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Miss Jane Marple, an elderly British spinster who lives in the quiet village of St. Mary Mead and whose hobbies are knitting and solving crimes, is one of Agatha Christie's most endearing creations, the heroine of over fifteen mysteries. In 1960, MGM bought the rights to most of the author's books and short stories for three million dollars, and immediately decided that the eccentric amateur sleuth would make a terrific movie, starring England?s equally eccentric grande dame, Margaret Rutherford.
Agatha Christie didn't agree. She had modeled Miss Marple after a favorite aunt, a "fragile, pink and white lady," as Rutherford later recalled. And Christie didn't think the large, ungainly Rutherford resembled Miss Marple at all. Moreover, Rutherford didn?t want to do it. "I never found murder amusing , I don't like anything that tends to lower or debase or degrade," she explained. Both ladies were eventually persuaded. They met, ended up becoming fast friends, and Christie dedicated one of her books, The Mirror Crack?d, to "my friend, Margaret Rutherford."
Agatha Christie is inarguably the world's most successful mystery author. With 79 novels and over a dozen screenplays to her credit, she is the third best-selling author behind the Bible and Shakespeare. Her stories have been widely interpreted on screen and television, but the creation of such memorable characters as Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple is one of the biggest keys to her success. The inimitable Detective Poirot solves the crimes in over forty of her novels, while Miss Marple appears in twelve. It is Miss Marple who is the star of an installment of four films released during the 1960's.
Between 1961 and 1964, MGM made four Miss Marple films starring Margaret Rutherford at their British studios. In all four, the role of Mr. Stringer, the local librarian and Miss Marple's partner in crime detection, is played by Rutherford's real-life husband, Stringer Davis. Murder Most Foul (1964) was the third made, and the last released. Like Murder at the Gallop (1963), it was actually based on an Hercule Poirot novel (Mrs. McGinty's Dead), rather than a Miss Marple story. It also co-starred Ron Moody as Clifford Cosgood, a theatrical character desperately searching for investors for his next production. Moody is best remembered for his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver! (1968).
Murder Most Foul begins with Miss Marple as the sole juror holding out for acquittal in a trial. A mistrial is declared. Miss Marple sets out to find the real killer, and the search leads her to a theatrical repertory company. The comic highlight of the film is Rutherford auditioning for the company with a performance of the poem, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew", one of Rutherford's favorite pieces. Once, she had to be dissuaded from performing it at a women's prison. "It was a good, bloodcurdling bit, which I thought the poor women would enjoy as they must have been disillusioned by the men in their lives," she said. That kind of dotty logic might not be exactly Miss Marple's style, but it's part of what made Margaret Rutherford such a blithe spirit, and one of the most beloved British character actresses ever. She broke into mainstage and screen relatively late in her career and quickly established her acting prowess with her 1941 stage performance in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, which led to the film version in 1945. Her portrayal of Madame Arcati, the off-center psychic, would not only be one of her signature roles, but also established the standard for the character in future productions. Clearly Rutherford was beloved by her peers and she was eventually awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1961. She later won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The V.I.P.s (1963), and in 1967 was knighted into dame-hood.
Agatha Christie herself would be named a Dame three years later in 1971, but at this point her accomplishments must have seemed old hat for the writer. After all, her play, The Mousetrap, which opened in 1952, remains the longest continuously running show in theatrical history. Her books have sold over 100 million copies. And when your greatest competitors are God and the Bard, the greatest mystery is--what's next?
Director: George Pollock
Producer: Lawrence p. Bachmann, Ben Arbeid
Screenplay: David Pursall, Jack Seddon, based on the novel, Mrs. McGinty?s Dead, by Agatha Christie
Editor: Ernest Walter
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Art Direction: Frank White
Music: Ron Goodwin
Principal Cast: Margaret Rutherford (Miss Marple), Ron Moody (H. Driffold Cosgood), Charles Tingwell (Detective Inspector Craddock) Andrew Cruickshank (Justice Crosby), Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Thomas), Stringer Davis (Mr. Stringer).
BW-91m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
By Margarita Landazuri & Eleanor Quin