In the trailer for the 1961 film Murder She Said (based on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel 4.50 from Paddington) the audience is informed that ‘only’ Agatha Christie ‘can mix murder and mirth with such hilarious abandon’ as the movie professes to offer. This is a curious perspective, as Margaret Rutherford’s portrayal of the elderly sleuth was a considerable deviation from Christie’s original Miss Marple character, who prided herself on solving mysteries thanks to quiet observation and her knowledge of village life. The novels contained flashes of wit and warm humour, but could not be described as outright comedies. However, Rutherford’s Miss Marple throws herself into murderous adventures with amusing gusto (even soliciting the help of the audience in specially shot sequences for this first trailer), whether they entail her masquerading as a maid (in Murder She Said), doing the twist at a party (in 1963’s Murder at the Gallop, based on the Poirot novel After the Funeral – a character substitution that Christie felt was an unforgivable alteration), or dressing up as an admiral (in 1964’s Murder Ahoy, which was mostly an original story).
By the time of Murder Ahoy the force of Rutherford’s personality and comedic characterisation overshadowed everything else, with the poster showing her clutching an Academy Award (won for 1963’s The V.I.P.s) while waterskiing. Audiences who came to the films later would not have witnessed any attempts to situate the films within the literary canon of Christie, and are more likely to accept them for what they are – extremely broad but largely entertaining reinterpretations of some basic Christie elements. This more relaxed approach to viewing the films has enabled them to take on their own nostalgic resonance for many.
By 1965 Christie was so upset with MGM that she no longer dealt with film discussions directly, the final straw being the original script for an adaptation of The ABC Murders, reimagined as a sex comedy starring a lecherous Poirot (the final version dispensed with the more outrageous material, and featured Rutherford in a cameo, her final appearance in the role). The fractious relationship with MGM cast a long shadow on film adaptations, ensuring that extra caution was taken when dealing with the studios – an approach that eventually resulted in the critical and commercial success of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express.