It’d be hard to do better than to hunker down with Murder on the Orient Express. A gleefully professional, completely confident all-star cast, on an aristocratic-age luxury train, on a day when the snow piles up outside just like it piles up around the train, stuck as it is in a Yugoslavian mountain drift while one of its passengers (Richard Widmark) is murdered in his private berth. Agatha Christie stalwart Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney, slicing his lean ham so nicely) interviews the suspects, twirling his trademarked moustache, and decades of celebrities parade before us, acting up snowstorms. Ah, the lost days when murder was fun, train travel was elegant, and royalty were to be pitied their vanished empires. An Oscar went to Ingrid Bergman for her one scene because, well, she’s Ingrid Bergman.
The chattiest, dreamiest, and wittiest of noir mysteries, Otto Preminger’s Laura begins with a murder and a romance—cool cop Dana Andrews falls for the dead woman, personified by Gene Tierney’s wall portrait. Then Tierney’s heroine walks in from a weekend away, and no one’s sure who the body belongs to. All in all, the film is virtually owned by Clifton Webb, the feyest and most acidic character actor of the 1940s.
Alfred Hitchcock’s unassailable Gothic classic is merely the first of his many biopsies on marriage and the secret poisoning within them. Filled with superb set pieces and supporting performances, it all boils down to Joan Fontaine’s nameless heroine, nervously thrust into both an aristocratic milieu and an uncommunicative union she has no business occupying. Reportedly, Hitchcock (with the help of costar Laurence Olivier) subtly abused Fontaine on the set of Rebecca, a ploy that not only made her performance realer than real, but made the entire film, inside and out, a working metaphor for a dysfunctional marriage.
Vertigo is San Francisco’s house movie, so famously entangled in the city’s landmarks that for years now, tourists have easily found guided tours of the places featured in the film, in the order in which they’re seen. Of course, the substance of the film is something else—James Stewart, two Kim Novaks, a ghost, a fear of heights, and a psychosexual obsession so subtly but clearly delineated by director Alfred Hitchcock that this film remains one of the most perverse in Hollywood history.
Robert Altman, in his inimitable style, updates this Raymond Chandler mystery yarn, and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, to 1970s L.A., a sour maze of aging hippies, blithe crime, loneliness, and a certain lack of moral rectitude—something Elliott Gould’s singularly schlubby private eye decides to correct on his own by story’s end. The case itself involves a friend (baseball star Jim Bouton) who’s accused of killing his wife, but various SoCal lunatics are roped in as well, and the film becomes a tapestry of genre jokes, cultural satire, and Altmanesque texture.
Interesting fable about a magician (Edward Norton) and his entanglements with the aristocracy, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna but actually shot—fabulously, by Dick Pope—in the old neighborhoods of Prague. The result does both cities justice.
Like you, James Stewart is laid up—with an absurdly phallic leg cast—and so, bored, he spies on the movie-like dramas unrolling in his neighbors’ apartment windows, until one of them seems to become a murder mystery (viewed, as they usually are, from a safe, dark distance). One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most valuable essays on discomfiture and audience implication. It’s not a celebration of healing per se, but being helpless has never been so riveting.