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Although many stars have taken on the role of Agatha Christie's indomitable detective Miss Marple, Margaret Rutherford's portrayal remains most fans' ideal of the elderly amateur sleuth, starting with Murder, She Said (1961).
Released in 1961, the film finds Rutherford's Miss Marple witnessing a girl's murder on a train. When no body is found and the authorities dismiss her story as the imaginings of an old biddy, Miss Marple starts an investigation herself.
She goes undercover as a maid at an estate near the murder scene, and in between cooking and cleaning, hunts for clues. She soon finds the girl's dead body, and the family at the estate becomes suspects, even as they're starting to be killed off themselves. Red herrings, revelations and a few comic exchanges about Miss Marple's lack of domestic efficiency ensue before Miss Marple gets her man.
Aiding Miss Marple in her detective work is librarian and friend Mr. Stringer, played by Rutherford's husband Stringer Davis in a role especially written for him. Other cast members include Arthur Kennedy, Muriel Pavlow, James Robertson Justice, Thorley Walters and Charles Tingwell.
But Murder, She Said is definitely Rutherford's show, as one newspaper reviewer pointed out. "Dressed with all the chic of a scarecrow and with her prognathous jaw jutting determinedly, Miss Rutherford dominates most of the scenes with a forceful characterization," read the New York Times review at the time of the movie's release.
The character of Miss Marple had been around for nearly three decades in print before Murder, She Said was filmed. MGM purchased the rights for most of Agatha Christie's works for $3 million in the late 1950s, planning a television series, but instead decided to go the feature film route, basing the first movie on the book 4:50 from Paddington.
Murder, She Said found instant box office success and was followed by Murder at the Gallop in 1963. Murder Ahoy (1964) and Murder Most Foul (1964) rounded out Rutherford's quartet of whodunit films.
Despite the rabid following her films would later receive, Rutherford was initially reluctant to play Miss Marple. In her autobiography, she describes that she didn't find murder amusing and didn't want to be a part of anything that exploited violence. It was the film's director, George Pollock, who changed her mind. He persuaded her that the role of Miss Marple "was not so much concerned with crime ... but that she was more involved in a game -- like chess -- a game of solving problems, rather than of murder."
Along with Miss Marple, Rutherford is best recognized for her role in 1945's Blithe Spirit, in which she played eccentric psychic Madame Arcati. She also won an Oscar® for her supporting role in The V.I.P.s (1963), an Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton vehicle.
Over the years, the role of Miss Jane Marple has lured other top actresses. Angela Lansbury starred in The Mirror Crack'd in 1980 and shortly thereafter, would star as a sort of Americanized Miss Marple in the Murder, She Wrote mystery drama on TV. The venerable Helen Hayes took on Miss Marple in a duo of television movies. In the late 1980s, Joan Hickson -- who had a supporting role in 1961's Murder, She Said -- picked up the Miss Marple mantle in a PBS television series based on the Agatha Christie books.
But for legions of moviegoers, Margaret Rutherford in Murder, She Said remains the definitive characterization of the eccentric English spinster from St. Mary's Mead who somehow manages to get mixed up in all sorts of murder mayhem.
Producer: George H. Brown
Director: George Pollock
Screenplay: David Osborn, David Pursall, Jack Seddon, Agatha Christie (novel)
Cinematography: Geoffrey Faithfull
Film Editing: Ernest Walter
Art Direction: Harry White
Music: Ron Goodwin
Cast: Margaret Rutherford (Miss Jane Marple), Arthur Kennedy (Dr. Quimper), Muriel Pavlow (Emma Ackenthorpe), James Robertson Justice (Ackenthorpe), Thorley Walters (Cedric Ackenthorpe), Charles 'Bud' Tingwell (Inspector Craddock).
BW-86m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Amy Cox