Sunday, November 26, 2006

1974 : The Overlooked - WENDY HILLER & RACHEL ROBERTS in “Murder on the Orient Express”

The picture’s distinguished by sensational costumes, irresistible title music (a wry fusion of 30’s glamour and glorious Rogers Williams style piano kitsch) and the sheer celebrity of its cast. A few of these cast members contribute delicious vignettes. Vanessa Redgrave puts a playfully subversive spin on her character, getting substantial mileage out of sunny impertinence. And in a role someone else might have phoned in, Jean-Pierrre Cassel scatters little flecks of gold with his melancholy charm. Then there’s Wendy Hiller.

Her Princess Dragimiroff is a creature of magnificently constipated grandeur. What with the elaborate headgear and the everpresent suggestion of hatpins, whale-bone corsets and industrial strength girdles, it’s sometimes hard to say where Tony Walton’s marvelous costuming ends and Hiller’s performance begins. She’s a regal symphony in black, moving through the proceedings like some stately float in a royal funeral procession. Armed with an indeterminate but imposing accent, she seems to be squeezing her words out of a particularly stubborn tooth-paste tube. The princess’ response, when asked about her chronic failure to smile:

“My …dok … tor… has … advised … against …it.”

Though never less than dignified, she’s also a riot – Edith Evans struggling to contain her inner Don Rickles. When Lauren Bacall complains that a man entered her compartment to gain access to the adjoining one, Dragimiroff pipes up from the sidelines with antique solemnity:

“I … can … think .. of … no … other … reason.”

And, oh yes, when the princess finally does bestow one of those medically prohibited smiles on us, Hiller makes very sure it’s a thing of beauty.

She doesn’t actually wear a monocle or smoke a cigar. She doesn’t have to. Rachel Roberts can always summon up everything she needs from deep within her. She’s that good. Her decidedly butch Fraulein Hildegarde Schmidt is an old school German who stops just short of clicking her heels. A walking catalogue of repressions, she expends equal amounts of iron-clad energy keeping a lid on her sexual inclinations AND her sentimental streak. There’s always so much Fraulein’s trying to keep from happening that a whole lot’s constantly happening. She’s all about discipline – loves to please her superiors. Full marks for that smile she lets slip when Poirot compliments her on her cooking. The accent’s spot-on, the characterization solid – no sense of a skit here. She’s amusing, of course. But affecting too. As Dragimiroff’s maid, she plays most of her scenes with Hiller. And watching these two acting titanesses match skills is giddy gratifying fun. In 1978 the Christie cycle offered another engaging upstairs/downstairs duo – with the unexpectedly effective pairing of Bette Davis and Maggie Smith. Those two presented a quite different – but equally diverting – dynamic.

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