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Delightful films but a disappointing UK boxed set
on 17 May 2011
She may bear only the slightest of passing resemblances to Agatha Christie's creation, but for many Margaret Rutherford is still the quintessential Miss Marple, eschewing the novelist's somewhat stern but deceptively intelligent heroine for the actress' blend of eccentricity and plain-speaking common sense. In some ways the only point of similarity is that both are prone to being severely underestimated because of their spinster status. Yet Rutherford's Miss Marple films are such good-natured fun that it's hard to complain, and it's no surprise that Murder She Said inspired three follow-ups and easily outshone the much more star-studded attempt to bring a more faithful Marple to the screen in The Mirror Crack'd two decades later. Not that there's not a decent supporting cast - as well as five-times Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy there's a former Sherlock Holmes in Ronald (son of Leslie) Howard, a future Dr Watson in Thorley Walters and even the future definitive Miss Marple, Joan Hickson herself as the woman who comes in three times a week to do the heavy work. There are plenty of familiar faces in the supporting cast - Rank starlet Muriel Pavlow, Richard Briers, Carry On regular Peter Butterworth and even Rutherford's real-life husband Stringer Davis. But the real fireworks come in Rutherford's confrontations with James Robertson Justice's typically bellicose invalid lord of the manor: neither is exactly stretched, but both are playing so well to their strengths that it's a shame they don't have more scenes together.
This is the one where she witnesses a murder from a passing train and, unable to get Charles Tingwell's police inspector to take her seriously, takes a job as a domestic at the country estate complete with spectacularly badly dubbed child where the body is most likely hid. Naturally everyone but the killer has a visible motive while the murder is solved by information that's mostly been withheld from the audience (but naturally not Miss Marple). Still, it has fun along the way, and who can resist Ron Goodwin's funky harpsichord theme tune?
The second film in the series, Murder At the Gallop, is a marked step down, with Marple discovering another very soon to be dead body and, thanks to her reading of Agatha Christie's novels - which should be required reading for the police, she notes - decides it was murder rather than suicide. Naturally Charles Tingwell's police inspector still hasn't learned his lesson and dismisses her theories until another body turns up and Marple goes undercover at Robert Morley's riding hotel to find out which one of the heirs (James Villiers and Flora Robson's companion among them) wanted their inheritance early. It doesn't quite have the spark this time round, and there is a feeling of `the same but different' about it - while not as irascible as James Robertson Justice in Murder She Said, Morley naturally finds himself looking upon Rutherford as a perfect mate. Poor old Finlay Currie doesn't get much of a part as the first victim - one shot clutching his heart at the top of the stairs before being replaced by a stuntman for a fall down a flight of stairs - but you do get to see Rutherford dancing the Twist and it all ambles along amiably enough.
The third entry, Murder Most Foul, sees Miss Marple going undercover in Ron Moody's theatre company to find the real killer of a blackmailing barmaid, Marple having already caused the Crown's case against the police's favored suspect to collapse due to her obstinate refusal to vote for his conviction alongside the other members of the jury. Yet although it's a decent enough number with a workable mystery at its centre, the sparks don't really fly and there's no real comic chemistry between Rutherford and Moody's mercenary impresario which might have helped elevate it from good enough to something better. It's pleasant enough and there are a few familiar faces in the supporting cast - Francesca Annis, Dennis Price, James Bolam, Megs Jenkins, Windsor Davis, Terry Scott and the ever-reliable Charles Tingwell - but at times it tends to feel a little bit like the kind of play that Moody's reportory company might put on. Still, the cyanide gas trick is interesting.
Murder Ahoy, the fourth and final film in the series, veers even further from the novels - an original story that, the credits go to pains to point out, is based on screenwriters David Pursall and Jack Seddon's `interpretation of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple' - letting Margaret Rutherford loose on a training ship for juvenile delinquents where dark deeds are afoot. There's ingenuity in the murders, be it death by snuff, hanging from the yardarm or killer mousetraps and it even ends with a swordfight, but the most surprising thing is that for once Rutherford has the film stolen from her by Lionel Jeffries' captain in a masterclass of underplayed exasperation and beautiful comic timing that helps make it the most entertaining of the four. Charles Tingwell's inspector gets a lot more to do this time round and there's a more than able supporting cast, including Miles Malleson, Francis Matthews, Derek Nimmo and Nicholas Parsons, providing a nice running gag as an exceptionally brisk doctor. Agatha Christie's unwillingness to allow any further Marple films may have ensured it was the last in the series despite still buoyant box-office (Christie was a fan of Rutherford though felt the characterisation and adaptation took too many liberties), which at least stopped the series getting stale and outstaying its welcome, and it's a thoroughly pleasant and enjoyable number to go out on.
Sadly only one of the films in Warners' boxed set, Murder Ahoy, is presented widescreen, while the others all revert to fullframe after the credits sequences, and there are no extras (the US boxed set has an Agatha Christie trailer gallery). A bit of a poor effort that knocks a star off the set.