Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

One more ride on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

Ours is a world of uncertainty and we seem to like it that way. What will happen to us personally within a year, a month, a day or the next minute is uncertain. The same applies on a global scale. Where is the world going?  Where is it taking us, north, south, east, west? 

Watching the news is a state of suspense.

 Who shall win the next political race, World Cup, Lottery or WWIII?

Although all this lurks deep down on an unconscious level, even if we are not sure how the story will end, it is still there and we manage to release this inner tension unknowingly in one way or another.

Why do we gladly sit through it again and again and relive those scary moments of heightened suspense?

What a mystery.

We stop and glare at a car-crash, and the sight of blood, in search of a victim.

Dark suspense novels or movies become almost a joy to watch. Why? It cannot be merely for pure entertainment; a comedy or a romance would be better suited. Instead this tendency for psychological suspense, whether in books, movies or TV, keeps us riveted on the edge of our seats, hearts pounding with excitement and anticipation. What do they do to us that we cling to them so passionately?

Clearly it is a genre of escapism, just like the others, but the feelings they stir are different. The power of the intense emotion releases neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin and we become addicted to that adrenaline rush they produce. Those are the same elements released when we are intensely happy, victorious, or in love, therefore they are pleasurable. Even as we are horrified, and we strengthen bonds between us and hang on to each other for dear life.

Suspense films promote intense excitement, a high level of anticipation, heightened expectations, uncertainty, anxiety and nerve-wracking tension, yet we seek them, as though we do not receive a fair amount of them in our daily lives. 

If you have seen The Exorcist you will find the true definition of a genuine thriller that relentlessly pursues a single, one-minded goal… to provide a rising tension, mystery, danger, where escape is impossible.

The worry and apprehension of suspense novels provide the help to quench the desire of the reader or viewer for a good mystery story and real crime that takes us to a unique dimension of guessing, exploring, solving and exercising our critical thinking. 

Any genre of escapism in film provides suspense, from comedy to sci-fi:  We wonder “will the loving couple marry” or “will the criminal get away,” etc. You can hardly avoid it. That is why suspense books are bestsellers and suspense movies are box-office hits.

The American Film Institute selected 100 “heart-pounding”, “adrenaline inducing” films of all time among them Gaslight, (1944) and the masterful work of Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray.  

Queen of the suspense novel, play etc is well represented in the selection. She is none other than British writer Agatha Christie, born 127 years ago, and has written what everyone describes as “a lot”. The estimate is about 86 books many of which sit among the most popular of all time. Her characters are unique and unforgettable, like the invincible Belgian detective Mr Hercule Poirot, who appears in 33 of her books and the nosy British elderly spinster Miss Marple who acts as a consulting detective, in 20 of Christie’s novels. 

So popular were these fictional characters, they acquired a life of their own.

Master of suspense on the screen is without a doubt Alfred Hitchcock. It is irreverent to speak of suspense films without acknowledging his thriller genre which manipulated his characters so deftly. As director/auteur however, he never used Christie’s works, but reverted to his own vision, often repeating old works written in England before he moved to Hollywood. Nonetheless, he created a “Hitchcockian” mood, which became a school for future suspense directors, like Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill, J Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear, David Fincher’s Seven, M Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, etc. 

A movie remake of Christie’s book Murder on the Orient Express (1934) has just been released by the talented British actor/ director Kenneth Branagh, who plays Mr Poirot.

Some of us may still remember the lavish production of Sidney Lumet’s version of 1974. What a stellar cast that was. Imagine the following, Albert Finney as Mr Poirot, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Wendy Hiller, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Jean Pierre Cassel, one is running out of breath, and it was justly breathtaking.  

Only a director with the prestige of Sidney Lumet would amass such a cast under one roof. It was perfect.

Why mess with perfection?

Perhaps a new angle, a new age, a new audience may need a different style to achieve this high that suspense movies bring. Kenneth Branagh has an excellent international cast which includes Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Riad Abaza, Daisy Ridley and Dame Judi Dench — no more needs to be said. If she is in it we are assured of a classy impeccable cast.

Branagh glories in the glamour era of train travelling unknown to young movie fans.

It will leave your insides twisted, but is that not the whole idea — of art imitating life?

“Just as courage imperils life, fear protects it.”

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

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