Miss Marple and the theme music from Murder She Said


Back in 1961, the film Murder She Said was released with Margaret Rutherford playing the role of Miss Marple, the amateur detective featured in many Agatha Christie mystery novels. In the books, Miss Marple is an elderly, small-built, demure, soft-spoken character who solves mysteries largely by engaging in conversation and gossip with everyone. Rutherford’s portrayal was as different as you can imagine, except for age. Rutherford’s Marple was a fearless, feisty, tough woman with bulldog determination who spoke her mind and brooked no nonsense even from the exasperated police inspector who tries to stop her from interfering in his investigations. She was heavy-set, very active, a vigorous, bustling, busybody, an expert horse rider and fencer who was more than willing to go undercover to solve mysteries.

Rutherford carried off this extreme transformation by the sheer force of her personality and even Agatha Christie, who disliked the film because it took so much liberties with the story and subordinated the suspense for the sake of comedy, was so impressed with this re-imagining of her iconic character that she dedicated a 1963 Miss Marple book The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side to Rutherford “in admiration”.

The film was a success and one of the reasons was the memorable theme music composed and directed by Ron Goodwin. It became a hit in its own right and was played on heavy rotation on Sri Lankan radio. It has aged well and I still enjoy listening to it. It used guitars to provide the underlying driving rhythm to evoke train motion, with a bevy of violins soaring above them with the catchy melody. The bouncy vigorous music suited Rutherford’s vision of the character more than the book depiction. Here it is during the opening credits that shows Rutherford marching along the station platform with a porter in tow, clearly someone who is used to being in charge of things.

The success of this film resulted in three more films within the next three years all with the same theme music, Murder at the Gallop, Murder Most Foul, and Murder Ahoy. From the beginning the films were basically comedy-mysteries and the humor got increasingly campy as they went on. They were good fun.

The later successful American TV series Murder She Wrote was clearly inspired by those films and by Rutherford. Angela Lansbury, who played the detective Jessica Fletcher in the TV show, had herself once played Miss Marple in 1980 in a film adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.

Comments

  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    This was a huge change of pace for the American actor Arthur Kennedy, who was mainly known for Westerns and “serious” crime films in the US.

  2. flex says

    Our favorite Mrs. Marple. We have all the films on DVD and when we need a pickup we’ll get them out.

    Margaret Rutherford is just a wonderful character, she’s been in a lot of movies, many of which we haven’t seen. But we have seen the 1945 Blithe Spirit, and the 1952 Castle in the Air, both of which are great fun. But the other movies don’t have the music (what a great bouncy tune), or her husband Stringer Davis in them. I don’t think Stringer Davis was much of an actor, but he was enjoyable to watch.

  3. Mano Singham says

    flex @#2,

    According to his Wikipedia page, they were a devoted couple and appeared together in more than 20 productions:

    “After the war, Davis resumed his acting career with the film Miranda (1948), which also featured Rutherford. Overall, Davis appeared in more than 20 films with his wife. In later years, she made it a condition of her contract that Davis would play a part in any film in which she appeared.[5] Most notably, this clause led to Davis being cast as the mild-mannered librarian Mr Stringer in four adaptations of Agatha Christie novels featuring Rutherford as Miss Marple in the early 1960s. The gentle, timid Mr Stringer was Davis’s most celebrated role, gaining good reviews.”

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Nearly forgot. Murder, She Said featured Joan Hickson, who went on to play Miss Marple on TV in the 80s. She was the best Marple, IMO. But Rutherford was wonderful in her own inimitable way.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    Joan Hickson (or Dame Joan these days?) had her 96th birthday this weekend. She is the last actress of that generation.

  6. Mobius says

    Very catchy. I do not recall the music, though I like it. But I was all of 7 when it came out. And my family wasn’t big on listening to music on the radio.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    I too, own all of Maggie’s Miss Marple films on DVD. I’m late to the party, so most of my comments have already been said, but I do have a comment on the theme music:
    This film coincided with a brief revival of interest in the harpsichord, serendipitously (a word I’ve always wanted to use here, since you are from the island of Serendip, Mano). The harpsichord was often used at the time to invoke old times, although it was certainly not an instrument that Maggie Rutherford would have listened to often when she was a young woman. It has no sustain (notes cannot be held), unlike the pipe organ that J. S. Bach favored or the piano-forte of Beethoven’s time, so it demands short, fluttery notes which fit in well with the Jazz and Rock and Roll of the time. So, while Ron Goodwin absolutely deserves applause for his score, a big part of its fun is accidentally due to the whims of its day.

  8. Mano Singham says

    moarscienceplz @#8,

    So the other instrument that carried the melody was a harpsichord? I was trying to figure out what it was, so thanks for this information.

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