11.05.2006

Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express (1974) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Director Sidney Lumet's glittering 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express becomes almost an exemplar of a genre that StinkyLulu likes to call "A Gourmet Cheese Platter": a film so overstuffed with Oscar winners/nominees that it very nearly obscures the rank silliness of the dramatic scenario for which they are assembled. In 1974's Orient Express, for example, around the garish centerpiece of Albert Finney (just awful as a constipated pug of a Poirot), director Lumet arranges gloopy servings of a twitterpated Anthony Perkins, a braying Lauren Bacall, a radiantly lovely Michael York (who nearly outshines his featherstrewn sweetheart Jacqueline Bisset), an almost too plummy John Gielgud, a bitter but crunchy Richard Widmark, a hard and crusty Rachel Roberts, and an alarmingly pungent Wendy Hiller. (Not to mention Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave who are as crisp garnishes off to the side.) Indeed, Murder on the Orient Express is a veritable smorgasboard of scenery chewing superstars in expensive outfits -- like an episode of the The Love Boat with sophisticated editing -- but, somehow within all the Murder She Wrote madness, Oscar found his favorite chunk of gourmet cheese in the form of...


...Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

approximately 14 minutes and 18 seconds on-screen
8 scenes (counting Poirot's extended revelation sequence as one scene)
roughly 11% of film's total screen time

Director Lumet initially approached Ingrid Bergman -- one of cinema's most legendary beauties -- to play Orient Express' more glamorous part Princess Dragomiroff. Bergman, however, surprised Lumet by insisting that she take the dowdier role of Greta Ohlsson, a stumpy missionary prone to fits of religious apoplexy. For his part, Lumet just wanted Bergman and, as he says in the dvd-special features, he would've given her Poirot had she wanted it. (Oh, don't tease, Sidney -- StinkyLulu'd take Ingrid's Poirot over the froggy Albert Finney's anyday.) And Lumet locked Bergman into the decidedly unglamorous role of Greta for which La Bergman took home her 3rd Oscar.

Which is a total WTF. Yes, StinkyLulu admits to not being a particular fan of La Bergman. But. In the context of her pretty amazing film career, this performance as Greta Ohlsson in Murder on the Orient Express is almost completely unremarkable. Sure, it's a solid, professional and distinctive enough performance of a quirky but basically uninteresting character; yes, it's nearly pitch-perfect to what the Agatha Christie formula requires; and, certainly, there's no other better supporting actressness in the film to pluck for Oscar attention. But sheesh. Talk about boring.

And even Bergman seems grasping for things to do in the extended group scenes. It's face in hands here, halting-steps-about-to-faint there. To her credit, Bergman's Greta is perhaps the only one to convey even a whiff of character in the film's legendary "blue light" sequence, but even there she's squeezing that rock for barely a drop. (pause) And then there's the... (longer pause) But the... (silence) Yes, lovely reader, it's hard even to know what else to say about Bergman's utterly adequate performance. (anxious stillness) Lulu did try to develop a riff about Greta's "backwards brown babies" but... gave up. (pause) Anybody out there got anything to about Ingrid Bergman's trophy-snagging performance as Greta Ohlsson in Murder on the Orient Express? (pause) Lulu's got nothing...

6 comments:

newland said...

The problem with these all-star whodunnit films is that eventually they are given very little to do with their limited screentime and underwritten characters. And Bergman is no exception.

However, I did find another worthy performance in the film: Rachel Roberts was fascinating as Princess Dragomiroff's maid. Her smile when Poirot asked her if she was a good cook made me buy her performance entirely.

More comments on Bergman at the end of the month...

Raybee said...

I LOOOOVE Ingrid Bergman. She's in my top 2 Best/Favorite actress ever. Along with another Scandinavian beauty, Liv Ullmann. Bergman should've won 3 Oscars, but not for any of the films she did win for. She should've won for Casablanca, Notorious and Autumn Sonata. As usual she's solid here, but she's just not given much to do. She only has the extended interrogation scene with Finney.

StinkyLulu said...

@Raybee: I'm often ambivalent about Bergman, though I'm absolutely a weakling for Isabella & I do see so much of Ingrid in what I love about Isabella. The little film that I link to in the post ("pretty amazing film career") by her daughter Pia -- it's enough to make me wanna see everything Bergman ever did. Especially Autumn Sonata -- I can't believe I've missed that one...

@newland: I'm very interested in Rachel Roberts after this, though I do think Bergman's the best Supporting Actress performance to nominate from this film.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

I agree Roberts is also excellent, and that Bacall is way too much, even for her showy role (sure wish Lumet would have spent more time toning down her overt ‘overactressing’). Although she isn’t given too much else to do in the crowded cast, I also find Vanessa Redgrave’s ambiguity during her big interrogation scene fascinating (is she flirting with Poirot in an attempt to mask her guilt? Possibly she’s 'above it all' and is simply amused at being a suspect? Love the fact Redgrave remains a deliberately sly beauty, and keeps us guessing).

For me, Bergman as Greta is a lot better than average as, similar to Roberts, she appears to be having fun adding some comic flavor to her part, while somehow also managing to stay true to the extremely dour character she’s portraying. I admit I’ve never seen all of Day For Night, which contains the performance Ingrid herself felt deserved the award (Bergman apologized to Cortese for winning during her acceptance speech); however, Bergman’s Express work has merit and is memorable (she’s the cast member whose performance lingered the most vividly in my memory after I first saw the film), and certainly this isn’t the worst case of an Oscar win of the ‘deglamed star turn’ variety- I actually think it’s one of the best cases, as Bergman doesn’t play it like she’s going for awards in the typical “look at me, I’m acting here!!” style of many Oscar winners of this ilk.

However, in choosing the best of 1974, sign me up for the Madeline (“Oooooo. A wed wose. How womantic.”) Kahn brigade. She had an amazing year, offering original, hilarious, and daringly wild comic portrayals in two blockbusters, and I’d give her the prize for either Saddles (who else could have ‘sold’ the frequently raunchy “I’m Tired” with the charm, humor and unforgettable vocal twists Kahn lends to her rendition of the song?) or for her equally beautiful craziness in Young Frankenstein. In both roles, Kahn offers what is clearly some of the greatest “actressing at the edges” ever, using her limited screen time to just about walk off with both pictures in high style (as she did the previous year in Paper Moon, but that’s another month).

Kamikaze Camel said...

I quote "The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History" by Jim Piazza and Gail Kinn when they discuss her win.

"It's always nice to win an Oscar," Bergman said, "but last year when 'Day For Night' opened, Valentina Cortese gave the most beautiful performance that all we actresses recognize. Here I am her rival, and I don't like it at all. Please forgive me, Valentina. I didn't mean to."

So there you go. Not even Bergman thought she should've won.

mistyh92104 said...

Hi Lu,

Check out Rachel Roberts in "Picnic at Hanging Rock" for a starter (assuming that you haven't already seen it).

And, I am all the way with Kahn. In fact, a real kicker regarding her year is that she was the original Gooch in "Mame" but (story goes), Lucy had her canned for stealing the show!

Love your supporting actress stuff so much.