Dear, sweet, loopy Margaret Rutherford. She might not have been what mystery writer Agatha Christie envisioned, but to older audiences Ms. Rutherford was the cinema's first and foremost Miss Marple.
You remember that Agatha Christie's first big-time detective was Hercule Poirot, who made his initial appearance in 1920. Christie made him a fairly typical fictional detective, patterning him clearly on the Sherlock Holmes model: a London bachelor, erudite, suave, urbane, self-absorbed. But a decade later, Ms. Christie decided to do something entirely different. She invented a most unique detective, Miss Jane Marple, patterned after her own grandmother, she said. Miss Marple was a tall, thin, elderly lady, sedate, quiet-spoken, and dignified, living in a quiet little cottage in a quiet little English village. This new detective was as far removed from the eccentric, city-dwelling Poirot as possible. I mean, what could happen in an idyllic country setting that would warrant the attentions of mystery fans? The answer, of course, was that wherever you found Miss Marple, you found danger and excitement and murder, and it proved that no place on Earth was immune to evil. Ms. Christie continued to write Poirot and Marple mysteries almost until her death in 1976.
The first couple of times Miss Marple came to the screen, hardly anybody noticed, and you still can't find much trace of them even in a Web search. It wasn't until the early 1960s when Margaret Rutherford essayed the role in a series of four Miss Marple mysteries for MGM that we got our first bona-fide big-screen Marple. No, Ms. Rutherford was not tall or thin, she was of medium height and plump; dumpy, in fact. Nor was she anything but quiet and sedate. Rutherford's Marple was loud and commanding, far more a caricature than the later screen Marples from actresses like Angela Lansbury, Joan Hickson, and Geraldine McEwan, who were a lot closer in physical description and personality to Christie's vision.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that Ms. Rutherford had pluck; she's one spunky lady, and she makes her otherwise drab Marple movie adventures worth a visit. Indeed, she is almost the whole show in each of the four episodes because, to tell the truth, the supporting casts are not up to her level of spirit. Certainly, we've got some of the writing of Ms. Christie to rely on, and the author is still good for a entertaining time, but the actual mysteries and their solutions are not what are important in these Margaret Rutherford vehicles; it's Ms. Rutherford herself, and for some viewers a little of her can go a long way.
Anyhow, Warner Bros. now own the Rutherford-Marple series and have packaged all four movies together in one box set of four discs. Unfortunately, WB spokespeople say they will not be issuing the movies separately, so you'll have to put up with a couple of lesser attractions with a couple of better ones. Let me give you an idea of what they're about, and you can judge your favorites for yourself.
"Murder She Said":
Premiering in 1961, "Murder She Said" was based on Christie's novel "4.50 from Paddington," adapted by David Osborn, written for the screen by David Pursall and Jack Seddon, and directed, as were all four of the Rutherford Miss Marples, by George Pollock.
In this first of the series, Miss Marple is traveling by train home from the city when her train and a another one happen to run parallel to each other for a short space. Glancing into the adjacent train cars, Miss Marple witnesses a murder in the opposite coach, a woman strangled. But she does not see the murderer, who is partially hidden by the compartment's curtains.
Miss Marple immediately reports the incident to the train conductor, who relays the information to the local police. However, after a thorough search of the train and the nearby countryside, the police can find nothing: no body and no evidence of foul play. They think Miss Marple is a dotty old spinster who's seeing things. Which is when Miss Marple decides to take matters into her own hands. Being an avid reader of mystery stories all her life, she feels she is eminently qualified to investigate the case herself, which she does.
She determines that the murderer must have dumped the body off the train in a particular stretch of track, an area overlooking the Ackenthorpe estate. So she goes undercover, posing as a new maid for the Ackenthorpes to see if any of the Ackenthorpe family circle had anything to do with the dastardly deed. Seems they were all together for a party at the estate on the day of the murder, so any one of them could have been on the train, thrown the body out, returned to the estate to hide the body, and come into the party unnoticed. But which one, and why would anyone do it?
Most of the movie consists of Miss Marple poking around for bodies at Ackenthorpe Hall, a creepy, forbidding old place made all the creepier for the sudden thunder storms that seem to come up at the most likely times. There's nothing like a dark and stormy night to make a good mystery all the better, as silly as the cliché sounds.
The supporting players are not nearly so interesting as Ms. Rutherford, though, who is forever fussing about, half flustered and half unperturbed. She is always more knowing than she appears. James Robertson Justice plays the elder Mr. Ackenthorpe, whom everybody in his family is waiting to see die so they can inherit his money, his land, and his house. Justice plays the fellow as he did all of his movie roles--as a blustery, thoroughly grumpy old codger. Others in the family are too commonplace to care much about, except for the nephew, a cheeky kid named Alexander, played by Ronnie Raymond. Stringer Davis (Ms. Rutherford's real-life husband) plays Mr. Jim Stringer, a librarian friend of Miss Marple who assists her from time to time in the investigation; and Charles Tingwell plays Inspector Craddock, who tries in vain to stop Miss Marple from following such dangerous pursuits but gives up in frustration and simply lets her solve the case.
A zippy little musical score by Ron Goodwin ("Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines," "Frenzy," "Force 10 From Navarone") seems wholly inappropriate to the Christie-Marple stories, but it fits the lighthearted mood of the Rutherford-Marple movies perfectly well and is used in all four of them.
On a trivia note, Joan Hickson, who would later play Miss Marple in a BBC television series of the 1990s, here plays the Ackenthorpe housekeeper. Naturally, everyone in the family looks guilty and seems to have a reason and a willingness to commit murder.
Despite the plethora of lifeless characters, "Murder She Said" does have a reasonably lively style, thanks partly to Pollock's direction but largely to Rutherford's persistence in making the affair as much fun for the viewer to watch as it seems to have been for her to perform. "Murder She Said" sets the standard for the rest of the series, and it's a standard that holds up only for the next installment. 7/10
"Murder at the Gallup":
Apparently spurred on by the success of "Murder She Said," the second Miss Marple movie, "Murder at the Gallop," opened in 1963, again directed by George Pollock and starring Miss Rutherford. This time, though, the script was based on a Poirot mystery, "After the Funeral," adapted for the screen by James P. Cavanagh.
In this one Miss Marple and her friend Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis) are soliciting money around the village for "The Reformed Criminals Assistance League." Calling on the estate of the wealthy Mr. Enderby, they find him dead. He appears he's been frightened to death...by a cat.
Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell) is back, by now familiar with Miss Marple's insistent snooping into crime, but he does not believe her when she tells him that old Enderby was murdered. The Inspector is convinced the death was by natural causes. Needless to say, this presents a challenge to Miss Marple, who tells the Inspector that "Agatha Christie should be compulsory ready for the police force" and goes off to start an investigation of her own.
She begins by looking into who benefits from the old chap's death, and, as usual, he had a large family, making a long list of suspects. Then, at the reading of the will with the family all gathered around, the eavesdropping Miss Marple overhears Aunt Cora say that she believes her brother was murdered. Shortly thereafter, Miss Marple finds Aunt Cora dead, too, dispatched with a hat pin. This time it is, as Miss Marple declares, "murder most foul," which on a trivia note would be the title of the fourth and final movie in the series a year or so later.
The members of the Enderby family are staying at the Gallop Hotel and Riding Establishment during the funeral, and the Inspector doesn't want any of them to leave while he (and Miss Marple) figure out what is going on. The bulk of the movie takes place in or near the hotel.
On board for this one are the same character types we encountered in the first movie: mostly boring relatives, any one of whom could be the killer. The most interesting persons in the story are the pompous Hector Enderby (Robert Morley), the proprietor of the Gallop Hotel, and the sedate Miss Milchrest (Flora Robson), Aunt Cora's constant companion for many years.
The story follows the general pattern set forth in the first movie: multiple murders; family inheritances; Miss Marple gaining access to the family through guile; a grumpy eccentric member of the family; a surly stableman; collusion at the film's climax; etc. The major difference is that this one is a bit more amusing than the first.
The English country lanes and the picturesque cottages are charming and in themselves help make the movie a delight to watch, especially when we know that some of them hold dire secrets. Besides, the sight of Margaret Rutherford in an evening gown dancing the twist is in itself almost worth the rest of the film. 7/10
The third Miss Marple mystery, "Murder Ahoy," released in 1964, is again directed by George Pollock but this time based on an original screenplay by David Pursall and Jack Seddon, the same chaps who wrote the scripts for the first and fourth Miss Marple movies. However, without a Christie novel for guidance (the opening titles explain that the movie was "inspired" by Ms. Christie), this third entry is the weakest of the lot. By far.
The problems with "Murder Ahoy" are almost too many to list, but the main issue is a failure to engage the viewer. The other three Rutherford Marple movies contained not many but at least a few interesting peripheral characters, enterprising plots, and the winsome simplicity of English country life. "Murder Ahoy" is mostly stuck aboard a ship with a group of people we could care less about. When the murderer is finally revealed, you may feel about the person as I did, not even sure who it was or where the character had come from.
Let me start at the beginning. Miss Marple's late grandfather had founded a benevolent trust to help young lads by teaching them seamanship. With granddad gone, the trust asks Marple to join their board of trustees in his place. During her first meeting with the board, one of its members up and dies, right on the spot. It's regarded as a simple heart attack, but Miss Marple thinks otherwise. She believes the death was a subject of foul play.
Odd, she thinks, that the poor chap died just before he was about to make an important announcement to the board after visiting the trust's training vessel for young men, the sailing-ship Battledore. Even more odd, she notices that the dead man used snuff, and that after he died, his snuff went missing. She believes somebody sneaked in and stole it. But why? Collecting a few remnants of the snuff that the supposed culprit left behind, she discovers that it's laced with strychnine poison. But does she report this evidence to the police, to her friend Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell), or demand an autopsy on the body? Surely not. She decides, instead, to investigate the crime herself. Otherwise, we wouldn't have a movie.
She goes aboard the Battledore to see just what it was that the murder victim found there and was about to report on, with her friend Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis) looking on from a hotel room on shore. And that's the setup. The rest is silliness, with Miss Marple blundering and fumbling more than usual, and almost no humor, mystery, or suspense in sight.
Miss Marple does less deducing in this one and more sneaking about, hiding in dark places, and watching people's movements to discover clues. There is nothing clever or engaging about any of it, and even the supporting cast is duller than usual. The big co-star is supposed to be Lionel Jeffries as the Captain of the Battledore, Sidney Rhumstone. But Jeffries turns in a lukewarm comic performance as a captain who hasn't a clue what's going on aboard his own ship, and it turns out not to be too comical in the least. Still, he stands out against the other cast members, like Joan Benham as Matron Fanbraid, Derek Nemmo as Humbert, Francis Matthews as Compton, and Nicholas Parsons as Dr. Crump, who are so banal as be nonexistent. "Murder Ahoy" is a distinct let-down after the first two movies in the series.
On an added trivia note, the filmmakers steadfastly refused to employ the name of Agatha Christie's fictional town, St. Mary Mead, for these Miss Marple mysteries. Instead, they change it in all four movies to Milchester. They give no explanation. 4/10
Murder Most Foul":
I understand that "Murder Most Foul" was actually made before "Murder Ahoy" but released after it the same year, 1964. This may explain why "Murder Ahoy" was the weakest link in the chain, being the last one made and being the only one not based on a Christie novel. In any case, "Murder Most Foul" was adapted from Christie's "Mrs. McGinty's Dead" (interestingly, another Poirot mystery), again directed by George Pollock, and again with a screenplay by David Pursall and Jack Seddon.
The story line of "Murder Most Foul" follows the formula introduced in the first movie and scrupulously followed by the next three, including the strong, quirky male lead. Therefore, following in the footsteps of James Robertson Justice, Robert Morley, and Lionel Jeffries we find this time Ron Moody. But more of that in a minute.
First, the plot: Miss Marple is serving on a jury, the case involving a man accused of hanging a woman, Mrs. McGinty, and stealing her money. A local constable saw the hanged woman through the front window of her house, entered and found the defendant, a lodger in Mrs. McGinty's place, at the foot of the hanged woman, with money scattered all over the floor. The defendant claims he came home, found Mrs. McGinty dead, and was trying to get her body down when the constable entered the scene. Eleven of the jury members vote to find the man guilty; it is only Miss Marple who refuses to believe there is enough evidence to convict him. Without a jury in complete accord, the defendant must be go to a retrial.
Now Miss Marple must prove the man's innocence before he's tried again, as always with the help of her good friend, Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis). And, as always, Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell) doesn't want her meddling into police affairs.
What Miss Marple discovers in her inimitable way is that Mrs. McGinty was a former stage actress. One of the productions she attended six times just before she was murdered was the play "Murder She Said" (cute, the name of the first Miss Marple movie), performed by an acting troupe known as the Cosgood Players. Miss Marple determines (somehow) that Mrs. McGinty was blackmailing somebody among the players, and the person being blackmailed killed her.
In order to investigate further, Miss Marple must again go undercover, this time posing as an actress seeking employment with the Cosgood Players, which she succeeds in doing, auditioning with a recitation of Robert Service's "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" that is the highlight of the show.
No sooner does Miss Marple join the company than one of their number turns up dead, poisoned. And we're on our way, with a whole acting troupe as suspects, most conspicuously their leader, Dr. H. Driffold Cosgood, a stereotypically flamboyant, bigger-than-life actor played by the aforementioned Ron Moody.
"Murder Most Foul" is closer to a Christie mystery than "Murder Ahoy," with less silliness, less fussing, and less sneaking around, and more reliance on serious logical deduction. However, that does not completely save it from being somewhat less spirited than the first two movies in the series. With the exception of Ms. Rutherford's always attractive presence and her performance of the Robert Service poem, the story moves along fairly slowly and contains less wit and humor than the earlier entires. 6/10
All four films are presented in something close to their original 1.66:1 aspect ratios, each movie cropped slightly to fill out a 16x9 (1.78:1) television screen nicely in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer. The black-and-white prints look in excellent shape, and no doubt the WB engineers did some minor restoration work to touch them up as well. There are practically no age spots, lines, flecks, or marks anywhere; detailing is good; and B&W contrasts are strong. The overall image is a tad soft, but the general lack of grain tends to make the picture as bright as new. Incidentally, although all four films look pretty much alike, "Murder at the Gallop" looks marginally the cleanest.
There's nothing much one can say about the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound. There is little background noise to speak of unless you turn the volume up unreasonably high, and the midrange is exemplary in tonal balance and clarity. Other than that, which is all we might reasonably expect of it, the sound is mono, plain and simple, and with little reason for a frequency or dynamic range any wider than it is.
The bonus items are repeated on each disc: An "Agatha Christie Thrillers" gallery that includes widescreen trailers for all four of Rutherford's Miss Marple movies, plus the 1965 production of Christie's "Ten Little Indians." Things wrap up with twenty-three and twenty-four scene selections for each movie, but no chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Margaret Rutherford may not have been everybody's notion of the ideal Miss Marple, but she's surely a joy to watch--kind, crotchety, frumpy, bellowing, brilliant; forever the busybody, and not a little goofy at the same time. The films should be retitled the "Miss Rutherford Mysteries," and we'd be closer to the truth. Be that as it may, a few of the movies, at least, are still fun to watch.
If I had to rank order them, I'd say I personally prefer the second entry, "Murder at the Gallop" best; the earliest entry, "Murder She Said," second; "Murder Most Foul" third; and "Murder Ahoy" a distant last.