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Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Murder at the Gallop (1963) George Pollock

Miss Marple was a justly famous fictional detective who sprang from the pen of Dame Agatha Christie and it's only natural that Hollywood would pay attention and turn some of the stories into movies. Unfortunately Hollywood wasn't very good at translating books into films and sometimes indulged in the most bizarre behaviour that could only lead us to wonder what planet some studio executives lived on.

As a great example, by the time they got to this, the second Miss Marple film, they decided to base it instead on After the Funeral, an Hercule Poirot novel, a completely different yet equally famous fictional detective from Christie's pen. While massacring Miss Marple's character for the filmgoing public and probably upsetting every one of the millions of Christie fans worldwide in the process, they indulged in the ultimate irony of having Miss Marple herself come out with a line like 'Agatha Christie should be compulsory reading for the police force.' Stunning.

While collecting money for the Reformed Criminals Assistance League, Miss Marple knocks on the door of old Mr Enderby, notorious curmudgeon. The door is open and old Enderby promptly falls down the stairs in front of them, ending up dead. While taking a look, possibly the worst leaping cat I've ever seen on film leaps out and points out in no uncertain terms to Miss Marple that he was murdered, because she naturally knows that the notoriously reclusive old Enderby is morbidly afraid of cats and has a bad heart. Just as naturally Inspector Craddock doesn't believe a word of it so there's nothing to it but for Miss Marple to investigate herself.

It's a testament to the talent of Margaret Rutherford, with occasional help from her real life husband Stringer Davis as sidekick Mr Stringer, that this is huge fun. Otherwise it would seem to be a cross between heresy and a poor attempt at humour, though thrown on top of a pretty decent mystery. Rutherford is completely not Miss Marple anyway, even when the Miss Marple story she's in is really based on a real Miss Marple story, like this one's predecessor, Murder She Said. One of the other actors in that film, Joan Hickson, later played Miss Marple on television and played her far closer to how she should have been played. To be fair, Christie herself enjoyed Rutherford's characterisation and even dedicated a novel to her, and to be brutally honest it's nigh on impossible not to enjoy anything Margaret Rutherford ever did.

Here she has another great English institution as a co-star, though Robert Morley seems to be far more interested in playing a statue than anything else for a while. He sounds awesome and becomes truly alive the moment horseriding comes into a conversation. Putting Rutherford and Morley into the same film guarantees at least plenty to enjoy, however poor the rest of the film might be. Katya Douglas, James Villers and Robert Urquhart are perfectly fine as some of old Enderby's beneficiaries, Morley and a quickly deceased sister being the others. Flora Robson is also admirably good as that sister's companion. One of them, of course, is the murderer.

It was never ever going to be really possible to notice anyone but Rutherford and Morley though. They both shine, Rutherford especially in what was a seriously good year for her. She started it out appearing in The Mouse on the Moon and ended it with a Best Supporting Oscar for her work in The VIPs. This film can't be fairly discussed in the same breath but it's so much fun watching her that it can't be dismissed outright.

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