When the film premiered in 1973 at a weekend retrospective of Chandler movies in Tarrytown, New York, it was not well received. Altman was present for a Q&A and sensed a hostile response to the film. It opened to lackluster reviews and disappointing grosses in L.A. (where it played Grauman’s Chinese), Chicago, Philadelphia and Miami and was promptly pulled from distribution before its New York opening. The rumors were that it was going to be re-edited, if not shelved, but instead United Artists analyzed the reception the film had received and decided that the fault lay with the misleading ad campaign for the film that made it look like a straightforward detective story. So the studio spent $40,000 on a new campaign designed by Mad magazine artist Jack Davis.
The film was finally released in New York six months after the original opening and got a new lease of life, ending up on the New York Times’ Ten Best list.
I have a quick idea for a great murder mystery dinner theater. You stage the classic Murder on the Orient Express in an old time theater with tables and chairs. You feed everyone an elaborate seven course meal with champagne and drinks. After everyone has finished their sorbet and is enjoying a cognac, the mustachioed detective starts his big speech in the end where he reveals what has truly happened all along, then you just blow up the entire planet - mystery solved.