From 1961 through 1964, MGM churned out a quick series of movies featuring Agatha Christie's spinster sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, with stage star Margaret Rutherford taking the lead role. These four films delighted audiences but rankled purists who didn't agree with the films' many liberties with the source material - two of the four films were based on Christie's Poirot, not Marple, novels, while another was not based on any Christie story at all. In addition, the tone was noticeably much lighter, perhaps taking advantage of Rutherford's comic abilities.
The problem, however, is that none of these changes ever actually work. These films are passable but ultimately too slight, with mystery that never engages, characters that annoy more than they charm, and a seemingly endless musical score that will, if all four films are watched simultaneously, drive you mildly insane.
Ah, that score. The theme was created by Ron Goodwin (best known for his work on such films as "Frenzy" and a series of World War II films, including "Where Eagles Dare" and "Battle of Britain"), and it's a bouncy, swinging early-mod number that reveals from the onset of the series' first film, "Murder, She Said" (1961), the problems we will be encountering throughout the franchise. Namely, the music doesn't fit at all. It should be quaint and proper, very Old England, not catchy and poppy and hey-will-Herman's-Hermits-be-showing-up-soon? (Yes, I know that Herman's Hermits didn't come around for a few years later, but you get the idea.) The theme tells us that the filmmakers - director George Pollock (who would helm all four Marple movies) and writers David Pursall and Jack Seddon (who would script three of the four) - are out to hip up the old broad. Out goes the stuffiness, in comes the quirkiness.
"Murder, She Said" is adapted from Christie's "4:50 From Paddington," but only slightly; in this version, it is Miss Marple who witnesses the murder on the train, and it is Miss Marple who goes undercover at the estate where the body must be buried. This allows more screen time for Rutherford, you see, and with more screen time, she can give us more of her sourpuss grimaces, ha ha.
Miss Marple is also cheaply reduced here to being nothing more than a busybody with a craving for pulp mystery novels. She teams up with her librarian friend to crack the case when the police ignore her - a dopey premise that sounds more like the set-up to a TV series than a movie adapted from the best selling mystery author in history. (Reinforcing this feeling: Pollock directs things so straight-forwardly that the whole series feels like a TV show. It's serviceable, but not very interesting.) The librarian friend, played by Stringer Davis, would appear as comic relief in all four Marple films, perhaps because the filmmakers felt that Miss Marple needed a Watson-ish sidekick. What we get in Miss Marple, then, is a character so far removed from Christie's works that you could rename her and nobody would notice at all that this was an adaptation.
The studio then felt it necessary to juggle the story enough to include an American doctor (Arthur Kennedy), most likely in the hopes of making the series more palatable to Stateside audiences. It's an annoying contrivance - what's this Yankee doing here? - and it's understandably dropped, with the next three films being all-Brit. Also dropped is the idea of adding a Cute Kid to the proceedings; a curious boy is tossed into the first movie for no apparent reason (and he's far more creepy than cute, which doesn't help).
The mystery itself is a bit of a snooze here, and the only thing that really keeps us watching is Rutherford, who manages to take this scraps of character and create a biddy who is, at times, kinda fun to watch. She fares better in the first sequel, "Murder At the Gallop" (1963), in which screenwriter James P. Cavanagh amps up the humor in the hopes of getting more mileage out of Rutherford's comic knack, as well as that of costar Robert Morley.
"Gallop" is adapted from the novel "After the Funeral," which featured Christie's other fabled character, Hercule Poirot, in the lead. Poirot's cleverness is replaced here with the dottering curiosity of this Miss Marple, while Cavanagh attempts to soak up much humor from the idea of rascally socialites who receive an inheritance from a relative that did not like any of them. And back to that hipping-up of the heroine: one scene has Rutherford doing the twist at a dinner party, a gag which plays out even less enjoyably than it sounds.
The mystery - or, at least, the basic outline of it - stays relatively close to the book, and as such, it does make for a decent 90 minutes of entertainment. If you can get through all the mediocre yuks, that is.
"Murder Ahoy" (1964) fares better for a while, perhaps because this was an entirely original story and as such had no need to clumsily fit a classic story into a (then-)modern setting. The plot's still quite loose, however, with a series of eye-rolling contrivances landing Miss Marple aboard a Naval vessel that's used as a reformatory for ex-cons. It seems that someone on board is taking advantage of the sailors' criminal know-how, and they're killing off anybody who finds out about it.
That's fine, really, as once the sloppy set-up is out of the way, we finally get a decent whodunit peppered with some comedy that actually works from time to time. (Lionel Jeffries' bumbling captain routine wears thin, but the whole mess is over quickly, so it's not too painful.)
But then the whole thing collapses in the finale, with the filmmakers, yearning for a little action in these movies, putting Miss Marple in a swordfight. Yes, actually we're told that the little old lady was fencing champion decades ago, and what follows is a scene so unnecessary and so hopeless that it sets out to ruin everything that came before it.
The same thing happens at the end of the final Marple picture, "Murder Most Foul" (1964), which finds Miss Marple handling a pistol and informing the bad guy that she was a champion shot way back when. It's just another part of the series' belittling of the character by slapping her in an overly silly situation; this final film also gives us Marple, on stage, delivering a grandiose reading of "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," which I believe was meant to be hilarious, but is, in fact, quite dull.
As for the story, it's lifted from another Poirot novel, "Mrs. McGinty's Dead." We open with Miss Marple stonewalling a jury by refusing to vote a man guilty; the courtroom scenes deliver more supposed hilarity, with Marple confounding a frazzled judge. Marple then sets out to prove the man innocent on her own (why she didn't do this during - or even before - the trial is its own mystery), eventually joining a theater troupe to find the culprit. There is a decent mystery here, but you have to dig deep to find it under all the clutter of strained comedy and obnoxious characters.
It should be mentioned that while I found little to like in this series, Rutherford does have her fans. These admirers prefer these films to any other Marples, and while I disagree, I can see why they are well liked. These films are far lighter than the stricter adaptations that have aired on the BBC, PBS, and the like, with a more enjoyable tone and a relaxing spirit. Compared to these movies, the later adaptations are flat-out downers.
But me? Nah. Not enough depth, I say, and too much with the limp jokes and sloppy situations. With this series, MGM was given a classic character - and it wound up playing every card wrong.
Warner Brothers compiles all four films in a box set titled "The Agatha Christie Miss Marple Movie Collection." Unlike almost every other Warners box set, the discs here are not available for purchase separately.
The handsome anamorphic widescreen transfers of all four films are quite commendable, with the black-and-white photography looking far crisper than expected. I'm reminded just how nice even average-looking black-and-white can look. Fans of the series will be quite happy.
Note: The Internet Movie Database lists these films as having aspect ratios of 1.66:1; Warner Brothers' DVDs offer them at 1.78:1. However, the difference (assuming IMDb is correct) is not noticeable at all. I cannot find any information online regarding this issue, so I cannot verify if this is a matter of cropping, overscanning/underscanning, or something else entirely. Not that I'd worry about it - again, the difference is extremely minimal, so much so that I wasn't even aware of it until I stumbled upon the information on IMDb. But I know how some DVD fans feel about this kind of thing, so I figured it best to share.
The original mono soundtracks are clear and serviceable, with the annoying musical score popping out quite well. The drawback: I found myself having to turn up the volume a bit higher than usual in order to hear everything. I thought this might be an issue with my system not wanting to handle Dolby mono, but when I tried it on another system in another room, I had the same issue. Nothing major, just a minor quibble.
A French mono track is also available, as are optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
All we get is an "Agatha Christie Thriller Trailer Gallery," which offers the trailers for all four films, plus the trailer for "Ten Little Indians," a Warner DVD release not included in this set. These trailers are all presented in anamorphic widescreen, and all look surprisingly clear, except for the "Indians" one, which has not aged well. This "gallery" is annoyingly repeated on all four discs; only the "Gallop" disc offers a change-up, with a second "Gallop" trailer included. Considering that these four films are currently only available in this set, there is no reason for such redundancy.
Again, these movies have their fans… but I am not one of them. The loose nature of the storytelling is not nearly as enjoyable as the filmmakers think it is, and the tinkering of such classic stories and characters only goes to make things worse, not better. Christie fans unfamiliar with the series might be interested in investigating the changes made to the character and the stories, but prepare to be disappointed. Rent It.