We’re nearing the end of my Agatha Christie film reviews, folks, so let’s have a look at another ’80s offering…
Film review: “Murder is Easy” (1982)
written by Carmen Culver
directed by Claude Whatham
Coinciding with ITV’s early-1980s expansion into television, Murder is Easy is a rare example of a non-series Christie film from the ’80s, taking one of the author’s strong novels as its – rather faithfully-treated – starting point. Luke Williams (Bill Bixby, then known as TV’s Hulk) is a probability expert who meets Lavinia Fullerton (Helen Hayes) on a train. She tells him about the murders she claims to have witnessed and – moments after alighting from the train – is run down in a seeming accident. Williams, of course, is certain that it isn’t an accident, and his suspicions seem to be confirmed when – after attending Lavinia’s funeral – he becomes aware of two further deaths which happen within a matter of days. Someone in her village is a multiple murderer. But who?
Murder is Easy – both as book and film – is very cleverly plotted, as we do not know the connection between the murders, but every potential suspect could be linked to at least one of them. Cause and effect were used playfully by Christie in several outings – among them After the Funeral – but this is a particularly effective case of subterfuge. The great thing about this story is that, only a third of the way into a film, we’ve born witness to three murders, and heard of another three: six in total, giving our unknown murderer an added dose of horror. It helps that, although most of the suspects are rather broadly written, they’re acted, by and large, with aplomb by stalwarts. Timothy West has never yet turned in a bad performance, and that’s no exception here in his role as Lord Easterfield. Jonathan Pryce proves why he earns the big bucks in a surprisingly small role as the ‘touch of madness’ type Mr. Ellsworthy. Leigh Lawson, Anthony Valentine and Patrick Allan also turn in great performances in smaller roles. And Helen Hayes is wonderful as Lavinia. It’s easy to forget when watching her Miss Marple films (which occurred hot on the heels of this) just what a phenomenal performer she was. However, her Lavinia Fullerton is so different from Marple, in so many subtle ways, that it’s a real shame when she’s dead five minutes into the film. (Particularly for people who purchased this as part of the “Helen Hayes/Miss Marple” box set!)
Luke is an interesting choice of leading man. In my recent viewing of five versions of And Then There Were None, I was struck by how the characters of Anthony Marston and Philip Lombard were profoundly different in each version: in their own ways, both of them were retooled as a fitting character for their era. It’s similar here, I think, where Luke is quite different to Christie’s imagining, and becomes the kind of leading role you only saw in the ’80s. He’s somewhat bookish, a probability nerd, and not all that interesting on his own. Bixby handles the part perfectly well, but – unlike any film today – there’s no attempt to make him into a typical action hero just to sell tickets. Of course, perhaps that’s because they’re relying on his love interest, gorgeous secretary Bridget Conway (Lesley-Anne Down). In truth, there’s very little attempt to give Down a character here; the film is relying on her bedroom eyes and her British accent to sell the role. But, then again, Down was no stranger to taking an underwritten part and covering it in sultriness, and she takes the cake here too. Even though they’re both upstaged by the suspects, Luke and Bridget are certainly a watchable pair for the length of the movie, and things never stagnate.
Finally, there’s silver screen goddess Olivia de Havilland as the believer in the supernatural, Honoria Waynflete. Perhaps because of her late-in-life Oscars speech, I always think of de Havilland as quite a small woman, and it was odd to see her as such a commanding presence. It shouldn’t be a surprise, since she’s one of the undoubted gems of the Hollywood era, and de Havilland does a very good job of playing the nuances of a character who is one of the more suspicious amongst the lot.
As you’ll notice, I’ve really said nothing negative here. Perhaps I’ve watched so much Agatha Christie in the last few months that my ability to detect flaws has collapsed. Murder is Easy certainly isn’t a great film, and I wouldn’t be breaking it out to a complete newcomer: it’s a rare example of a detective utterly lacking in charisma, and is very ’80s at some points – particularly when Luke sets up his computer to process everyone by ‘opportunity’ and ‘motive’. The film also surprises a little by taking the rarely-used tack of letting us suspect the real murderer along with the detective for the final sequences of the film, instead of surprising us with a denouement. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it does remove a bit of weight from the film when comparing it to, say, the heights of the Poirot era. All in all, Murder is Easy is a fine little film, but probably not something I’d dash back to in a hurry!