Sean Connery as Colonel John Arbuthnot, British Indian Army commanding officer
The Orient Express, December 1935
Film: Murder on the Orient Express
Release Date: November 24, 1974
Director: Sidney Lumet
Costume Designer: Tony Walton
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today is my grandma’s 95th birthday, which she will be celebrating by going to her 9-to-5 job (where she never misses a day!) and then joining our family for a dinner out on the town. One of my favorite memories with Grandma includes Saturday mornings in her kitchen, watching old mystery movies together. This tradition instilled in me a love for the genre as well as an appreciation for classic movies and stars.
Murder on the Orient Express was one of our favorite movies to watch together. Although helmed by the excellent Albert Finney as a charismatic and near-cartoonish Hercule Poirot, the film is also rightly a celebration of some of the most talented women from the silver screen including Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress from her work in this movie.
In addition to Bacall, Bergman, and my grandmother, I want to take a look at another admirable and hardworking woman – Agatha Christie herself – who published her first novel (and introduced Poirot) in 1920, the year before my grandma was born. Christie steadily grew her eccentric character throughout the decade, scribing her first masterpiece in 1928 with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, notable for also “breaking the rules” of detective fiction as outlined that year by S.S. Van Dine. Although she was finding Poirot’s character “insufferable,” Christie trudged on to write Murder on the Orient Express in an Istanbul hotel room in 1934, inspired both by her journey on the Orient Express as well as the recent tragedy of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and murder.
Luckily for her readers, Agatha Christie didn’t find Poirot quite insufferable enough to stop writing about him, turning out excellent fiction until she died in 1976 with more than 30 novels and 55 short stories alone dedicated to the idiosyncratic Belgian with his fine mustaches. Although her work was frequently being adapted for film and stage, the only adaptation that truly had the Agatha Christie stamp of approval was the star-studded Murder on the Orient Express. More or less a straight re-telling of the novel, all characters remained relatively intact and deftly portrayed by a troupe of the most talented and best-known international actors of the era, beginning a trend throughout the next decade of lavish, Christie-penned mysteries filmed with glamorous casts in exotic locales.
It all started with the casting of Sean Connery with director Sidney Lumet’s mindset that signing the biggest star first would lead to a cast full of stars. Connery, fresh from his first revival as James Bond in Diamonds are Forever, eagerly accepted the role, perhaps confident due to his cinematic experience dealing with death on the famous train.
What’d He Wear?
Appropriate for the Scotland-born actor, Sean Connery wears a houndstooth check suit as Colonel Arbuthnot in Murder on the Orient Express. Houndstooth is a duotone check pattern for woven wool cloth made with alternating bands of four dark and four light threads that originated in the Scottish Lowlands under the names “shepherd’s check” or “dog’s tooth”. Colonel Arbuthnot’s three-piece suit is a brown and black houndstooth check with a muted red overcheck.
Arbuthnot’s single-breasted suit jacket has wide lapels with large notches. The three brown horns buttons down the front appear to be positioned farther from the edge of the jacket. The flapped hip pockets are straight on the same axis as the lowest button, and there is also a welted breast pocket. There is a long single vent in the back that splits the jacket up to the waist line. The shoulders are structured with heavy padding and roped sleeveheads. Each sleeve ends with 3-button cuffs.
Arbuthnot’s three-piece suit has a matching single-breasted vest (waistcoat) with six buttons down the front and the lowest button correctly left open over the notched bottom. There is a lower welt pocket on each side of the vest where he keeps his watch or, occasionally, his thumbs.
Arbuthnot wears his pocket watch on a tight gold Double Albert chain hooked through the fifth button on his vest with a dropped fob.
Very little is seen of Arbuthnot’s trousers as the bulk of the scene finds him seated at a table in the Orient Express dining car (or behind Vanessa Redgrave), but they certainly have double forward pleats and side pockets. The waist line is concealed by his closed vest, and his feet remain out of the camera frame throughout his time on screen.
Colonel Arbuthnot wears a white dress shirt with a front placket and double cuffs fastened with plain gold disc links. His rounded collar is pinned with a classic gold collar pin that lifts the tie knot. A pinned collar is a good choice for Arbuthnot, a character who puts a lot of fuss into looking like a “correct” and dignified gentleman.
Arbuthnot wears a unique tie with sets of triple thin dress stripes in navy, beige, and olive crossing from left-down-to-right in the classic British regimental direction and a scattered bird motif overlay. Each “bird” appears to have orange wings and a cream head, positioned intermittently with the beige stripe providing the bird’s “tail”.
Flashbacks to the previous night on the train show Arbuthnot wearing his suit with a more old-fashioned white wing collar shirt and a plainer striped tie. The tie appears to have thin, widely spaced orange light blue stripes crossing from right-down-to-left on a dark navy ground.
Arbuthnot’s footwear remains mostly unseen due to the nature of his time on screen, but a few glimpses from production photos of the final “revelation” scene seem to also reveal that he is wearing the same brown leather cap-toe oxford brogues that Connery wore earlier with his sporty Glen Urquhart check Norfolk jacket and plus-fours, an outfit that will be covered in a later post.
Go Big or Go Home
peep pipe-smoking Colonel Arbuthnot seems to always want to be a gentleman, but the stodgy officer often takes it a patriarchal step too far. Arbuthnot’s hot temper gets the best of him when he perceives that his honor or that of someone close to him is assailed, betraying his acquaintanceship with the deceased Colonel Armstrong by expertly rattling off his military decorations (“He got a D.S.O. and an M.C. in France…”) and betraying his secret relationship with Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave) by protectively offering to sit in on her interrogation.
Miss Debenham, on the other hand, keeps a much cooler head and proves to be very capable of defending herself against Poirot’s theatrical harangue, which – of course – was merely a ruse on Poirot’s part to further bait the “gallant” Colonel Arbuthnot into fighting his way into the room to end the questioning.
Christie herself is dismissive of the excessively stoic Colonel Arbuthnot in her original novel, disparagingly peppering his interactions with his inherent nationalism. Chapter 8 finds Arbuthnot subject to the first of two intereviews with Poirot:
“It is that you come home from India on what is called the leave – what we call en permission?”
Colonel Arbuthnot, uninterested in what a pack of foreigners called anything, replied with true British brevity, “Yes.”
How to Get the Look
- Brown-and-black houndstooth check wool suit, with red overcheck, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 3-button jacket with wide notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and long single vent
- Single-breasted 6-button vest with lower welt pockets and notched bottom
- Double forward-pleated trousers with side pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White dress shirt with gold-pinned round collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- Navy-beige-olive diagonal-striped necktie with orange-and-cream bird motif overlay
- Gold cuff links
- Brown leather cap-toe oxford brogues
- Brown dress socks
- Gold pocket watch on gold Double Albert chain with dropped fob
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Has anyone seen the latest BBC adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express with David Suchet’s Poirot? I still need to check it out!
I’ve also heard that there will also be an adaptation released in a year – currently slated for November 2017 – with Leslie Odom Jr. taking the role of Doctor (not Colonel) Arbuthnot and director Kenneth Branagh filling the fastidious shoes (and mustache) of Hercule Poirot.