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I’m proposing to allow myself to be frightened to death.

Movie

Murder at the Gallop
(1963)

 

Pairing Margaret Rutherford and Robert Morley was a stroke of genius and does much of the heavy – ahem – lifting here. Which is a jolly good thing, as the actual plot in this second of the Rutherford Miss Marples strains credulity on several occasions.

Hector: I’m proposing that you should keep your saddle here permanently.

It’s such a long time since I last saw this series, I can’t recall if I noticed the running gag of Miss Marple being proposed to by one of her stuffy old suspects at the end of each adventure. Morley was sixteen years younger than Rutherford, but he looks significantly more age appropriate than James Robertson Justice (fifteen years younger!) did. There’s an infectious sense of enthusiasm to their scenes, much of it brought on by the delight with which Gallo Hotel Riding Establishment proprietor Hector Enderby (Morley) greets a proper lady like Miss Marple, an experienced equestrian who was “Junior Silver Brockbrook, 1910”. What’s more, she has a Broadbreech side saddle circa 1885! Hector, who proudly tells Jane “Every chair in the room is stuffed with the hair of horses I’ve loved” is turned down, of course, but concludes “That was a very narrow escape” when Jane offers the parting nugget that “I disapprove of blood sports”.

Murder at the Gallop was adapted from a non-Marple Christie, 1953’s After the Funeral, featuring none other than Hercules Parrot. To be fair to James P Cavanagh – who wrote the first screenplay for Psycho before Joseph Stefano stepped in – he’s faithful to the basic conceit of Christie’s murderer, one that may well stand up better on the page than screen ( the riding stable is entirely Cavanagh’s creation, and one wonders which came first, the title or the relocation; the death and means thereof of Robert Uquhart’s George Crossfield are also added, so Cavanagh must cop the full blame for that one).

We learn that Miss Milchrest (Dame Flora Robson) is the one who did for Cora Lansquenet, a painter and sister of Mr Enderby (Finlay Currie), seen offed at the outset. Miss Milchrest posed as Cora at reading of the will, where she claimed Mr Enderby was murdered, this being a ruse to allow her to kill Cora – for a painting owned by Cora she’d deemed worthless but which is very valuable – and place suspicion on the family members. None of this bears close inspection.

In the novel, we’re told it has been more than two decades since Cora has seen any of her family. We might very charitably assume only the deceased ever met her, as there is a reference to Enderby’s gratitude that she “stayed out of the country for thirty years and didn’t bother me”, in concert with his generally dyspeptic hope that the inheritance – equal shares of about £25,000, or £382,000 as of 2021 – “will make them all as miserable as possible”. Nevertheless, her showing up to the reading of the will shrouded in a veil and sunglasses invites suspicion. Later she’s required to don this “disguise” again – I’m presuming so the deception is telegraphed to a stupid audience – having hatched the idea of appearing to an ill Miss Marple in an attempt to persuade her to return her picture (“You stole it!”) It’s all very thin, if not outright dim. The painting she does the deed for is pegged at £50,000, or £764,000 in today’s money.

Miss Marple: You have read Agatha Christie’s remarkable novel, The Ninth Life?

In the novel, Enderby (Abernethie) dies of natural causes. Here, in the first of two highly unlikely murders, he is a victim to his “pathological fear of cats”, which triggers a fatal heart attack. In support of her case, Jane cites (fictional) Christie novel The Ninth Life, wherein “Doom came to her victim in the shape of a cat”. This is a delightfully meta conceit, with Marple, very much following her and Stringer as amateur crime-fiction-fan sleuths from Murder She Said, advising “Agatha Christie should be compulsory reading for the police force”. Clearly, this is a universe where Christie doesn’t write Jane Marple novels. I guess that’s why she’s appearing in a Poirot adaptation… I presume her reading of Enderby’s death is supposed to be accurate, as we see a very vicious stuffed feline leap out at her soon after, but elsewhere, she does rather leap to rash conclusions; the mud recovered at Enderby’s house reveals an imprint of art dealer/ Enderby cousin Crossfield’s shoe, but her assumption he’s the killer is scuppered when he winds up dead.

Miss Marple: Ever read a murder thriller that stops at a single killing?

Killer animals are a theme in this one, probably the least reliable method of murder unless you’ve a venomous snake or spider in a pertinent position. So Crossfield is locked in the stable with a horse that obligingly tramples him to death. Despite such slender territory, the Marple-on-the-scene material works like a dream, with the family members gradually growing suspicious of her presence and showing various degrees of motive (Hector, on an alibi, admits that while “Unusual for an English woman to be reading when she could be riding, but it is possible”).

There’s also niece Rosamund (Katya Douglas) and her husband Michael (James Villiers, bringing his standard line in sarcastic inquiry to bear; he can also be seen in You Must be Joking! and The Wrong Box around this period). There’s a requisite surly serf type who menaces Marple (“Prying old busybody”); as in Murder She Said, he is called Hillman (although played by Duncan Lamont, of Death to the Daleks fame, this time). Kevin Stoney also appears, while Stringer Davis is less foregrounded than in Murder She Said.

Inspector Craddock: You’re not here to tell me I’ve overlooked another crime, by any chance?

Bud Tingwell also makes a welcome return as Inspector Craddock, lightly amused/concerned/combative towards the sleuth (“A tittle-tattling busybody, I believe were his words”) and eliciting Marple’s staunch resolve when he ignores her theories (“They have their methods. We have ours”). Miss Marple happens upon the dying Enderby while collecting for The Reformed Criminals Assistance League, which is rather amusing (not everyone wishes to donate). There’s also a fun scene on the way to Marple feigning a heart attack, whereby she leads Mr Stringer in a dance of new-fangled music (having earlier reminded Hector of earlier times and how her mother was horrified when she caught her doing the Charleston).

While it isn’t altogether satisfying as a murder yarn, then, Murder at the Gallop more than compensates in terms of breezy comedic interactions, which is what you want from a Rutherford Marple. That, and Ron Goodwin’s marvellous theme.

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