Dame Agatha Christie was not pleased when her inconspicuous yet observant mouse-like Miss Marple of her series of mystery novels was substantially revised to suit Margaret Rutherford (1892–1972), a consummate comedy actor of substantial presence, and not in the least mousy. We are introduced to Ms. Rutherford as Miss Marple in the movies’ opening scenes aboard a railway train.
The novel was titled, 4.15 from Paddington, but retitled Murder She Said for the movie version. Action begins as two traveling trains, going in different directions pass each other. Ever alert, Miss Marple soon finds herself with a murder to solve. Clues lead her to take a job as a cook and general dogsbody in a manor house currently hosting unwished-for visiting relatives of a dominating but ailing patriarch of the family, Ackenthorp, masterfully portrayed by James Robertson Justice.
Four of the middle-aged men, cousins we are told, are hoping for a substantial chunk of inheritance from the cranky old man. There is a lovely cousin or granddaughter (Muriel Pavlov) whom the patriarch runs ragged. Secretly she is being successfully wooed by the country doctor (American export Arthur Kennedy who doesn’t bother trying to approximate an English accent.) Still another family member (played Ronnie Raymond), a 10-year-old grandson who occupies himself with mischief and nosing about. He and Miss Marple soon become friends.
The cast was led by Rutherford, an actor with enormous skill and an unhappy life. Margaret’s mother hung her pregnant self from a tree. At the time, Margaret was three years old and sent back to South London to live with Aunt Bessie, whom Margaret loved and considered her adoptive mother. Margaret was 12 years old when she first learned the mad extent of her parents’ tragedies.
Margaret’s father had murdered his own father, then tried to commit suicide and was committed to Bethnal Lunatic Asylum. He was released after six years. (There were many prominent politicians who were related to Margaret and her father. Likely to avoid tarring those powerful men with notoriety, her father moved his family to Madras.) Shortly after the move to India, he suffered a relapse and was recommitted to an asylum, where he remained until he died in 1921. All her life, Margaret feared that she would inherit her parents’ mental illnesses, and she was plague by prolonged periods of deep depression.
Margaret gave herself to two talents: she became a superior pianist. She made a living as a piano teacher and by teaching elocution. She was 33 when she made her stage debut at The Old Vic. Like many of the better comedy actors, Rutherford never tried for laughs, but her sincerity and acute timing when speaking the lines got her all her laughs.
She was built for character roles. Eccentrics were especially dear to English audiences—a stage type beloved by Brits. But Margaret, who suffered from prolonged depression, had managed to build a marginal theater career of eight years—until Noel Coward tailored the role of a sincere and bumbling fortune teller Madame Arcarti in Blythe Spirit in 1939 for Ms. Rutherford, who rewarded Coward’s trust by helping mightily to making the pay a hit on London and Broadway stages.
Many will find her performances in The Happiest Days of Your Life and Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles’ superb retelling of Shakespeare’s Henriad) as impressive as her four Miss Marple tours-de-force.
The actor who best impersonated Christie’s narrower vision of a Miss Marple came to the role later in a fine television series in the person of Joan Hickson who was perfectly suited to that role as Agatha Christie envisioned in the novels. But to a couple of generations of movie patrons, doughty Margaret Rutherford was their Miss Marple.
Margaret’s cohort in the Marple movie mysteries was her platonic husband and actor Stringer Davis who in 1973 onstage and off, followed her every lead. In their home, he served her faithfully. He died within months of her passing.
Murder She Said is available free online at https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6bycfa