Murder at the Gallop [1963]

Never mind purists who bemoan Margaret Rutherford's incarnation of Agatha Christie's celebrated spinster sleuth. These four British films, produced between 1961 and 64, are jolly good, regardless of their tenuous connection with Miss Marple as written, or with Christie herself. One of the films, in fact, Murder Ahoy, is an original screenplay credited as "an interpretation of Miss Marple." And two others, Murder at the Gallop and Murder Most Foul were based on books featuring Christie's other famed detective, Hercule Poirot." But no matter. The redoubtable Rutherford indelibly makes Marple her very own, or, as she proclaims to Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell), with whom she locks horns throughout all four films, "I am always myself." Rutherford makes a formidable first impression in Murder She Said, based on Christie's 4:50 from Paddington, in which the armchair sleuth goes undercover as a servant after witnessing a murder on a train. In Murder at the Gallop, based on After the Funeral, where there's a will, there's murder. In Murder Ahoy, Marple discovers a ship of thieves. In Murder Most Foul, Marple deadlocks a jury and joins a theatrical troupe to prove the defendant's innocence. The Marple films are endearingly modest productions, redeemed by peerless performances and mostly sharp scripts. Ron Goodwin's theme music used in all four films is an irresistible piece of '60s symphonic pop that's a classical gas. None of the actors are suspect. Rutherford gets able support from her real-life husband, Stringer Davis, who portrays Marple's Watson-esque sidekick. Venerable character actors Robert Morley and Ron Moody enliven Gallop and Foul, respectively. And in Murder She Said, that's Joan Hickson, who would go on to acclaim as Miss Marple in the celebrated BBC series (also available on DVD). But it's tough to steal a scene from Rutherford, whose Marple displays a keen mind, and, in Ahoy, surprising prowess with a sword! --Donald Liebenson

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