the Miss Marple films
Murder She Said (1961)
Murder at the Gallop (1963)
Murder Most Foul (1964)
Murder Ahoy (1964)
Created in 1930, Agatha Christie's spinster detective Miss Jane Marple was brought to life on film starting in 1961 and starred comic actress Margaret Rutherford. Christie - and her more devoted fans - were less than delighted with Rutherford's portrayal; after all, the book heroine is a thin, mannered, very old-school British widow while the onscreen version is plump, boisterous, self-reliant, and takes no crap from anybody. But over time both versions have gained legions of fans, and not without reason. The Miss Marple films represent old-fashioned murder mysteries in a postwar Britain that doesn't exist any more... unfortunately.
Murder She Said was the first of the films, released in 1961. It was based upon Christie's 1957 novel 4:50 From Paddington (which was renamed What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! in the U.S. to give it more oomph) and dealt with Miss Marple witnessing a murder on a train; upon reporting the incident to the police, no body can be found, and so the elderly woman undertook to investigate the situation herself. The success of this film led to Murder at the Gallop in 1963, which was based on another Christie book After the Funeral, which was a novel featuring Hercule Poirot rather than Marple herself. Murder Most Foul (based on another Poirot book, Mrs. McGinty's Dead) and Murder Ahoy! (the weakest of the films, based on no original novel) were both released in 1964, bringing the series to an end.
What attracts the modern viewer to these films is either the lead character, or the nature of the cozy mystery, or both.
The lead character herself, Miss Jane Marple, is fun to watch because she is absolutely fearless and also absolutely capable. A child of prewar Britain, she's led a fascinating life and encountered so many different sorts of people that she knows how to deal with practically everyone she meets, of all social classes. Although she is the model of British decorum, she doesn't allow propriety to impede her investigations: she will step on a person's toes (literally) or take a job as a maid to achieve her goal. Throughout the series she displays a variety of skills from fencing to equestrianship to a knowledge of chemistry and poisons! Her friend and assistant, Mr. Stringer (played by Stringer Davis, Rutherford's real-life husband) is wonderful as the bumbling, fearful companion.
The 'cozy' mystery format is one which is beloved to millions of readers as well as viewers of movies and television shows. It usually revolves around a friendly, inquisitive protagonist, usually elderly, who undertakes solving a murder or other serious crime within his or her small community. The protagonist is only an amateur sleuth, usually with one or more personality quirks. Cozy mysteries are by their very nature quaint and old-fashioned and - in the case of series characters - repetitive regarding their main elements of character, setting, and plot. The Miss Marple films are perfect cozy mysteries in that they take place in a vanished Britain - the postwar period in which most citizens still lived in villages and the most technological gadget they knew of was the telephone.
The films are a lot of fun, mostly for watching the elderly Miss Marple outsmart everyone around her, from the plotting murderers themselves to exasperated police inspector Craddock. The films move briskly and there is always plenty of humorous as well as suspenseful moments to keep things interesting. And, even though it is obviously a fiction, it's fun watching the lead character as she goes from the unknown to the known, weighing each clue to solve the case. But Miss Marple isn't simply a thinker - she's a doer who's willing to get her hands dirty in the cause of justice. She is, in fact, an inspiration: after all, if an overweight, middle-aged lady can be so intelligent, brave, and resourceful, why can't the rest of us?