Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film Tuesday: MURDER SHE SAID (1961) starring Margaret Rutherford

Today it's Overlooked or Forgotten Films day ( as it is every Tuesday) at Todd Mason's blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to check in and see what other films other movie mavens are talking about today. You're sure to find a film or two you'll want to renew acquaintance with or perhaps, view for the first time.


I hadn't seen MURDER SHE SAID in many years and was thrilled when it became available on Netflix. This is the first and my favorite of the Margaret Rutherford/Miss Marple films which are very loosely based on the Agatha Christie books featuring the aging spinster sleuth.

But forget I said that. This is not the Miss Marple we've become accustomed to, either in the original books or in the marvelous Joan Hickson interpretation (about which, more later) done in the 1980's for PBS.

In no one's imagination (except maybe the film-makers') is Miss Marple anywhere near as rotund, robust, hearty and gruff as she's played by the wonderful Margaret Rutherford, but what the heck, in my view this is Rutherford's movie. Pretend she's not the Miss Marple we all know and/or remember. Just think of her as someone else, a completely different character who happens to be named Marple.

Why, in the movie, she doesn't even live in St. Mary Mead. Who ever heard of such a thing? Obviously it can't be our dithery Miss Marple with the fluffy air and the knitting needles. The only thing this Miss Marple has in common with our Miss Marple is her intelligence and a will of steel.

This Miss Marple even has a male companion, for goodness' sake, A Mr. Stringer. (Played by Rutherford's long- time husband, Stringer Davis.) He's a librarian and as diffident as Miss Marple is demanding and overbearing. To watch the two of them 'disguised' as train workers, searching for clues along the tracks makes for a very entertaining few minutes.

The film (directed by George Pollock) is based on Christie's 1957 book, 4:50 FROM PADDINGTON or WHAT MRS. McGILLICUDDY SAW.

Mrs. McGillicuddy is a friend of Jane Marple's who is returning home after traveling to London to do some shopping. From the window of her compartment she watches helplessly, horrified, as a woman is strangled across the way in a compartment on a closely passing train. Of course no one believes her because no body is found, on the train or elsewhere.

The only one who believes her tale is her close friend, Jane Marple.

However, there is no Mrs. McGillicuddy in the film. Here, Miss Marple (Margaret Rutherford) sees the murder from the train window herself. She is the one who reports it. She is the one incensed when no one believes her. The police (in the form of Inspector Craddock) thinking her instead, a dotty old lady who dreamed the story up.

In the book, primarily because of frail health, Miss Marple hires the fabulously efficient Lucy Eylesbarrow to find the body she is sure (after doing a bit of logistical investigation herself) lies somewhere on the Crackenthorpe property - the train tracks follow closely the boundary of the huge estate belonging to the family of a biscuit manufacturer. The estate lies somewhere south (I think) of St. Mary Mead - or maybe north.

But in the film, no St. Mary Mead, no Lucy and no McGillicuddy and no several other characters as well.

So, as I said, forget about the original book and just enjoy the film purely based on the robust charms of Oscar winner Margaret Rutherford who was one of filmdom's more idiosyncratic originals. I adore her, but she takes a bit of getting used to.

Okay, so keeping all that in mind, let's move forward.

Miss Marple decides to investigate the murder of the woman on the train even if the police are not interested. She connives to get herself hired as a maid (!?) at the Crackenthorpe estate - in the film, known as the Ackenthorpe Estate. It was the 1950's when large houses were desperate for hired help.

At the house she is greeted with suspicion by the housekeeper played by none other than Joan Hickson who would, years later, play the definitive and Christie approved Miss Marple. How's that for coincidence? Providential, I call it.

A younger Joan Hickson.

Anyway, Jane is also met with suspicion by the mischievous Alexander (Ronnie Raymond), a curiously erudite young boy with the spiffiest upper class accent you'll ever hear. He is a pleasure to listen to and is the second thing I love best in the film. He's like a miniature version of Anthony Andrews sporting his mesmerizing Brideshead voice.

Ronnie Raymond, an Anthony Andrews look-a-like.

Once Miss Marple assures the lady of the house, Emma Ackenthorpe (a colorless Muriel Pavlow), that despite her age, she is willing do the cleaning and cooking and anything else desired, Jane is there to stay - at least until she finds the body. Of course none of the family knows her true reason for being there.

Muriel Pavlow as Emma Ackenthorpe

The rest of the staff consists of a sinister gardener and the aforementioned housekeeper who refuses to stay in the house after dark. The gardner hulks around the estate with a snarly German Shepherd at his side.

Besides Emma Ackenthorpe and Alexander, her nephew, the only other occupant of the huge house is old Ackenthorpe himself, a semi-invalid who mostly remains in bed bellowing orders. He is played in his best bellowing attitude by the wonderful James Robertson Justice - the third reason I love this film.

Ackenthorpe's only visitor seems to be Doctor Quimper (Arthur Kennedy) who arrives to give him injections and oversee his health once or twice a week and who, apparently, has his eye on Emma. He drives the sweetest little 50's coupe you've ever seen.

Ah, the good old days when you could keep a doctor on retainer. However, no one in the film seems to notice that Quimper doesn't have an English accent, but I digress.

Once Miss Marple - on the pretense of practising her golf swing - oh, did I forget to mention that she'd arrived at the house with luggage AND golf clubs? Well, she did. So while out and about on the grounds, she spots some run-down buildings and decides one of them, certainly, is a perfect spot to hide a body.. Later that night she goes to investigate and before you can say, there's a dead body in the Egyptian sarcophagus, there's a dead body in the Egyptian sarcophagus.

The cops are called in, of course, and there's Miss Marple with a smirk and a triumphant gleam in her eye. Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell) says, "You?!"

She says, "Yes, dotty old me."

When the three Ackenthorpe n'er do well sons and the husband of their deceased sister (Alexander's father) show up to see what's what at the old homestead (the cops want to interview them), two of the brothers meet a grisly end. The Ackenthorpes are being done away with one by one.

In the end, it's Jane who figures out the far-fetched motive and, more importantly, who the killer is, much to the police's chagrin. She then proceeds to use herself as bait to catch the murderer.

Then we get one of the most downright hilarious marriage proposals you will ever see. Hint: it involves Jane Marple. Wait for it.

As I said, don't expect to see the 'real' Miss Marple here, but make a point to see the film anyway. It's quite wonderful in its own singularly sinister (though very amusing) way. The soundtrack by Ron Goodwin is perfection, employing the use of a jaunty harpsichord in lighter moments.

The other three 'Marple' films starring Margaret Rutherford are even more far-fetched than this one, but as long as you don't expect the Christie character, they're okay. Of the four, MURDER SHE SAID remains my favorite.

Go get 'em, Jane.


  1. I LOVE this one! It's definitely the best of the series with Rutherford, although Murder Ahoy! is my second favorite, despite the fact that it has NO basis in the Christie canon.
    Did you know that Christie HATED these productions, but she was polite and went to the set anyway. She met Rutherford and got along with her so well that she later dedicated a novel to her.
    I've always loved the irony of Joan Hickson having a bit part in Murder She Said. I find it especially fun because Christie later asked her specially if she would play Marple.
    Thank you for a big smile this morning!

  2. Thanks, Birdie. It's nice to hear from you on this sunny morning in February.

    This is my favorite of the Rutherford Marples as well. I don't blame Dame Agatha for not liking what showed up on the screen. But she put on a brave face.

    Helped, I'm sure by Rutherford's gruff charm. :)

    I actually sat through it twice and enjoyed myself immensely. But then, I'm not Agatha Christie. :)

  3. This is such a fun movie! I caught it about a year ago when it was on TCM. Mr. Stringer is so adorable. I think he's one of the best parts of the Margaret Rutherford adaptations.

  4. I love Margaret Rutherford. I agree that you need to watch the film independently of any idea that it is a Miss Marple adaptation and just enjoy her performance

  5. I think I've seen all of the Rutherford movies when TCM played them back to back last year. I enjoyed them, but had to pretend that this was no Miss Marple I knew and loved. I ended up loving this version almost as much.

  6. I really love these movies, even though as you say, they're not exactly close to the books.

    I rented all these from Netflix a couple years ago and just watched one after another. Mr. Stringer is great too!

  7. Great choice Yvette!

    I recently re-watched this one and really enjoyed it. I always thought "Murder at the Gallop" was possibly the best (and certanly the funniest) of the series but I may have to have a rethink. I did find it odd that they decided not to set it in St Mary Mead - most of the other changes are more or less understandable (although quite why Ronnie Raymond is dubbed throughout remains a mystery) but this deciision is just plain weird!

    Incidentally, June Whitfield, who played Miss Marple on radio for the BBC, recently starred in another BBC radio play as Margaret Rutherford, entitled "A Monstrous Vitality" and she was really affecting in it - and the relationship with her husband Stringer is wonderfully portrayed.

    And it's also a great looking movie, wonderfully photographed. And then there is the wonderfull theme tune by Ron Goodwin - 'jaunty' is the only word for it!

    The fourth one, "Murder Ahoy", the only one not based on a Christie book, is certainly the weakest.

  8. Thanks for posting about these. They're such fun. Out of curiosity, I read Wikipedia's entry on Rutherford. Ye Gods!

  9. Lauren: Isn't he adorable? Hard to imagine them as a team in real life but they did, indeed, have a long marriage - until her death, actually.

  10. Exactly, Lucy. That's the only way to really enjoy them. If you make comparisons then you'll overlook the joys of Margaret Rutherford.

    She was a wonder.

  11. Ryan, comparisons are useless, really. I've enjoyed this film so much that I'm thinking I might have to get myself a permanent copy.

    I'm also going to see about getting MURDER AT THE GALLOP, my second favorite of this series, up on my queue.

  12. Sergio: I didn't know that Ronnie's voice was dubbed? It certainly doesn't look like it. I watched the film again last night just to watch the lip syncing.

    Are you sure? Could his real voice have been so bad? Or did they have sound problems?

    Anyway, I'm lining up MURDER AT THE GALLOP since it is my second favorite of this series.

    I might also watch AIRPORT which I think is the film Rutherford won her Supporting Actress Oscar for.
    Not sure though.

    1. I suspected it was dubbed! Ronnie was older than he looked. He was 15 when he filmed Murder She Said. Some young men's voices change at that age, and while some are hardly noticeable, some are really squeaky. Or perhaps they needed a younger voice. Perhaps that might have been it--the actor who dubbed him was Martin Stephens who was four years younger than Raymond. Raymond gives a great performance physically if not vocally! He became an undertaker after he quit acting.

  13. Picky: That might be a fun thing to do. Watch them one after the other, I mean. Hmmmm.....You've given me an idea. :)

  14. Yeah, I know what you mean, Carol.


    But she rose above it all to do such wonderful work on film. And she had a happy marriage, a man devoted to her for many years.

  15. Hello Yvette - Well, I can't prove it, but he is definitely dubbed and I'm fairly sure it's a woman's voice (as is the usual practice when dubbing the voices of children). Great bit of cirss cross there that really made me chuckle as it's the sort of thing I do all the time re airprots and Oscars as it was Helen Hayes who got on a plane and won the Oscar for AIRPORT while Rutherford got stuck int he lounge due to fog and won it for THE VIPSs!

  16. PS Did a bit of internet digging to refresh my memory - it appears that he was dubbed by voice artist 'Olive Gregg', who also duvbbed one of the boys in CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED. Apparently the actor, who si still very much around, went into the undertaking business and is now retired. Thought you'd enjoy a bit of extra trivia!


  17. Sergio, where would I be without you? Thanks for the correction on Rutherford's Oscar. I did check on it later and discovered my memory mistake but forgot to correct myself. :)

    Olive Gregg. Now, the funny thing is, she sounds like a boy. And another funny thing is that that voice is one of my favorite things about the movie. It suits Ronnie very VERY well. Though I can't help wondering what his own voice sounded like. :)

    Maybe this movie influenced him to undertake undertaking. :)

  18. It just occurred to me, Sergio, that they should have dubbed Arthur Kennedy as well, as long as they were in the mood. :)

    He is simply awful. I was never a bit Arthur Kennedy fan to begin with. He always seemed such a lout to me. Ha!

  19. Hello,
    I,too love this film ,but for the train sequences. I have been doing some research into The A6 Murder in August 1961 and find The Old Station Inn at Taplow was used as a location for one of the Margaret Rutherford A.Cs films.
    Do you know when the film clips around Taplow were actually taken?

    Best Regards,
    Mike Smith.

  20. I regret to say that the voice of Ronnie Raymond in 1961 film 'Murder She Said' is not that of Olive Gregg as previously suggested.
    It is the voice of Michael Stephens who featured in the 1960 film 'Village of the damned'. This is easily confirmed if you see this actor in the 1958 film 'Harry Black and the tiger'. His voice is so distinctive.

  21. As a big Agatha Christie fan, I fully agree with everything you wrote - you can't watch Margaret Rutherford's movies expecting to see the "real" Miss Marple, but they're simply amazing as they are (that is: something much different from the book). I have bought the DVDs of all the Miss Marple series I know of and it has been incredibly fun to watch Margareth Rutherford's version, and right after it Joan Hickson's version. Both are WONDERFUL. I am going to watch Geraldine McEwan's version tonight - I wonder if it will be up to the other two!

    1. Hi, Elena. I never did like Geraldine McEwan's version at all. But I love Joan Hickson (she was actually selected by Christie to play Miss Marple). I also love Margaret Rutherford, though, as you say, the movies have little to do with the Miss Marple in the books. But they are still fun.

  22. If the Ackenthorpe family had really existed, I would want to know them. I have the DVD, and I watch the movie several times a year, because I love the characters, the grandfather, the lad, Lucy, and that dog! Ha ha, anyone can tell that dog is a sweetheart. I remember Murder She Said on the marquee in our town back in 1965. I wish my mother and I had gone to see it. She was working as a live-in housekeeper at that time and would have loved it.

    1. Hi, Jackie. I'm with you. I love the old man, especially. James Robertson Justice was usually a delight. This movie is on my Christmas list. If Santa doesn't deliver, then I'll get it for myself next month. :)


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