A&E // 1992 // 936 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski // April 7th, 2006
"She's a little old lady who knits and wears lace. She also has a mind like a bacon slicer. It's a very good disguise."
Agatha Christie's Miss Marple: Classic Mysteries Collection offers a huge helping of the charming spinster sleuth. Watch as she rubs elbows with England's rich and famous -- and then exposes them as liars, cheaters, thieves, and murderers.
This five-disc set contains nine of the 12 Miss Marple mysteries produced for the BBC in the '80s and '90s:
* A Caribbean Mystery, 1989
One of Miss Marple's many "nephews" treats her to a vacation in the Caribbean while she recovers from an illness, but just as she is getting bored with lounging on the beach, a doddering old gentleman at her hotel turns up dead. To catch the killer, Miss Marple enlists the help of eccentric millionaire Jason Rafiel who can present her ideas to the local police who may not trust the insights of a nosy old English lady on holiday. Donald Pleasance has a charming guest role as Rafiel and it's rather delightful to see Miss Marple so out of her element, yet still so tenacious and brilliant when it comes to her case. The mystery itself, though, is nothing special.
* The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, 1992
Movie star Marina Gregg has just moved into a big manor house in Miss Marple's village, St. Mary Mead. Willing to keep up the traditions of the former owners, Gregg hosts a huge garden party for all the villagers on her property. Miss Marple's new friend -- and Gregg's biggest fan -- Heather is delighted to attend, but her joy turns to tragedy when she sips a poisoned cocktail. Miss Marple must not only discover the killer, but determine the intended victim, since the poison may not have reached its intended target.
* Sleeping Murder, 1987
A young couple moves to England from Australia only to find their new house strangely familiar. When they are introduced to Miss Marple by a friend, she helps the wife, Gwenda, remember that she lived in the house as a very young child. As they investigate Gwenda's visions of a woman's body in the hallway, Miss Marple begins to recognize evidence of a "sleeping murder." After many years, the perpetrator may have to kill again to keep the truth buried. Miss Marple's only foray into haunted house stories yields the best tale of the series, as well as some of the spinster sleuth's most memorable lines.
* 4:50 from Paddington, 1987
Miss Marple's visiting friend Elspeth witnesses a killing on a passing train from her own train cabin. With no body surfacing to prove the wrongdoing, Miss Marple must not only find who committed murder, but prove that it took place at all. When she reasons out the probable location of the body, she convinces a former employee to take a job at Rutherford Hall and search for it on the grounds there. Although the most unusual part of this mystery -- how to prove the murder happened at all -- is briskly dispatched, the sheer joy of the highly improbable unmasking scenario at the end more than makes up for this failing. A fish bone, indeed...
* The Moving Finger, 1985
A neighboring town is stricken with a series of "poison pen" letters -- ransom-style anonymous notes accusing villagers of various vices and moral transgressions. When a local woman is found dead with a suicide note, Miss Marple smells foul play. With a wealth of shady suspects to choose from, she hastens to prevent another "suicide." The young love in The Moving Finger is rather tiresome, particularly when it devolves into a bizarre My Fair Lady allusion montage. Otherwise, it's an enjoyable case.
* At Bertram's Hotel, 1987
Vacationing at London's classy Bertram's Hotel, Miss Marple begins to investigate the strange relationships among her fellow guests long before any evidence of foul play. Her restless nights and feelings of uneasiness are affirmed when the doorman is shot dead and a young heiress seems to be the next target. In a break from the early murder / second murder narrative structure, At Bertram's Hotel allows all its characters to survive past the first hour of its running time. Unfortunately, that makes the first hour a bit dull. Worse yet, the series' only big "chase scene" is quite a let-down.
* Murder at the Vicarage, 1986
After her gardening is interrupted by a gunshot, Miss Marple learns that the unpopular Colonel Protheroe has been murdered in her neighborhood. While all of St. Mary Mead seems to be lining up to confess, the ever-watchful Miss Marple racks her memory and grills local villagers to find the clues that will exonerate the false confessors and condemn the true murderer. Adapted from Christie's first Miss Marple novel, Murder at the Vicarage benefits from the greater attention paid to the cinematography and screenplay in this installment. The town of St. Mary Mead never again has so much personality, drama, and beauty as it does here.
* Nemesis, 1987
Jason Rafiel, Miss Marple's crime-solving counterpart in A Caribbean Mystery, dies and leaves his old "nemesis" Miss Marple some money -- if she agrees to solve an unexplained mystery. Her only clue is that she must take a specific bus tour of historic homes and gardens. Naturally, the other guests on the tour turn out to be more than they seem and one of them turns up dead. This time, Miss Marple must discover the original crime before she can unmask her fellow traveler's killer. Jane Marple is mesmerizing as she reveals this murderer in the best ending of the series.
* They Do It With Mirrors, 1991
Visiting a rich old friend who has been ill, Miss Marple is gathered with other guests to watch a film when two family members start a fierce argument in a neighboring room. When the power cuts out, two shots are fired and everyone fears the worst. Moments later, the two having the argument are alive while another man is dead. To solve this case, Miss Marple thinks back to a village bonfire during which all the onlookers' homes were robbed. She knows the argument was a diversion, but who took advantage of it?
Like the Agatha Christie novels on which they are based, these mysteries rely on well-established character types and conventions. They're not quite predictable, but they're all shaped by the same basic narrative mold. To explain said mold, I've penned my very own drinking game to accompany this set. The "take a sip" events happen often, the "take a gulp" events are unusual, and the "chug" events are extremely rare. So get your DVDs ready, mix a good bit of rum in with your favorite tea, and play...
Judge Jennifer Malkowski's Miss Marple Drinking Game
Take a sip
* If someone compares Miss Marple's mind to a sharp cutting implement
* If someone uses the words "gossipy," "old," "busybody," or "biddy" to describe Miss Marple
* If someone appears to have committed suicide
* If the murderer's motive is about either love or money
* If the murderer kills a second time to cover her/his tracks
* If Miss Marple feigns senility to get information
* If Miss Marple mutters something like "I'm afraid I've been very stupid about this whole thing" and then refuses to explain
* If someone calls Miss Marple "Aunt Jane"
* If a Miss Marple movie ends with everyone sitting down to a nice cup of tea
Take a gulp
* If someone actually did commit suicide
* If the person calling Miss Marple "Aunt Jane" is actually her niece or nephew
* If the murderer goes after Miss Marple herself
* If Miss Marple fends someone off with physical force
* If Miss Marple drinks coffee
Now that we're good and liquored up, let's talk about this collection. The first note I should make is that the ordering of the individual films does not seem to follow any logic that resembles our earth logic. They are not presented chronologically, neither according to the publication order of the books or the production dates of the films. In fact, watching them in disc order was not a great experience. Not much carries over from film to film, but there are some reoccurring characters -- like Chief Inspector Slack or even Miss Marple herself -- who seem to have at least a minimal character arc that makes sense to watch from the beginning. It certainly made no sense to me to see A Caribbean Mystery first; it's the fish-out-of-water Marple story and is nowhere near as enjoyable to someone who hasn't already gotten to know her character in the other earlier films.
In terms of the characters and casting, Joan Hickson's Marple carries the series almost single-handedly. Christie's personal choice for the role, Hickson quietly layers Miss Marple with the many qualities that make her a good detective and a good person -- keen reasoning skills, a willingness to really look and listen, patience, perseverance, and, of course, an ear for gossip. However, what really makes Hickson's performance so memorable is the subtle solemnity she mixes in with the excitement of investigation. Despite her eagerness to gather clues and the thrill of finally catching the killers, Miss Marple never loses sight of the "people dead who shouldn't be." The best supporting character is the aforementioned Chief Inspector Slack, who is a great foil for Miss Marple throughout the series and occasionally provides some comic relief to boot. His methods are completely different from Miss Marple's -- more by-the-book, impatient, and forceful. The tenacious old armchair detective describes him as "rather like one of these diesel engines that are appearing all over our railways. Most unappealing, but I'm told efficient." One can never tire of the shock and disdain on his face every time he realizes that Miss Marple has arrived on the scene long before he has and will solve the crime through methods he can never grasp. The rest of the cast is filled in by a slew of guest stars; far too many, in fact. There are so many characters bustling around each episode that I found it near impossible to keep them all straight, though I suppose that the more characters one has, the more potential corpses and killers there are to work with.
Miss Marple's character is so well-written and well-acted in this collection that one wishes there were more of her. Her screen time is often diluted by the many single-film characters who assist her with her investigations. Her subtle character development is a bit of a tease, popping up here and there and always leaving one wanting more. Some of her best moments exhibit her morally sophisticated compassion for desperate murderers who take their own lives or hints of world-weariness and caution in the midst of the excitement of detection. Perhaps her best characterization occurs in Sleeping Murder when she advises the young couple to leave the past buried. When they unearth disturbing truths about Gwenda's family and cause the original killer to murder another innocent girl, Marple still sympathizes with them, admitting, "However dangerous the journey, you can't turn back." The final scenes of this film evoke one of overlooked, sad truths about Miss Marple's experiences as an investigator: a certain loss of faith in humanity. She tells Gwenda, "It's very dangerous to believe people. I haven't for years."
From a technical standpoint, this "remastered" transfer leaves a lot to be desired. It looks about like I'd expect something produced for television two decades ago to look, which is not good. The deep blacks are washed out and grainy and the picture generally appears rather lifeless and flat. During The Moving Finger, the picture seems to undulate as if the film stock were waving in a light breeze and I noticed at least two other brief instances of lines on the screen that reminded me of VCR-related glitches. The sound fares a little better, though the combination of accents, mumbling, and less-than-perfect audio made me wish there were subtitles. The extras are similarly lackluster. Each one is just a couple of screens of writing, all containing information that could be found online in under five minutes. The set does look quite classy with five slim cases in colors that would fit right in with the books in any stuffy old British library.
More Marple and fewer subplots with single-film characters could liven up these 15 hours of case cracking. But what we do get of dear old "Aunt Jane" and the predictable fun of her investigations makes this set worth a look.
Judge Jennifer Malkowski rules in favor of the spinster sleuth, despite her poor transfer, shoddy extras, and occasional tediousness. She also challenges any member of the jury to listen to Miss Marple's cheery orchestral theme song nine times without getting it stuck in their heads.
Review content copyright © 2006 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 936 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Agatha Christie Biography
* Joan Hickson Biography and Filmography
* Miss Marple Biography
* Index of All Miss Marple Stories
* IMDb: A Caribbean Mystery
* IMDb: The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side
* IMDb: Sleeping Murder
* IMDb: 4:50 from Paddington
* IMDb: The Moving Finger
* IMDb: At Bertram's Hotel
* IMDb: Murder at the Vicarage
* IMDb: Nemesis
* IMDb: They Do It With Mirrors