Agatha Christie is one of those writers I can depend upon to invariably entertain. Often, her books are downright brilliant; the occasional book may not quite match her own standards, but it’s a rare book that is so bad I would regret reading it.
It goes without saying, then, that I am always game for a film based on an Agatha Christie novel. Murder Most Foul is based on Christie’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead; the book was the 25th in the Hercule Poirot series, though the film (directed by George Pollock, with a script by Jack Seddon and David Pursall) made Miss Marple the detective.
The story begins late one night, as a village constable goes about his rounds. He heads for a pub (which is closed, but where he’s obviously expected). At the window, the policeman is handed a mug of beer, which he downs happily, while sitting at a bench outside. He’s so engrossed, he never realizes there’s high drama silhouetted in a nearby window.
His beer over, the policeman heads back the way he had come. This time, though, he happens to see the silhouette—now a woman hanging. He quickly rushes in, to find a man sitting on the floor, with currency notes scattered all across the floor, and a wilted rose beside the money.
The dead woman is Mrs McGinty, a widowed barmaid who had once been a small-time theatre actress. The man is her lodger, and given the fairly incriminating circumstances in which he’s been found, he is quickly arrested.
As the credits roll, we see the man on trial. Amongst the jury is Miss Marple (Margaret Rutherford), and she ends up being the only one unconvinced of his guilt. When the jury meets to discuss the case and arrive at a verdict, Miss Marple stands firm. It’s because of her that the jury is unable to come to a decision, and the judge—rather disgruntled—has to agree to an adjournment.
Miss Marple, talking to her old friend Jim Stringer (Stringer Davis), says she’s certain the lodger didn’t kill Mrs McGinty – because the withered rose lying beside Mrs McGinty indicates that she had worn a rose to greet whoever had come to meet her. And why would Mrs McGinty have harboured any romantic feelings towards this man? (this is a logic I find a little shaky; surely a rose may be worn for wholly decorative purposes, and in any case, I see no reason to assume that a rose found lying by itself on the floor might be automatically assumed to have once been worn by the dead woman).
Anyway, this is the basis for Miss Marple’s assertion that the lodger is not the culprit. Surely some clue will be found in Mrs McGinty’s belongings, says Miss Marple. Along with Stringer, she concocts a plan to visit the dead woman’s home, where Mrs McGinty’s sister (?) is now living.
While Stringer distracts the sister, Miss Marple searches through Mrs McGinty’s things. Besides the somewhat shabby clothing, she finds something interesting: a newspaper, with words cut out here and there.
Later, then, Miss Marple gets hold of a copy of the same newspaper, same edition, same date, and carefully, using the cut-up copy as a stencil, finds out what words were cut out. She ends up with an puzzling message:
Miss Marple comes to the conclusion that Mr McGinty was a blackmailer. She had composed this note to somebody she was blackmailing. The victim of her blackmailing had had enough, and came and murdered Mrs McGinty that night. But who was it? A clue may perhaps be found among the programme flyers—all of a single show (Agatha Christie’s Murder She Said), the same play being currently staged by a theatrical group (the Cosgood Players) that’s in town at present. That Mrs McGinty has so many flyers means she’s been to the play several times. Why? Did she see someone there? Was she blackmailing someone who’s part of the theatrical group?
While Miss Marple is figuring out all of this, she receives visitors: Inspector Craddock (Bud Tingwell) and his sergeant, the inspector having all along been annoyed by Miss Marple’s opposition to the indictment of a man he is certain is guilty. Miss Marple shares her suspicions with the policeman, and he begins to feel that perhaps she might have a point.
The long and the short of it is that Miss Marple decides she needs to go undercover—by joining the theatrical group, the Cosgood Players. The troupe is headed by Driffold Cosgood (Ron Moody) and Miss Marple has to do an audition for him. She lets drop the suggestion that she is fairly well-to-do, and might be (perhaps) persuaded to finance a production, and Cosgood—not well-heeled, and always looking for financiers—is so eager to please, he gives Miss Marple a place in the cast.
Barely has this pronouncement been made that there is, right in front of them, yet another murder. George Rowton (Maurice Good) stumbles onto the set, and falls down, dead. He’s been poisoned— but by whom?
It’s bound to be one of the Cosgood Players. These include, besides Driffold Cosgood, a cocky young man named Arthur (Neil Stacy):
The very odd young woman Eva McGonigall (Alison Seebohm), who claims to have what sounds like ESP. She keeps making weird predictions and hints about supernatural happenings and so on. A very strange woman indeed. As we discover in a short scene (of which Miss Marple is not a part), Eva was in love with George Rowton, so his murder has affected her even more deeply than it would have otherwise.
The other young woman in the group is Sheila (Francesca Annis), an heiress who is in love with a fellow actor, Bill (James Bolam). Bill and Sheila are going to be getting married, and they’re both very happy about it.
There is also an older couple, Maureen Summers (Pauline Jameson) and her husband Ralph (Ralph Michael). Ralph is an inveterate womanizer and Maureen, who knows all about his philandering ways, is very bitter about it.
To keep an eye on this lot, Miss Marple moves in with them at the boarding house where all of them are currently staying. The landlady takes her upstairs to the room that was previously occupied by George Rowton, and Miss Marple settles in. The first thing she sees when she pulls back the coverlet on the bed is this:
So ‘Remember September’ was not a message from Mrs McGinty to the person she was blackmailing! It was the name of a play. A play written by Driffold Cosgood, and—as Stringer finds out when he goes ferreting about at Miss Marple’s request—a play in which Mrs McGinty had played a part.
What lies beneath? What is the secret connected to this play, and to Cosgood’s Players, that led to the deaths of Mrs McGinty and George Rowton?
While the focal incident in this story—the killing of a widow named Mrs McGinty, and her lodger being accused of the deed—is the same as in Agatha Christie’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead, everything else is different. The original novel as Hercule Poirot as the detective, and the other elements, from the people around, to the clues, the red herrings, every single thing—is different. If you’ve read Mrs McGinty’s Dead and want to watch a cinematic adaptation of the novel, this is not it. At all.
What I liked about this film:
The general plot, the way the murderer is unearthed. It’s not Christie, but it’s good for something not Christie.
And, the absolutely brilliant theme music, Miss Marple’s Theme, composed by Ron Goodwin. I have heard this before (I have a creepy feeling it was used in some Hindi film), and I loved the way it crops up every now and then in this film, underlining all the action. Very infectious.
What I didn’t like:
The flippancy of it. From the joyful cheeriness of Miss Marple’s Theme (it is cheery, that’s a good bit of why I like it so much) to the farcical scenes at the theatre—Miss Marple acting, Cosgood blundering about—to Stringer’s supposedly amusing antics, there’s a light-heartedness here that’s a little macabre, given the circumstances. Also, somewhat along the same lines, Margaret Rutherford didn’t quite fit my image of Miss Marple, whom I’ve always thought of as looking very fragile and sweet, an old lady you’d imagine wrapped in cotton wool and incapable of doing anything very taxing when it comes to exerting herself. Miss Marple in Murder Most Foul is a rather formidable old lady, and downright athletic at times.
Overall, while this isn’t simply terrible, it’s not Christie.
(If you want to watch Murder Most Foul, a free version is available for viewing on Archive.org, here).