By Craig Leask
While there have been many, MANY movie and television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple Mysteries with multiple women playing the lead character (Angela Lansbury, Helen Hayes, Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, and Julia McKenzie), I must admit my favorite by far playing the role is Margaret Rutherford as she brings her own lovable, quirky personality to the role.
Rutherford was beloved in England and MGM needed her to ensure its first Miss Marple movie, Murder She Said (1961), was a success, giving her the freedom to make the character her own. To do so Rutherford insisted upon wearing her own clothes and ensuring a character was created for her beloved husband and greatest admirer, Stringer Davis, allowing them to work together on the project. For this, writers created the supportive librarian and sidekick character, “Jim Stringer”.
It is well-known that author Agatha Christie was not a fan of how Rutherford portrayed her heroine, or of her looks. Christie had based Miss Marple on her favorite birdlike aunt, both in stature and personality. The plump, energetic and commanding Rutherford was nothing like that. However, similar to Basil Rathbone’s depiction of Sherlock Holmes not being representative of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s vision, Rutherford’s unique emancipated character and demeanor was a success, and she became much loved by the viewing public.
The infectious theme song by Ron Goodwin, an energetic melody with a tinny harpsichord sound, sets an upbeat tempo for this first movie and for the three that follow: Murder at the Gallop (1963), Murder Most Foul (1964) and Murder Ahoy (1964). Maintaining continuity in the series, each movie was directed by George Pollock with scripts developed by David Pursall and Jack Seddon.
Unfortunately, the series was limited to only 4 installments, yet these maintain a beautiful flow of consistent elements: atmospheric black and white; mainly location filming aptly depicting the era; an early murder in a uniquely charming setting; wonderful witty dialogue; a cast of suspicious characters, all with strong motives and alibies; and the spunk-filled and fearless Rutherford, confidently swinging her cape over her shoulders, ready to charge into any situation armed only with bravado and a knowledge base acquired from her insatiable appetite for mystery novels.
Murder She Said (1961)
Based on the 1957 novel “4:50 From Paddington” Murder She Said marked the first big screen appearance of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
While travelling by rail, Miss Marple witnesses the strangling of a young woman in an adjacent train as it passes on a parallel track. Sounding the alarm to the train’s conductor, police are summoned and after finding nothing on the train to support her story, she takes matters into her own hands, determining the body could only have been ejected from train near the grounds of the Ackenthorpe Hall estate.
Cajoling her way into a job as housekeeper by the pseudonym “Jane”, Miss Marple copes with her difficult employer, Luther Ackenthorpe (James Robertson Justice), and a cast of suspicious family members and household staff, while she searches for the missing corpse. The investigation is wrought with suspicion, arsenic poisoning, and fatal self-inflicted shotgun wounds. The requisite cute and rambunctious child (Ronnie Raymond) and the skittish maid Miss Kidder (Joan Hickson), provide the opportunity to inject delightfully British humor into the storyline, never allowing the mystery to take itself too seriously.
“4:50 From Paddington” has been filmed twice subsequently. In 1987 the BBC gave us a loyal but rather stuffy version ironically elevating the skittish Miss Kidder (Joan Hickson) into the lead role, and a 2004 version filmed by ITV starring Geraldine McEwan. Neither version reached the quality nor the success of the 1961 original.
Murder at the Gallop (1963)
Loosely based on Agatha Christie’s 1953 novel “After the Funeral”, written for her famous sleuth Hercule Poirot, the story was adapted and renamed for the third installment of the Miss Marple series with Margaret Rutherford.
While soliciting donations for The Reformed Criminals Assistance League, Miss Marple and Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis) visit the wealthy and reclusive Mr. Enderby (Finlay Currie). They arrive to witness his fatal plunge down the grand staircase in his stately mansion, apparently the victim of a fatal heart attack triggered by his pathological fear of cats, one of which seen preening nearby. Marple’s suspicions lead to her eavesdropping on the reading of Enderby’s will with the family, all of whom are beneficiaries of his estate, and naturally also suspects as each had recently paid Enderby a visit, asking for money.
Following the incriminating muddy imprint of a riding boot, Marple’s investigation leads her to a visit to the Gallop Hotel and Riding School, owned and operated by one of the beneficiaries of Enderby’s estate, Mr. Hector Enderby (Robert Morley), where all of the beneficiaries have congregated. Creepy night investigations, fatal trampling by an excitable horse and a faked heart attack all lead to the unveiling of a killer.
In 2006 an adaptation of the original Poirot novel was aired on ITV in the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, but it paled in comparison to the original.
Murder Most Foul (1964)
Based on Agatha Christie’s 1952 novel “Mrs. McGinty’s Dead”, which, like Murder at the Gallop, was written as a Poirot vehicle, Murder Most Foul is the third of the four Miss Marple films made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The title was interestingly derived from a quote in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where a Ghost laments on his own death, stating: “Murder most foul as in the best it is/But this most foul, strange and unnatural.”
Former actress, now barmaid Margaret McGinty is found hanged in her home and her lodger Harold Taylor found by the police at the scene. What seems to be an open and shut case of guilt, juror Miss Jane Marple’s sole “not guilty” vote hangs the jury 11-1. Being the sole juror to believe the lodger is innocent, Marple refuses to join with the others on a guilty vote causing the judge to rule for a mistrial. A retrial is scheduled to commence one week later, giving Miss Marple seven days to solve the case. Following her gut conviction that the guilty party was a member of a local theatrical ensemble, Miss Marple joins the local troupe posing as a benefactor, in order to gather information, which leads to the connection to a singular disastrously unsuccessful 1951 performance which involved the entire cast.
Murder Ahoy! (1964)
Unlike the previous three films written by David Pursall and Jack Seddon, which were each based on Agatha Christie novels, Murder Ahoy! was developed from an original screenplay by the same writers with no association to Christie’s work. Murder Ahoy! was unfortunately the final instalment of the four Miss Marple films made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer staring Margaret Rutherford, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell as (Chief) Inspector Craddock and Stringer Davis as playing Mr. Stringer. Although the series was successful at the box office, the producers were unable to secure the rights to any further of Christie’s original stories.
Miss Marple is a recent appointee to the board of senior trustees for the Cape of Good Hope Youth Reclamation Centre, a youth reformation committee which focused on reformation through cadet training on board a ship called The Battledore. When a fellow trustee is murdered after having returned from a surprise visit to The Battledore, Miss Marple theorizes the motive for his murder must lie on the ship. Exploiting her senior position on the Board of Trustees, Miss Marple heads to the harbor, taking up residency in the captain’s quarters on the ship, much to the chagrin of Captain Rhumstone (Lionel Jeffries), which initiates a new pecking order of cabins as the crew adjusts to accommodate Miss Marple’s needs. What follows are a series of jewel thefts, poisoned spikes, embezzlement, a Miss Marple signature trap and a climatic sword fight.
Following the end of the successful Miss Marple franchise, director Pollock would make on final Agatha Christie film, Ten Little Indians (1965), for producer Harry Alan Towers. Rutherford herself made a very brief final appearance as Miss Marple in The Alphabet Murders (1965), a not very good Christie adaptation with Tony Randall as a oddly bumbling Hercule Poirot.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.