The Mirror Crack’d is a solid, unsurprising Christie adaptation, when all is said and done. Angela Lansbury’s sole turn as Miss Marple adapts perhaps the most Hollywood friendly Marple story, with its focus on performance, and a more cross-Atlantic cast than usual. (The old-timiness of Sleeping Murder or Nemesis were never going to attract Warner Bros.)
To be honest, aside from a few melodramatic touches in the denouement, there’s nothing to be said against this film. On the other hand, aside from two gripping scenes mentioned below, there’s very little here that attempts to stand out from the crowd.
After opening with an atmospheric and cleverly self-referential black-and-white mystery film (the characters in the film all have hilariously fitting names, as evidenced by the closing credits), the mystery shifts into high gear quite quickly. The arrival of Marina Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor), famed film star, in this small country village, opens up a web of deceit and suspicion, most of which – perhaps unsurprisingly – occurs between the visitors, and not the locals. The cast are all solid, with Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis amongst their numbers. Most valuable players include Charles Gray as an unsurprisingly stoic butler, the astounding Geraldine Chaplin as Ella, and Kim Novak in alpha bitch mode as Lola Brewster (one of her final acting roles).
Then there’s Elizabeth Taylor, the film’s undoubted star. Taylor’s celebrity has always been ambiguous: she was a forceful, charismatic presence since she first appeared on the screen as a youngster, but the question of over-acting could be applied to almost all of her roles. Even in her bravura turns, as with the tortured – and torturous – Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one can never be certain where the line is drawn. Regardless, she makes a very effective Marina Rudd, and both screenwriter and director have done all in their power to make Taylor rise to the challenge. Taylor’s centrepiece scene is the film’s highlight, as she’s interviewed by the smitten but suspicious Inspector Craddock (Edward Fox, whose soulful eyes get a great work-out). As with Ingrid Bergman’s five-minute one-take scene in Murder on the Orient Express, the camera follows Taylor through a (much-longer) act of legerdemain, and the script is dazzling: Marina is clearly hiding things, and at one point admits to having put on a performance, but we’re left wondering exactly how much is facade, and how much is genuine. Taylor continues to surprise throughout.
The film as a whole is quite solidly put together: as with Taylor’s performance, just when you think things are becoming obvious, the plot takes a turn. The next best scene – a death two-thirds into the film – is genuinely creepy, and very cleverly put together as it effectively shifts the suspicion from one character to another. (One area where this film puts shows like 24 to shame: these actors are brilliant at doing those ambiguous “maybe I’m the killer, maybe I’m just unimpressed” faces!) So, when I say the film is uneventful, I only mean that it’s satisfactory throughout and – aside from those key moments – it doesn’t try anything risky, but nor does it fail.
Finally, of course, there’s Angela Lansbury as Jane Marple. Whereas actors playing Hercule Poirot tend to submerse their personalities, Marple actresses tend to bring much of themselves in. Rutherford is spirited and droll, Hickson cranes her neck at the first sign of gossip and remains aloof in the face of chaos, McEwan‘s eyes sparkle as she empathises with those around her. Lansbury brings her keen-eyed, witty presence to a relatively strong Miss Marple, who smokes at dinner and is eager to walk out of films while explaining who the murderer was. On the other hand, she’s surprisingly (for a series debut film) sidelined from the case, leaving Craddock to do the investigation. It’s a clever, and canonical, thing to do, but ballsy for an all-star film, no? Marple has her frail side too, and she’s certainly not fencing with ruffians like Dame Rutherford, but she’s certainly less of a country spinster than her successors. I’d say that Lansbury succeeds at making the amateur detective a believable character, but she’s a far cry from what Christie had in mind. (That’s not always a problem, though, and I daresay it wouldn’t have concerned Hollywood!)
Is The Mirror Crack’d a great film? Probably not. It lacks the grandeur and self-consciousness of the contemporaneous Poirot movies. But it’s well put-together, and proof that Lansbury’s Marple shouldn’t be written off so easily.