Agatha Christie tales were in a mostly B-movie limbo in the 1960s, despite Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and would have to wait another decade before glorious all-star resurrection in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974). In the meantime, audiences made do with Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple in an MGM quartet – all directed by George Pollock – that ended with Murder Ahoy! Rutherford did not enjoy the national treasure status of the likes of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench these days but she had been elevated to late-career fame by winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The VIPs (1963). But she never quite made the cinematic impact anticipated after Blithe Spirit (1945) and she was mostly seen in roles that called for eccentricity or determination, characteristics associated with Christie’s second most famous sleuth.
The title had led me to expect a picture set on a liner or a cruise ship. Instead, this being a cheaply-made British black-and-white feature, we are limited to a sojourn on a sail training ship which remains moored at all times. Nonetheless, Rutherford is resplendent in naval attire and disports herself as if she were the captain. Her excuse to get on board is the sudden death of a member of the committee overseeing said ship just before he makes an announcement. Miss Marple relies on a good deal more than Hercule Poirot on little grey cells and through laboratory experiment determines the man died from strychnine poisoning. Among her other hidden talents are signaling mastery and dexterity with a sword and she drops popcorn on corridor floors to warn of imminent arrivals when she invades cabins. The suspects include Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon) at his pompous best, Derek Nimmo (BBC’s Oh, Brother), and William Mervyn while Nicholas Parsons (ITV game show Sale of the Century) makes an appearance as a doctor, described in double entendre fashion as “brisk.”
Naturally, there is more murder, and the subplots include burglary, secret romance (Joan Benham) and thwarted romance (Norma Foster). However, nothing can deter Miss Marple and she soon puts the world to rights. It’s an engrossing enough little film, the resolution a surprise, and Rutherford has skill and charm enough to almost trademark the role. At one time in the 1960s in the USA the Marple pictures were revived as double bills but generally in Britain treated with less regard. Although you could argue that MGM could have bolstered the standards of production, much of the merit derives from the quaintness and the quintessential English lives portrayed. As a bonus there are moments of well-observed comedy and a very inventive score from Ron Goodwin whose 633 Squadron appeared the same year.