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Trains, from "Murder on the Orient Express," a movie directed by Sidney Lumet

Subthemes: Class, Transport, Labor

When a passenger is found stabbed to death on a pan-European train, a carload of high-society passengers turn out to be suspects in his murder. In Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of Agatha Christie’s detective story, Murder on the Orient Express, brilliant Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) roams the carriages figuring out the mystery. The elegant train – decked out for the 1930’s trip from Istanbul to Calais and flaunting its driving pistons, billowing smoke, posh passageways, dining car and cabins – provides the setting for a cast of celebrity passengers (including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Richard Widmark) and the stimulus for several subthemes of Trains.

Murder on the Orient express

Class: Setting aside commuter trains where cars and tickets cost the same, long-distance trains sell accommodations and seats by class. For that trip, your ticket reveals your social and economic status. Passengers who pay the most can enjoy the first-class amenities of pampered spaciousness, refined service, and the pleasure of fellow elites. Accordingly, the movie drips with jewelry, fine china, Waterford, gourmet meals, fancy liqueurs, and haut couture. As with ship and airline passengers, money buys comfort and coddling on a train, generally referred to as “first class.” For a lower fare, coach class suffices for most people. It represents a significant step down from first class, but the seats and windows are serviceable. Some trains even offer a third class that trades cheap fare for crowded, make-do seating. In underdeveloped countries, the unofficial fourth class is atop or between the train cars (made vivid in early scenes from the movie Slumdog Millionaire). As with everything in life, the moneyed class can buy railroad elegance.

Transport: Between Reconstruction and the Korean War, people who needed to cross the United States or a substantial portion of it travelled by train. Until late in that stretch, airlines had not yet taken off to safely and cost-effectively siphon off much long-distance travel and the rail connections between cities were more plentiful. Presidents, baseball teams, and ordinary citizens moved from city to distant city by train. Bus travel was regarded as the less desirable means of transport, as shown in the movie It Happened One Night. But passengers were only part of what railroads transported.

Shipping bulk freight kept trains profitable. While the industry was ascendant and then dominant, it carried the weight of the country. Later, the trucking industry began rolling in the 1950s and sucked away much of the train freight before planes flying bulk cargo captured another share of the long-haul market. Still, trains have taken care of the heavy lifting of transport.

Labor: The movie reminds us of how many conductors, brakemen, porters, engineers, chefs, waiters, and staff of other kinds served the passengers on the trains. Other than the snowplow that rescues the Orient Express, we don’t see but we can appreciate the supporting cast of railroad companies who worked outside the trains themselves: repairmen, schedulers, construction workers, track maintainers, water tank fillers, signal and switch operators, station workers and others who made possible the elegant carriages in the movie and the broader railroad ecosystem. Springing up early, unions undertook to represent and support hundreds of thousands of those employees in setting conditions of work.


As the stage for this cinematic recreation of a detective novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”" suggests to us stratification of wealth, loads of people and goods borne by trains, and the enormous workforce that allowed the trains to run and the mystery to be solved.

If you are interested in subthemes of the concept “Trains,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art.

We invite you to read about other movies discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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