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.