Pros: Hilarious take on the Miss Marple mythos
Cons: The screenplays murder the Miss Marple of the novels
Of all the dramatizations of Agatha Christie's novels, it would be no surprise to discover that the four Margaret Rutherford portrayals of Miss Marple were her least favorite. While Christie was fond of Margaret Rutherford as a person and dedicated the 1963 novel "The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side" to her, Christie made no secret of the fact that she hated the movies, and after the third one, she disavowed all knowledge of them and refused to take any further part in their production. Perhaps that is why the popular series came to a sputtering halt.
Christie can hardly be blamed for her aversion, since the Rutherford portrayal had nothing in common with the Miss Jane Marple of fiction except for the name. Christie's frail, quiet, unassuming heroine was played by the burly Rutherford as a robust, boisterous, hyper-active buffoon. What little part of Christie's stories that made it to the script, was rewritten to make Jane Marple into an action hero, with activities more suited to Nancy Drew on steroids than a doddery old spinster. Rutherford's Marple is always at center stage actively pursuing and confronting the villains. In one movie she fights a pirate in a duel with sabers. In another, she gallops around on a stallion, and commits burglary. She even spends a night in jail. "Oh no," as Christie's Marple would have said, "That will never do."
Sadly "Agatha Christie's Miss Marple Movie Collection" is tragically misnamed. "Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple Movie Collection" would be a far more accurate and informative title. So, if you are looking at these movies because you are a hard-core Miss Marple fan, don't bother. There is nothing for you here. Check out the reviews listed below instead.
However, if you are looking for entertainment, then step right up. These four movies are a load of fun. They are fast; they are funny; they are vintage Rutherford at her comedic best. Another advantage of these "extreme" adaptations is that you cannot be sure who the villain is, even if you have read the novel. That alone makes them worth a watch. Were I rating as Miss Marple mysteries, I would have to give these movies only 1 star, but rated as a comedic tour-de-force for Margaret Rutherford, then a rousing four stars for action and laughs.
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The 4-Disc Set contains:
"Murder, She Said" (1961) - based on Christie's "4:50 from Paddington".
"Murder At The Gallop" (1963) - based on the Poirot mystery "After The Funeral."
"Murder Most Foul" (1964) - based on another Poirot mystery "Mrs. McGinty's Dead."
"Murder Ahoy" (1964) - based on absolutely nothing and it shows.
All four movies are in wide screen B&W, just as they were originally released. I found some on-line references to a colorized version of this set, but if it did exist, it seems to be no longer available. The set has no significant added material.
Margaret Rutherford also makes an uncredited cameo appearance as Miss Marple in The Alphabet Murders (1965), but that movie is understandably not part of this set.
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Murder, She Said (1961)
The statement, "based on Christie's 4:50 from Paddington", is quite a stretch. Those familiar with the tale will remember that Miss Marple's friend witnesses a murder on a passing train, and Miss Marple enlists the aid of one of her many young friends to investigate. In fact, the spinster sleuth herself is almost a no-show in this plot, except for a few cameos and the inevitable conclusion.
Not so in the Rutherford version. It is Miss Marple herself who sees the murder, and it is she who goes undercover as a domestic servant to ferret out the killer. Nevertheless, the quality of the plot rings through as Rutherford alternates between dame in distress and tenacious bloodhound. This is smart and funny, if you ignore ham-handed adaptation.
True Agatha Christie fans should keep an eye out for 60ish Joan Hickson in a minor role. She later became famous playing Miss Marple in the definitive TV series.
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Murder At The Gallop (1963)
Is not based on Miss Marple at all, but uses Poirot mystery "After The Funeral" as its framework. However, Rutherford's portrayal is excessively physical even for Poirot, who prefers to use his little grey cells, n'est pas.
"But he was murdered, wasn't he?" says crazy Aunt Cora at the reading of the will. No one pays it much attention, until someone offs Aunt Cora. Robert Morley joins Rutherford as a partner and genteel romantic interest in this romp. They canter through the fields and trot across the dance floor as the desperate killer makes repeated attempts at Miss Marple's life. While true Marple fans are probably appalled by the thought of Aunt Jane galloping around and flirting, Morley's dry humor makes a fine complement to Rutherford's physical comedy. This is a witty and genuinely funny movie.
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Murder Most Foul (1964)
Is based on another Poirot mystery "Mrs. McGinty's Dead."
When Miss Marple is the only juror to find a defendant Not Guilty in a murder trial, she sets out to find the real murderer. She joins a shabby repertory company, and cast members begin to die in rapid succession.
Look for the lovely Francesca Annis in a minor role, who later plays the lead in Christie's "Why didn't they ask Evans?" and the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries.
Murder Ahoy (1964)
Is based on absolutely nothing and it shows. Without a novel to make a mockery of, the writers flail around looking for a plot in the weakest of the four movies.
This is mostly slapstick nonsense with many plot holes, tons of continuity errors and only the weakest of mysteries. Miss Marple goes to sea to try and solve a series of murders on HMS Battledore, a training ship populated mostly by ex-convicts. However, as fans of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges will attest, slapstick nonsense can be extremely funny. When Miss Marple announces that she was Ladies National Fencing Champion of 1931 and launches into a saber duel with a villain, I rolled off my seat. My sides were still aching several years later. I wonder, was that thudding sound in the background really the ship hitting the wharf or was it Agatha Christie pounding her own head against her coffee table. You decide.
While there is some confusion as to the order of the last two movies both released in 1964, it is clear from both content and quality that this is the one that had no Christie involvement. Look for Stringer Davies (Rutherford's real life husband who plays Mr. Stringer in all four movies) in a much meatier role than usual and a good performance by Lionel Jeffries as Captain Rhumstone.
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These are all good family fare, with nothing going on to disturb even young children. Still, much of the wit will go over the heads of youngsters.
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For the definitive Miss Marple of the novels, see Joan Hickson in:
Agatha Christie's Miss Marple Three Film Gift Set
Agatha Christie's Miss Marple: Collection 1
Agatha Christie's Miss Marple: Collection 2
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