Friday, October 15, 2010

Murder, She Said (MGM, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Murder, She Said, the first of four films made by MGM’s British operation in the early 1960’s starring Margaret Rutherford as Agatha Christie’s old spinster-lady detective heroine, Miss Jane Marple. William K. Everson thought Elizabeth Patterson would have been better casting, and ironically enough Joan Hickson, who has the supporting role of Mrs. Kimble here, would herself play Miss Marple in a later TV series from the BBC, but the four films established Rutherford as “the” Miss Marple much the way Basil Rathbone’s 14 films as Sherlock Holmes established him as “the” cinematic embodiment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great character. I’m a great fan of mysteries in general but I’ve never been able to raise much enthusiasm for Christie’s work, and I think what I don’t like about it is what Raymond Chandler didn’t like about it: her characters are singularly flat and uninteresting. She gives them just enough depth to suit their roles in her stories, and no more, and she manipulates them and twists their motives into what she needed to fulfill her elaborate plot constructions.

Chandler was particularly rough on Ten Little Indians a.k.a. And Then There Were None — the whole idea of a judge on a vigilante murder crusade rubbed him the wrong way — and also on Murder on the Orient Express, whose conceit he said was so ridiculous “only a half-wit could guess it.” (One Christie mystery he did admit enjoying was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the conceit is that the first-person narrator of the book admits at the end that he is the murderer.) Christie herself said the only films of her work she cared for were Witness for the Prosecution and Murder on the Orient Express, and one can see why — though And Then There Were None abounds with filmic possibilities, most of Christie’s work is relentlessly unatmospheric and not at all dependent on interesting physical locations of which filmmakers could take advantage.

Murder, She Said starts off with a visually and dramatically marvelous scene — Miss Marple, traveling on a train, looks out the window and into the windows of another train passing hers on the same track, and she sees a man with black-gloved hands (she cannot see his face from her viewpoint) strangling a woman. Alas, after that the film is a real comedown: Miss Marple tries to report the murder to the police, and they say that nobody answering her description of either the killer or the victim was seen getting on or off the train, nobody removed a body and therefore they’re convinced the whole thing was a dream brought on by Miss Marple’s reading — you guessed it — mystery novels. (At the start of the movie she’s reading a fictitious book called Death Has Windows by “Michael Southcott”; at the end, as a filmmakers’ in-joke, she’s reading the genuine novel Murder Is Easy by, you guessed it, Agatha Christie.) She figures out that the killer must have dumped the body of his victim out of the train while it was still moving, and finds a piece of the fur garment she was wearing when she was killed, and from this deduces that the killer lived in or near Ackenthorpe Hall, inhabited by a cranky old cripple who’s the paterfamilias (James Robertson Justice in a marvelous performance; he, Rutherford and Thorley Walters as Cedric, 12-year-old grandson of the old man and a bitchy, superior-acting brat much like Michael Redgrave’s son in Secret Beyond the Door, are about the only reasons to watch this movie) and several other family members and assorted hangers-on, including an attractive ingénue named Emma (Muriel Pavlow).

Miss Marple decides to get close to the family by wangling a job as the Ackenthorpes’ maid, and when another murder occurs at the Ackenthorpe mansion — the victim is poisoned by arsenic and everyone else at the dining table gets sick because the food has been dosed, albeit with a sub-lethal amount — and a third killing happens before the villain is finally unmasked: Dr. Quimper (Arthur Kennedy), who wanted to marry Emma to get hold of the Ackenthorpe family fortune and strangled the woman on the train because he was already married to her and needed to get rid of her before he could pursue his gold-digging marriage to Emma, then gave the second victim a lethal dose of arsenic by injection while pretending to treat her. Christie’s stories are the kind people who don’t like mysteries love to hate — Edmund Wilson even titled his famously bitchy article denouncing the mystery genre, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” — and here, adapted by David Osborn and scripted by David Pursall and Jack Seddon, and directed by George Pollock, who seems to have blown whatever talent he had for intriguing visuals in the opening murder scene, Murder, She Said emerges as not much of a mystery (it really is less a whodunit and more of a whocareswhodunit) but a fun film mainly due to the sheer force of Rutherford’s slightly dotty but irrepressible personality overcoming an indifferent story, unatmospheric direction and an annoyingly bouncy musical score by Ron Goodwin that uneasily combines harpsichord and rock drums as the key instruments.