Final Cut: Murder, She Said (1961)

SIMON MATTHEWS on George Pollock’s 1961 film Murder, She Said.

Who reads Agatha Christie now? Other than retro whodunnit buffs, it would seem that it’s millions studying English as a second language. All keenly using Ms Christie’s dialogue to master globalisation’s lingua franca.

More to the point, who watches The Mousetrap these days? More than 75 years after its debut as a radio play, written to entertain Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, it’s still packing them in London’s West End, where it began its run in November 1952. Back then it was a mainstream, polished and very typical piece of theatrical hardware, with a big star (Richard Attenborough) and an expectation that it would enjoy a decent run. Which meant about a year, tops. Aware of the need to protect the commercial viability of her output, Christie decreed when it opened that only one UK production, in addition to the West End production, could be performed annually, and no film adaptation was to be made until the West End production had been closed for at least six months.

When The Mousetrap broke the record for the longest West End run in September 1957, they must have thought they were reaching the end point: shortly afterwards United Artists announced a film version, to star Tyrone Power. You can see their logic. The previous year a film of Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (which opened in London after Mousetrap) was a commercial and critical hit, nominated for six Academy Awards. It starred Power, Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, with Billy Wilder directing. The time must have seemed right to cash-in and repeat this, but Power died in November 1958, whilst filming in Italy, and the project was shelved.  

After which, to everyone’s surprise, the play just kept running. It outlasted the Royal Court and its angry young men, improv, audience participation, nude reviews, fiercely political polemics, juke-box musicals and any number of short-term trends. The stage equivalent of Coronation Street, except the plot never changes, you might have expected it to fade away, rather like Dixon of Dock Green in the mid-1970s. Instead, it moved to the theatre next door and kept going with almost 30,000 performances to date. Approximately 16 million people have seen it.

A visit to The Mousetrap, now the longest running play in the world, ranks alongside the Changing of the Guard and the Tower of London as obvious ways to spend time (and money) on your UK vacation. Like both these comparators, it provides a typically ‘English’ experience (albeit one that escapes many of the locals) with the weirdness of something that opened when Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne, is still running after her demise, and even bounced back from the Covid shutdown, barely being considered.

Nor is this phenomenon restricted to tourists. Gosford Park, a sort of thoughtful, literary version of Christie’s play, set in the obligatory stately home, was a runaway success, particularly in the Anglosphere, in 2001. (Like Witness for the Prosecution it too was nominated for six Academy Awards, though it did actually win in one category: Best Original Screenplay).

But anyway. Criticism of Christie is superfluous. ‘The best-selling novelist in history’, she earnt millions per annum during her lifetime, with over 30 of her books, plays and stories being adapted for film and TV. Her legacy today, apart from The Mousetrap, must surely be the on-going Marple and Poirot franchises. It was the former of these that came first to the screen, via Murder, She Said in 1961.

In the MGM film, Murder, She Said has Margaret Rutherford in the title role, alongside US star Arthur Kennedy. Whilst lacking the appeal of Dietrich, Power or Laughton, this gave it some transatlantic ballast. Kennedy was a fair choice, known in serious circles as the go-to man for Arthur Miller and Jean Anouilh on Broadway. Shot in black and white, it starts at an agreeably pre-Beeching Paddington Station – hardly surprising, given it’s an adaptation of Christie’s 1957 book 4.50 from Paddington – and plays rather like Murder on the Oxford Express. The opening titles appear, accompanied by a jaunty, poppy theme. You almost expect to see Adam Faith’s name rolling up the screen. Similar to John Barry, the music was actually composed by Ron Goodwin, who did Peter Sellers’s big hits. Released as a single by Parlophone in September 1961, it was produced by George Martin at around the time he was being told guitar groups were on the way out.

Thus, the tone is set at the very beginning: semi-comic, like an Ealing comedy or 1930s Hitchcock and certainly no Psycho. The plot has Marple seeing a passenger being strangled in a compartment with partially drawn curtains on a train passing her own at slightly greater speed on a parallel line. She tells the guard. He phones ahead when they reach the next station, and the faster train is stopped some miles away and searched. Nothing is found; nobody saw or heard anything. The police dismiss her claims.

Bad move by them. Marple quickly works out where the body was dumped and the action defaults to a country house near the railway, where she obtains employment as a domestic help. The occupants are a bedridden patriarch (a reliable turn here from James Robertson Justice) and his scheming, unpleasant sons. One of these is a supercilious, precocious teenage schoolboy, in shorts, cap and blazer, who by today’s standards acts as if he’s about nine years old. It all rattles along quite nicely to a denouement on a stormy night, when the police, finally on the case at last, gather the suspects in the drawing room. It’s enjoyable middle-brow stuff.

The plot has holes in it, of course, one of which is about 50 feet wide. Specifically, the scene of the crime: BR Mk 1 Coaching Stock. The murderer would need to drag the body along a narrow corridor, past all the other compartments, to one of the doors at the end of the carriage, open the door when the train was moving (quite difficult), throw the body out and well clear of the train (very difficult) and then either close the door (ditto) or jump out afterwards (risking death) whilst leaving the door flapping behind them. The idea that no one would see this, or hear anything, is preposterous. But who watches Agatha Christie for logical plot development?

Murder, She Said did well. It was a popular film, especially in Germany where its portrayal of English social mores was thought hugely amusing. It spawned three sequels, two of which were re-written from Poirot stories. Watching it today one is struck by an underlying quirkiness. Spinsters are unusually plentiful, as they might have been in post-1919 England, and are of severe countenance. Marple herself is one, a portly, late middle-aged woman, occasionally given to donning men’s clothes. (As a disguise). She is attended by a slightly pathetic, servile little man, played in the film by Stringer Davis, Rutherford’s husband in real life. Apparently, he didn’t have to act much in this part, that of a bachelor librarian, which isn’t in Christie’s book. That and the fussy dialogue gives it a veneer of campness that is probably unintended.

Or is it? After all, Rutherford made her name as the definitive Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Her marriage to Stringer was late, and didn’t produce children. Instead, a year after making Murder, She Said, they adopted (emotionally, if not legally) Dawn Simmonds, a pioneering transexual, who as Gordon Hall, was brought up at Sissinghurst, and knew Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicholson and Virginia Woolf. Simmonds seems to have drawn immense inspiration from Orlando, Woolf’s 1928 novel with its androgynous central character.

All of this is lurking just below the surface in the film, and conspicuously absent from the many later portrayals of Marple by Angela Lansbury, Joan Hickson, June Whitfield and Geraldine McEwan. Even more camouflaged to the casual viewer – then and now – are how Rutherford’s ‘eccentricity’ connects with a wider political picture.

She was a Benn, the neice of Sir John Benn, who was knocking around in Parliament when Gladstone was PM, and a cousin of William Wedgewood Benn (Viscount Stansgate),whose political ascent paralleled her rise to prominence on the London stage. All of which made her an auntie of sorts to Tony Benn. Sadly, the family had baggage. Her father, William Benn, was committed to Broadmoor at one point, her mother committed suicide, and as an adult Rutherford herself also had spells in asylums as well as ECT. One wonders if the gossipy references by political rivals and the UK media from the early 1970s onwards about Tony Benn being ‘mad’ or in some unspecified way deranged, weren’t a subtle way of putting this into the public domain with a view to discrediting him.  

Certainly, a Benn government would have taken a very different economic path to the one pursued post-1979. North Sea oil revenues would have been invested in a vast industrial modernization and a huge, expanded, welfare state. How ironic that he should have a connection to the Christie oeuvre, the world of The Mousetrap, Marple and Poirot which is now the embodiment of the UK tourist economy, with its antique class-ridden assumptions and chocolate-box settings. Until that changes, why not be grateful for life’s minor pleasures and while away a rainy afternoon in the company of Ms Rutherford and her supporting cast.

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