Film Review: “Murder She Said” (1961), “Murder at the Gallop” (1963), “Murder Most Foul” (1964) and “Murder Ahoy!” (1964)
with Margaret Rutherford (Miss Jane Marple), Stringer Davis (Mr. Stringer) and Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell (Inspector Dermot Craddock)
To Americans, Margaret Rutherford has long been Miss Marple, her film series a regular presence on television, and her plucky, quirky portrayal synonymous with the name of Agatha Christie’s spinster detective. The rest of us, of course (and many Americans, I’m sure, lest I be accused of generalising) know that Rutherford’s Marple shares very little with the books’ character of the same name. She’s a far cry from Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, even from Angela Lansbury or Julia McKenzie. But, having said that… these films are really quite lovely, aren’t they?
Rutherford made four films from 1961 to 1964, as well as a follow-up cameo appearance in Tony Randall‘s The Alphabet Murders. Only one of them is actually based on a Marple book. Murder She Said (1961) is a fairly faithful recreation of 4.50 from Paddington. I say “fairly” because much is changed, but if one saw this first, and then read the book, it wouldn’t seem that grievous an adaptation. The major change is that Marple not only witnesses the murder, she also investigates it directly, thus eliminating two supporting characters, and hurtling Rutherford right into the centre of the action. Rutherford is damn fine as Marple, even if she’s kind of a fever dream version of the character. Her Jane Marple is a plucky, boisterous woman who refuses to stand on ceremony, is certain of herself at all times, and has no qualms about joining a travelling theatre group or dueling with the killer (literally!) if need be. There’s a bundle of charm here, even if it is separate from the books.
Murder She Said is a light, frothy, comedy-of-manners style film with some good performances from Arthur Kennedy, Muriel Pavlow and James Robertson Justice (forever Lord Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in my mind), and a cameo from a very young Richard Briers. It’s no surprise, then, that the film soon got a sequel, Murder at the Gallop (1963) which is based on the Poirot novel After the Funeral, and is an even better film. This novel may not have suited the real Miss Marple, but it sure suits this one. The murders are increasingly cruel – one person locked in a stall with a crazed horse – and Rutherford manages to perfectly convey her creation: a nosy-parker who is happy to be so. In the most hilarious (and admittedly ridiculous) moments of the film, Marple – who finds both of the bodies – literally climbs up a ladder to look in a window, so that she can witness the crucial will-reading scene which sets the plot in motion! The dance sequence at the climax is very clever, and it’s odd but invigorating to see Marple (let alone anyone of Rutherford’s age) dressed in evening wear and bopping to early ’60s music. The cast standouts in this film go to Flora Robson, and to Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell who plays Inspector Craddock throughout the series.
One unusual element of the film is Mr. Stringer. Rutherford apparently insisted that her real-life husband, fellow actor Stringer Davis, be given the role as her confidante. Mr. Stringer rarely contributes much to the plot, but serves well as an exposition device, and by the end of the series, he’s become an expert at giving bemused-but-resigned looks every time Marple does something quirky.
In Murder Most Foul (1964), Marple goes undercover and joins a theatre troupe to find the answer to a murder. The film is based on Poirot’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, although only very loosely. This was the point at which the film’s producers must have decided to carry on their own path, and – since Christie was never a fan of these films – clearly they weren’t too worried about faithful adaptation. I don’t actually mind ‘based on’ stories, provided there’s a solid reason. Some of the recent Marple episodes seem content to retain all the story’s individual elements but contort them around to fit a new theme or idea (which to me seems like a lazy excuse not to write your own story!). Here, as with the more imaginative Poirot short story adaptations, the loose adaptation was deliberately chosen to showcase the best elements this series had to offer, and it succeeds.
Murder Most Foul is probably the best of the four. Marple and Craddock’s relationship reaches its adversarial height here. While the two are respectful, even pleasant, colleagues throughout, we also appreciate both sides of the argument, with Craddock hoping to retain some of his dignity as an investigator and not simply be at the mercy of one spunky spinster. The film looks and feels so vibrant in all its monochromatic glory, and the cinematography is astounding (check out the shadows in the scene where Marple auditions). The theatre troupe are wonderfully realised – props to the casting director on this front. Marple is alt her best here, as she and Mr. Stringer schlep into the city to stay at a YMCA until she can go on tour with the troupe. What other incarnation of Marple could happily chug beer and then sit down to do her make-up at her dressing table, actually taking up a career as an actress to solve a murder? Rutherford effortlessly portrays a worldly vibe, and so she feels much more at home in the everyday world than Poirot – or any, more genuine, Marples – ever have.
The films feature a number of sly references to Christie’s novels: characters routinely read her work, and fake Christie novels are occasionally evoked. The play Marple finds herself performing in is a fake Christie work, Murder She Said. There are also a few early appearances from later Christie interpreters: the ‘supreme’ Miss Marple, Joan Hickson, has a small role as a town gossip in the first film, while Francesca Annis – young and vibrant, although she’s still quite so forty years later – appears in Murder Most Foul.
Provided you can get past the discrepancies between this character and the novels, there’s only one real flaw to these films: all four use roughly the same technique at the climax. Marple is inevitably more risky than the denouement of any Christie novel, which means the films can eschew the standard drawing-room solution, and let her tackle things like the hero of a spy film. However, each of the films follows the same formula: Marple presents herself as alone (and, in some cases, disabled), coaxes a confession out of the killer (usually whilst they are gloating and preparing to kill her), only to reveal that Craddock or his equivalents were listening in.
The final film, Murder Ahoy! (1964) is credited as “based on [the writer’s] interpretation of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple”. (The credits, with the lilting music, zooming close-ups and sudden freeze frames are very cute and ‘period’, but tend to take a very wacky approach to murder, incidentally!) This somewhat verbose credit is very, very true. Murder Ahoy! isn’t really based on any Christie work, and – while it moves along well – I don’t think it’s quite as good as the other three. Marple goes undercover (somewhat) aboard a ship on which quite a lot of murder occurs, and – to no one’s surprise – saves the day. Lionel Jeffries puts in a great guest performance, and the film bubbles along with some very amusing comedy. Rutherford’s Marple may be a fish out of water (so to speak) onboard this vessel, but she looks damn fine doing so. The climax – in which the actress, well into her 70s, proves why Marple was the 1931 Ladies’ National Fencing Champion – is smashing.
All in all, the Margaret Rutherford films are a delight. There’s a lot to be said for faithful adaptations, but ‘faithful’ can lead ever so easily to ‘slavish’. I for one am glad to have such a wealth of different interpretations of both Poirot and Marple, and, more than four decades after they were made, these films remain gleeful, if inconsequential, confections.