge.
Indeed, this would explain the highly theatrical opening of the film, too, in which the fake Poirot supposedly solves the case of a missing treasure of which a rabbi (Elliot Levey), a priest (David Annen) and an imam (Joseph Long) are accused of stealing.
The fake Poirot himself points out that this is almost a joke scenario to the assembled crowd, who for some reason accept that a trial can or should take place in the open air and under the authority of a fake detective hired by the British government. That is, the trial is indeed a joke.
For, it becomes immediately obvious that there are not just the three religious men involved in this case, since the fake Poirot quickly explains to us that the last person to see the triumvirate was the British Police Chief Inspector (Michael Rouse).
We are told that Poirot (the fake Poirot) solves this crime as a result of a mark left by a shoe on a painting that lines the wall beneath the treasure. But far more simple a solution is to include among the suspects the very man who has known to accuse these three religious figures in the first place.
In other words, the ‘trial’ at the film’s opening is a pure show, a sham that is also put on in order to convince the assembled crowd and we viewers that this fake Poirot is the real Poirot.
The Chief Inspector supposedly steals the treasure, but it seems more logical to this viewer that the crime itself is a set-up so that the trial can be staged and so that the fake Poirot can be inserted into the story world.
That is, the fake Poirot is really engineered by the British – not to sort out who is responsible for the looting of valuables in Jerusalem (where the film opens), but in order to justify the British looting of valuables from Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Empire.
Supposedly called to London for the Kassner case, the British have in fact set Harris up as Poirot so that he can go on to the Orient Express to mastermind and then to justify the murder of Ratchett.
Why do this? Because Ratchett, too, is involved in the business of buying and selling antiques, including fake ones. That is, Ratchett wants to get involved in the very same racket that the British are operating throughout their Empire: stealing antiquities and replacing them with fakes that are sold at high cost.
As an upstart possible competitor, Ratchett must naturally be neutralised – otherwise the claims to power of the British will be exposed as fake. The Empire will be exposed as fake, its pretences to power merely an illusion staged to fool the assembled crowds that its figures of authority (the so-called Poirot) are in fact more powerful than their religious authorities (the rabbi, the priest and the imam).
Only two people will know the identity of the murderer, says the fake Poirot: God and Hercule Poirot. But if Hercule Poirot does not exist, then God may not exist. Or if Hercule Poirot is fake, then God may also be fake. That is, all who claim to be authorities on this Earth are fake, actors in a spectacle that is put on in order to create the illusion of power and in order to convince the spectators to believe in that illusory power.
(It is by this token important that the fake Poirot exposes corruption among the occupying British forces – the supposedly criminal Chief Inspector. In doing so, the fake Poirot would claim to show that the British bring their own people to justice – in the process covering over how the system of Empire will itself never be brought to justice. That is, the small crime is used as a mask for the massive crime that is taking place in broad daylight: the undermining and replacement of the local figures of authority for the purposes of ransacking the territory that the forces of Empire are infiltrating.)
Given the presence among the perpetrators on the train of three to five further Americans – MacQueen, the fake Hardman, Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr), the fake Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) and the fake Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) – it would appear that the British are not alone in ransacking the rest of the world.
Let us not also forget the Russians, including Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin), who seems expressly to take pleasure in the murder (as well as being prone to violence in general).
The group is rounded out by naturalised Americans Biniamino Marquez (Manuel García-Rulfo) and Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), as well as British citizens with strong American ties, including Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi), as well as Jewish émigrée Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman).
In other words, the major world powers are all united in a front to frame and to justify the murder of a man, Ratchett, whose crime is to seek to get involved in their game. Whose crime is to seek also to be a criminal. And who for his effrontery is branded a child abductor and murderer such that his assassination for theft and the peddling of fakes becomes morally justified.
When the fake Poirot performs his charade of egg inspection before a young boy (Yasine Zeroual), the fake Poirot explains that the disparity in size is not the fault of the eggs, but of the chicken. Or rather, that it is an inexplicable mystery.
To what end this prologue, which does not appear in the novel?
Perhaps Branagh is trying to tell us that as no two eggs are the same, so are a film and a novel not the same. That is, one can never get the original to match the copy. And so Branagh is suggesting from the very beginning that this is a fake version of Agatha Christie’s story that we are watching – and that it would be pointless to try to get the one to match the other.
Similarly, the film’s opening by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem does not happen in the novel, which rather opens in Aleppo, and which sees Poirot travel by train (on the Taurus Express) to Istanbul, rather than by boat (as happens in this film).
We have already established how the film’s opening takes place simply for show – in the sense that it is a show designed to convince the world that this fake Poirot is the real Poirot and that the British are thus justified in their dominion over Jerusalem (which of course the British celebrate as being theirs whenever they patriotically sing the hymn ‘Jerusalem,’ as written by William Blake, to whom we shall return shortly).
But here the opening, with its overhead shots and its supposedly reliable flashbacks to the dispute between the rabbi, the imam and the priest, are all designed to convince us not just of the authority of the fake Poirot, but of the authority of the film.
This is especially clear in the fake Poirot’s illusory ability to predict the movements of the Chief Inspector. Firstly, he sends a guard to stand at the south gate in advance of denouncing the supposedly corrupt policeman, while also placing in the wall his walking stick, which eventually the fleeing Police Inspector will run into.
But this miraculous ability to predict the future is not so much magic as simply stage management: it is easy to seem to predict the future when it has been prearranged in advance for the policeman to go to the south gate and then to run into the walking stick.
In other words, the film wants us to believe in the power and authority of the film, when all of this is really staged, a fake that is a far cry from Christie’s novel. This is not Murder on the Orient Express that we are watching, but a fake film created by an impostor.
Put differently, cinema as a whole is an illusion machine that is used to give authority to those who peddle it. Like Ratchett, of whom the fake Poirot and his friends must get rid, cinema passes off fakes as if real, making handsome profits in the process while also stealing real local treasures via Empire, and as rendered here through the use in this film of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.
Which of course is not the real Wailing Wall, but a fake filmed in Malta.
More than this. As the fake Poirot is put into motion in order to justify the murder of Ratchett, so is cinema put into motion in order to justify murder more generally. As the disappearance of Ratchett is a conspiracy between the British, the Russians, the Americans and various naturalized Americans, so is the disappearance of Aleppo, for example, a conspiracy that is made to look like a struggle between the major world powers.
The point that I wish to make is not specifically about Aleppo, nor Palestine which was the nation in which Jerusalem resided at the time in which the film is set.
Rather, I am using Aleppo and Palestine here as examples of Empire and the role that cinema plays in the continuation of Empire. In bringing this fake magic trick to the world, the power of those who create cinema is justified.
The film regularly features extended sequences filmed from the exterior of the train, such that the train itself becomes a ‘character’ in the film. We might venture further yet, though, and suggest that it is not simply as if the train itself were a key player in the events that are unfolding, but as if the train demanded these events.
That is, the train is like cinema a tool for the creation of modernity. And what is modernity? Modernity is the creation of a system of power whereby some use the trickery of technology in order to demonstrate their power over others, whom they then ransack in order to consolidate their power – a perfect feedback loop of empowerment.
But this empowerment of some over others also involves the disempowerment of others for the benefit of some. This disempowerment is in effect murder. As a human seeking to become god kills others in order to use their life force and blood in order to prolong, increase and perhaps render permanent their own, so does modernity involve the sacrifice of many to sate the claims to divinity that a few are trying to make.
Naturally, anyone who sees through this fakery and who aims to achieve their own power must be removed – hence the murder of Ratchett. Revolution, or not to believe the proclaimed divinity of those who would have power, and to seek to establish via the same means one’s own power, similarly requires suppression, or else power will not be consolidated but distributed.
(It would seem all too human for humans to seek to become gods.)
In order for power to take on magic qualities that reinforce its power (power as appearance), power also seeks to hide its origin. As the projector from which images originate is hidden in the cinema, so is the provenance of power generally hidden. Power comes as if from nowhere, via sleight of hand. It is magical. And thus its authority is not to denied since it is beyond the ken of other, uninformed humans.
The status of Murder on the Orient Express as a Maltese-American co-production, then, functions as a means to hide the film’s own source of power (and that of cinema more generally). This is a film that comes from a ‘small’ place (Malta), but which really just reaffirms the big interests of cinema (Hollywood) – with Malta itself a screen enabled by the tax breaks that drew the production to it in the first place, and which tax breaks function as an invitation to under-pay local, Maltese workers, thereby justifying under-payment and exploitation as a whole.
What is more, as Malta functions as the home of an infamous Masonic order, and as small islands generally function as tax havens, or what the recent leak of documents would confirm to be ‘paradises’ on Earth (or what Nicholas Shaxson further defines as islands of [stolen] treasure), so does the presence of Malta in this production function as a means of burying treasure, turning theft into an illusion – something the reality of which cannot be proven, and which therefore is both godly and not real. To believe in it is to be an insane conspiracist. To be part of it is never to be discovered.
This is how Empire functions: power is nominally regulated through the creation of taxation systems, with the powerful then placing themselves outside of the jurisdiction of such regulation. Regular humans who are too stupid to be crooks are punished for their honesty (their money is stolen from them, and they receive next to nothing in return), while the so-called gods are never punished for breaking the rules that they impose upon other people.
(Europe/the West must be defended from Islam by the Knights Templar of the Order of Malta, a specifically Christian group that aims to put down the revolutionary religion of Mohammad, who is not divine but human, and so who threatens to undermine the claims to divinity of other humans. Murder in Kosovo is justified.)
And what of William Blake? The fake Poirot is called to London for the Kassner case. To what might this refer? Perhaps it refers to the work of author Rudolf Kassner, the man who translated Blake into German and who also was influenced by Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy is a novel in which fabulation becomes impossible to tell apart from truth as we are presented with illusion after illusion.
(Tristram Shandy as a deconstruction of power, and as a deconstruction of cinema avant la lettre/avant la caméra. In famously featuring a black page, Tristram Shandy renders itself antithetical to cinema, which relies upon darkness, but which cannot make darkness visible since this would be to bring to light and to humanise its otherwise invisible and would-be divine workings.)
(And so the ‘Jerusalem’ of Empire is not the real Jerusalem; it is a fake, builded elsewhere in England. But in building that fake Christian as opposed to that multi-faith Jerusalem, so are the dark Satanic mills of Empire put into motion.)
It is a kind of Blakean demonic energy that Ron Rosenbaum attributes to Adolf Hitler in a bid to explain his ascent to power – as if Hitler were the ultimate revolutionary little man born to rob power back from the gods in which he did not believe, and who thus provoked global war as the gods naturally demanded his blood to prove that Hitler was human as Hitler demanded blood to transcend his humanity and to become a god. With their nuclear light, the winners of the war demonstrated that they verily were gods.
The fake Poirot is perhaps, then, called to investigate the rise of Hitler and the role that literature, translation and perhaps even cinema played in that rise. Hitler is one more upstart, like Ratchett, whom the fake Poirot and his British, American and Russian friends must help to put down in order to perpetuate the balance of power as is. America, Britain and Russia may squabble over who has most power between them, but these squabbles merely cover over the bigger question of why they have power at all. They are a cinematic show that plays out so that people believe in their divinity as they rob the world of its treasures, selling back fakes to make yet more money and to consolidate all power in their own hands.
So for the sake of an f, Murder on the Orient Express is revealed as fake.
Or perhaps a simple show of ignorance on the part of Kenneth Branagh (he does not know how to pronounce his œufs) sets in chain a conspiracy theory that nonetheless reveals the very humanity and not the divinity of the world’s systems of power – and the role that cinema plays in creating and maintaining them.
Or perhaps this is just idle conspiracy theoretical fabulation, patterns where there only is chaos, and to be disproved in an ongoing apocalypse of false idols.