The four movies that Margaret Rutherford made in the early 1960s as the Agatha Christie amateur sleuth Miss Marple suffer from low-rent production values, cheesy recycled music and plots that have almost nothing to do with the Christie novels that are cited as source material.
Indeed, the great Agatha herself felt the movies trashed her books and wound up regretting the sale of the rights to the British division of MGM.
The films had a strange distribution history, too. They were viewed as B-movie quickies by the British producers and opened with little fanfare in the United Kingdom.
In this country, however, the first film in the series “Murder, She Said” (1961) was handled as a prestige import that played in art houses around the U.S. (in Manhattan, the film opened at the Baronet on Third Ave., then considered one of the choicest venues in the city).What gave the movies a touch of class 50 years ago is what makes them fun today — the great ham Margaret Rutherford, who threw herself into the role of Marple as if it was the equal of her earlier screen triumphs in “Blithe Spirit” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Rutherford never worried about going over the top — that’s where most of her characterizations started.
The actress also knew how to turn one of the oddest (to be kind) physiques in the history of movies to her advantage.
Rutherford dressed to accentuate her physical flaws, rather than hide them. She knew she could get entrance laughs based simply on the way she looked, but she moved with surprising grace — the result is something like a genteel female British version of Zero Mostel (if you can imagine such a thing) who was also surprisingly light on his feet.
“Murder Ahoy” and “Murder Most Foul” both appeared in 1964, the same year the star won a supporting actress Oscar for her work as a dotty duchess in “The V.I.P.s” (where Rutherford managed to steal scenes from an all-star ensemble that included Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Orson Welles).
If you are an Agatha Christie purist you will be justly appalled by the liberties the films take. In personality and physical type, Rutherford is nothing like the character in the books.
“Murder, She Said” credits “The 4:50 from Paddington” as its source material, but it eliminates key characters from the book and reworks the plot from top to bottom. In the novel, Marple tries to help out an elderly friend who says she witnessed a murder on a train. Marple figures out that the body must have been dumped near a great estate. She talks a young friend into being her surrogate sleuth by going to work in the mansion as a maid.
In the movie, Marple is the train passenger who witnesses a murder and then she very improbably takes the maid’s job in the manor house, too.
Lots of the liberties taken with Christie were no doubt due to the fact that all of the films had to be kept to a running time of around 90 minutes — in England they were designed as double-feature fodder — and the need to increase Rutherford’s screen time (in many of the novels, Marple doesn’t turn up until the plot is well underway).
The best of the movies by far is “Murder at the Gallop” because in it Rutherford gets her strongest co-star — Robert Morley — whose physical size and hammy eccentricities match up perfectly with Rutherford’s outlandish acting style. Few performers have ever taken such obvious pleasure in over-acting as this duo, so they are a true love match.
The Rutherford Marples are definitely an acquired taste, but if you do lock into the star’s way of playing scenes, you might find yourself returning to these B-movies again and again.