Monday, September 22, 2008

Film Reviews: Agatha Christie's Murder with Mirrors

Murder with Mirrors
directed by Dick Lowry
written by George Eckstein
based on the novel by Agatha Christie
starring Helen Hayes, Bette Davis, John Mills, Liane Langland, John Laughlin, John Woodvine, Tim Roth, James Coombes, Anton Rodgers, Frances de la Tour, Leo McKern, Dorothy Tutin

Featuring young pup Tim Roth and post-stroke Bette Davis, this film performs the duties of a decent murder mystery that does have one guessing straight through to the end.

Helen Hayes is Agatha Christie’s famed Miss Jane Marple, a sly old tooth who is of course a master sleuth in the guise of a tottering little old lady. When she learns from a man named Christian (Woodvine) that her friend Carrie Louise Serrocold (Davis) is ill, she pays her a visit. The Serrocold estate is massive, palatial and also the home for juvenile delinquents who help in the garden and run little errands when necessary. It is thought that Carrie Louise is being slowly poisoned by some unknown person. One evening one of the errant boys named Edgar (Roth) pulls a gun on Serrocold and they end up on the foyer. A shot rings out but it is determined to have come from a car backfiring. Then another shot rings out from the foyer and the entire household collectively panics because the door is locked. Serrocold emerges in one piece and the matter is quickly shoved aside because Miss Bellaver (de la Tour) finds Christian slumped over in front of his typewriter quite dead. So, ths search is on to find the culprit and Miss Marple exploits her unassuming manners and exceedingly sharp eye to solve the crime.

The cheery collective of broomsticks get knocked about when the murder occurs and everyone realizes they are a possible suspect in this egregious act. Inspector Curry (McKern) maintains a keen interest in all of the potential culprits but even his immaculate skill is no match for Miss Marple’s brilliant deductive abilities. He begrudgingly allows her to help with the investigation which proves out of reach of standard police tactics. Miss Marple is simply smarter than the cops and it essentially turns into her investigation after a fashion. She leads the cops in accordance with her instincts and they are relegated to the background, panting desperately to keep up. Miss Marple knows all the angles and quickly puts the pieces together to solve the crime.

The film provides the audience with a series of possible subjects to be eliminated. Then it takes one of the characters off the screen for much of it so you forget he’s there, and then it reveals the murderer, who is always the person you least suspect. It’s the standard of these things and this film manages to do a better than average job of keeping things interesting and unpredictable. It isn’t obvious who the killer is and it turns out to be a rather pleasant surprise when they are revealed. Still, the film spends much of its time eliminating various potentialities and then it moves in for the kill, so to speak. There are red herrings along the way and each one doesn’t at all deter from the fact that the actual killer will be none of those early suspects who fall by the wayside.

Essentially, this is a simple genre film that follows the expected formula without deviating from it too directly. It merely creates a particular setting filled with a group of people all with a motive and throws a murder into the mix. The purpose of these films is for the audience to try to stay one step ahead of the hero/sleuth who knows all the tricks and can see things that we are not made privy to. They test our skills of deduction, observation and patience. Each person must be removed from the suspect list until there is only one obvious suspect left. It’s a thrilling game as long as the film is smart and this one proves to be smarter than most. The culprit is truly the least likely to commit the crimes and of course we are not made privy to their motivations for taking such drastic measures but that’s not the point. We are to determine who did it, not why.

The film plays out as if there were two mysteries to solve: who killed Christian and who is attempting to poison Carrie Louise. A box of chocolates arrives which proves to contain poison. Then, Dr. Max Hargrove (Rodgers) goes off and threatens to kill Miss Marple but is allowed to escape. So, it would seem as if the killer is determined but naturally Miss Marple sees through this development and determines who the actual murderer is.

The performances in this fill all seem fit for TV. In one of her final performances, Bette Davis gamely makes it through despite the stroke and several other illnesses. It’s apparent she has suffered a great malady as one side of her mouth appears slightly paralyzed. Despite this she registers a certain poignancy and grace in conveying her character’s immovable presence. Helen Hayes is perfectly cast as Miss Jane Marple and conveys the slight glimmer of wickedness in her character’s eye that allows her to get inside the heads of murderers. As Gina, Liane Langland is feisty and tempestuous as her shock of red hair would suggest. She’s got a fiery disposition that works well in this film as her character lives out a particular program of mild dissolution tinged with protracted desire. Dorothy Tutin plays the depressed, miserable Mildred, Carrie Louise’s middle-aged daughter, with decided calm. It’s clear that the character has fallen off the map and is struggling to find the pleasure that Gina takes for granted. She’s bitter and it’s all told in her posture and gestures. Frances de la Tour’s character is another sour faced addition to the household who is suspected initially of poisoning Carrie Louise’s medicine. De la Tour is quite good at looking stone faced and reserved so that she makes an easy target for the shenanigans that are taking place around her. Tim Roth is haggard, uncomfortable, and edgy throughout this film. He finds his character's malaise and sticks with it. His character is a bit mangled and Roth makes it clear through the way he carries himself that he's a bit dodgy and possibly dangerous although that's just part of the game he's been playing to upset those who are easily upset.

Overall, this is an adequate example of the whodunnit mystery genre. It serves the purpose and pushes all the right buttons. The characters are all believable and fleshed out. The performances are well-suited to this format of television without trying to step out of the necessary boundaries set for that medium. Ultimately, it’s a cheery enough murder mystery with a lovable lead character who drives the film as far as it might go.

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