Every few months or so, when Silverwolf tires of getting his financial knee well up into the marriage prospects of the Stralasian Dollar kangaroo-butchers, and the Nacadian Dollar baby-seal clubbers, he takes some R-and-R by kicking back and watching one of his old grainy video tapes. And on this occasion, moved by some unknown whimsy, he happened to decide on Margaret Rutherford’s minor Miss Marple masterpiece, Murder At the Gallop (1963, George Pollock, director,) co-starring Robert Morley, Flora Robson and Charles Tingwell. It also features the lovable Stringer Davis, as Mr. Stringer, and it is interesting to watch the interaction between Rutherford and Davis because they were married in real life. Since, prior to 1965, persons over sixty were not permitted to have sex in England, Margaret and Stringer had to been made elderly single friends for the film to apparently get past the British censors. Things have loosened up since Sir Mick came on the scene.
The film begins with the usual believability of a Christie mystery. Miss Marple (Rutherford) and Mr. Stringer are collecting for some local charity and decide to visit the elderly wealthy recluse, Mr. Enderby. Finding the door open, they enter his mansion just at the moment that Mr. Enderby emerges at the top of the stairs, clutching his heart, and topples down the entire flight to his death. (And here Silverwolf would like to ask how it is that these elderly reclusive men, living in these huge mansions, manage to do all the housekeeping on their own?) It turns out that Enderby was scared to death of cats, and someone has planted one in his house, to trigger the heart attack that was likely because Enderby had a weak heart. Sure. I’ll believe you, Agatha. Thousands wouldn’t. The typical farfetchedness of Christie, trying to work the sticky bits back into the hole of her narrative.
Perhaps the best acting in the film, apart from Miss Rutherford, is conveyed by the portly but meticulous image of Robert Morley. With his characteristic cool aplomb of the Tory Country Squire, Morley is superb as the owner of a horse-riding club, replete with accommodations for weekending couples. Very top-hole indeed. Morley, as Hector Enderby, the brother of the former deceased Enderby and also Cora Lanskonie, and only one amongst numerous relations of that former wealthy woman, now deceased, only seems to light up when it comes to horses, saddles, and the hunt, and so it is that Miss Marple manages to insinuate herself into his riding establishment. Catching a glimpse of her strange and archaic saddle, Morley begins to rave about it, quotes a date of it’s making about 60 years in the past, then excuses himself and revises it down a few years. He suddenly recognizes Miss Marple’s name as having won a riding contest about a thousand years before, in her youth. And it’s truly hard to image the bag-eyed, slack jawed Margaret Rutherford as ever having been a young girl. It’s also interesting to contrast Rutherford’s weathered visage, making her look older than her years should have dictated, against the salubrious and well-preserved corpus of Stringer Davis, her husband. Silverwolf wonders if Rutherford was into tobacco or the juice? But that doesn’t stop one from loving her as an actress, and routing for her performance. It’s eldritch to think that this actress, who could memorize so many lines, and play so subtly, should end with Alzheimers.
Playing contrapuntally to the characters of Rutherford and Morley is Charles Tingwell as the hard-headed young inspector, who dislikes both Rutherford’s meddling in the case and Morley’s frigid Tory sangfroid in the face of a murder charge. Morley doesn’t like the fact that the police presence is hurting his custom, even though it’s his own brother and sister who’ve been murdered.
Finally, there’s the beautifully homely Flora Robson, the long-careered film actress who had played Elizabeth I in younger days. Her magnificent ugliness almost made her beautiful, and it sure took guts to be a woman actress with such a face in an age that was starting to worship the visage wonderful. Robson gives a top-notch performance as Miss Millcrest, the mild-mannered, milquetoast assistant to the former Cora. Blended with her are three or four minor character actors, whose names have been lost to posterity, like those one-hit bands of forty years ago, who disappeared after their first albums. After seeing their wooden, mundane, and prosaic performances, you will appreciate better the talents of Morley, Rutherford, Tingwell, and Robson, and why Silverwolf doesn’t even bother to mention them by name. Let’s be generous and say they fill out the canvas of the film.
One should also mention the treat of seeing Maggie and Stringer do the Twist out on the dance floor. A bygone memory of a bygone age. Nor to be forgotten is the interesting musical score by Ron Goodwin. His use of the harpsichord, playing solo notes, was very effective at creating an eldritch atmosphere, both in this and the other Rutherford-Marple productions.
The ending, and the solution to the mystery of this Agatha Christie-factory product, are top-hole, and follow the typical Christie cataclysmic denouement on the visual screen. We can barely recall seeing this film as a young wolfcub and enjoying it, or perhaps it was another in the series of four “Miss Marples” Rutherford made. When you’re a young cub, there’s nothing like a mystery at the Saturday Matinee, with an old witch solving a murder, somewhere in Civil Rural England. Enough to make you forget you had to go back to school on Monday with the humans.
In all, marvellous escapist better-quality junk, done by some superb actors. Nice clean engrossing fare to remove one’s brain from reality, for an hour and some. All in all, the Wolfmen’s Critics Kinematicus Circle declares it a Minor Masterpiece. And thus we get our title, Maggie Rutherford’s Minor Miss Marple Masterpiece.
We’ll howl our approval of the Wolmen’s Circle designation, and consign our agreement with that august body.
Hooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! — Silverwolf