Friday, March 24, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Murder She Said (1961)

Back in the ‘60s, the camp thing got very popular. The James Bond movies were very campy (and the myriad of knock-off Bond stuff, from the zillions of movies to the merely billions of TV shows, were generally even more so), the Europeans were churning out zany, over the top superhero films, crime melodramas, schlocky sci-fi and insane westerns, and of course we had Batman, the TV show.

Camp mixed in well with black (as in tone, not as in race) comedy, and the Brits especially were good at mixing murder and mirth. Thus you had a ton of successful comic whodunits, including a batch starring Terry Thomas. One author much represented in this trend was Agatha Christie. Unlike her countryman Edgar Wallace, whose baroque novels inspired a gazillion outrageous West German ‘krimis’, Christie’s books worked in this regard because they were conversely so blank.

Her novels were puzzle books, in which ingenious solutions to the crimes were the point. No one ever read her books because of their depth of characterization. This might explain why one of the world’s most popular authors, working in a genre that was extremely popular in movies up until maybe twenty years ago (the whodunit), found her work so seldom represented in film.

Aside from a few very obscure Poirot films made back in the ‘30s, Christie’s work was adapted only a few times, and these were books that didn’t feature her detectives. One book, Ten Little Niggers (changed, for obvious reasons, to Ten Little Indians in later editions), became the basis of the classic And Then There Were None. Ironically, the mystery element in this novel was very weak, and the film completely rewrote the solution, so successfully that the numerous film and TV remakes stuck with the movie’s storyline rather than going back to Christie’s.

Her other prominent film prior to the ‘60s was the extremely fun and tricky courtroom/murder mystery Witness for the Prosecution, as directed by Billy Wilder and starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton (who would have made a great Poirot, actually). Ironically, this was adapted from a stageplay Christie wrote, and not one of her books.

Because she was so light on characterization, her two primary series detectives, Miss Marple and the Belgian Hercule Poirot, were pretty much left open to interpretation. In the ‘60s, this led to many adaptations that emphasized humor as much as homicide.

Poirot was easily the more exaggerated character of the two, and thus lent himself to this sort of thing. Performers who played the blustering Belgian during the ‘60s and ‘70s include such essentially comic actors as Tony Randall, Peter Ustinov and, in a rare humorous turn, Albert Finney. (Zero Mostel almost joined the list, but that project was scrapped.) Ustinov played Poirot in three movies and three further telefilms, and was the actor most associated with the part until David Souchet made the part his own during a long British television run.

While it took a while to find a suitable Poirot, however, the movies immediately found the exact right actress for Miss Marple in Margaret Rutherford, a stout, pugnacious, downright bulldogish old Englishwoman who sort of looks like how you’d expect Jon “Dr. Who” Pertwee’s mother to appear.

She first played the Jane Marple here, in 1961’s Murder She Said, which was so immediately popular that she assayed the role in three quickly made sequels, and then cameoed as Marple in the much loopier Tony Randall Poirot film The Alphabet Murders. Happily, the four Marple mysteries, which are all delightful, have just come out in a DVD box set.

Murder She Said acts as an introduction the character, and indeed was alternately titled Meet Miss Marple. This is clearly Miss Marple’s first case, and thus we meet her supporting cast for the first time too, such as her platonic admirer Mr. Stringer (played by Rutherford’s husband), and the oft-bemused Inspector Craddock, who admired the old gal nearly as much as he was driven to distraction by her.

Miss Marple is riding a train when she witnesses a murder on another train passing opposite. (The killer’s face, needless to say, is obscured.) She reports the incident, but the police can find no evidence of a crime. Convinced that she is right, Marple investigates herself and finds a spot where she believes the body may have been dumped. This focuses her attentions on a nearby manor house, and in her determination to find the killer, she takes a job there as a maid.

The house, needless to say, abound with suspects, and naturally a couple of more bodies make an appearance before the case is closed, with Marple nearly being one of them. The solution is OK, but not great, as only one of the three killings really can be tied specifically to the proffered murderer. (By which I mean, the others could have been assigned to any other cast member equally well.)

It’s Marple’s interaction with a bunch of equally eccentric characters that really sells the film, of course, and that remained the hallmark of the series. Although the films are tongue in cheek in terms of characterizations (and more so in the later movies), the mystery elements are played pretty straight, as they should be. Modern audiences will probably find this perhaps a bit twee and slow moving, but should one acquire the taste for them they are marvelously entertaining.

The DVD for Murder She Said includes the trailers for the four films as well as the ‘60s Ten Little Indians, the first remake of the vastly superior And Then There Were None. Anyone who likes a good mystery should definitely check the latter out. The Murder She Said trailer, meanwhile, drolly includes the theater audience as a character in the movie. After Marple witnesses the murder in the train, she turns to us and says, “Did you see that? They probably won’t believe us.” It’s pretty funny.

Another memorable element is the movie's jaunty harpsichord score, a whimsical piece that became the theme music for the entire series.

Ms. Rutherford was a few years away from winning a plethora of awards for her Grand Dame supporting role in the hilarious 1964 Richard Burton/Liz Taylor soaper The V.I.P.s, for which she one the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Rutherford couldn’t make the show, and ironically her award was accepted on her behalf by Peter Ustinov), as well as a Golden Globe, among other laurels. She became Dame Margaret Rutherford upon being awarded a DBE in 1967.


At 1:37 PM, Blogger Henry Brennan said...

Another pretty decent adaptation of a Christie novel is "Murder on the Orient Express". I saw that in the theater when it first came out and I still enjoy it, today.

At 2:47 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

That's the Albert Finney Poirot, and in terms of actual filmmaking, it's probably the best Christie film. The cast is marvelous.

I'm not a Christie fan, but there are good Christie movies, and the Marples are right up there.

At 5:14 AM, Blogger Cullen M. M. Waters said...

Margaret Rutherford is an absolutely terrible Miss Marple. Marple should be a bit more willowly and maidenly, two things Rutherford just isn't.

That said, her movies are great. I look forward to seeing them again.

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Maybe Rutherford isn't the Marple of the books, but she's a great movie character. Angela Lansbury has played the part, and might be closer to the author's conception of Marple, but just isn't as interesting, much less fun, to watch.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Sandy Petersen said...

I agree that Christie is monumentally weak on characterization. She openly mocks Poirot, her most personalized character, with her stand-in of Ariadne Oliver, who constantly complains about her eccentric Finn detective.

I own a ton of Christie's books, and only reread them when it's been so long that I've forgotten the solution. On the other hand, I reread my Nero Wolfe books every year or so, because even if I know the solution, they're still a fun read. Christie is really just an intellectual exercise.

At 12:51 AM, Anonymous Sarah Brabazon-Biggar said...

I read all of Agatha Christie's mysteries when I was a teenager--some of them multiple times. I didn't even read them for the puzzles---I liked the atmosphere, the little details of 1930s-40s English life.

Anyway, Miss Marple is a mild, vague old lady whom you'd assume spends her entire day gardening and crocheting. Joan Hickson in the BBC adaptations was absolutely perfect.

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Triviachamp said...

Well it should be noted that Charles Laughton did play Poirot on the stage.

Not to nitpick but the play of Witness for the Prosecution was based on her short story.


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