Margaret Rutherford was a scene-stealing eccentric force of nature in all her movies, and I suspect in her stage roles as well. She had a shape like a sack of produce, a double chin that trembled with a life of its own, little eyes that could widen in shock or squint with suspicion and, when her characters were aroused, a forceful stride that took all before it. Her personality was unique. The only other actor I can think of who matched her in eccentricity, potential ham and acting skill was Alastair Sim, another memorable British screen presence.
In Murder She Said, Rutherford plays Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple. Rather, she plays Rutherford's Miss Jane Marple. She made four Marple films, but I doubt if anyone reading Christie's stories would ever have envisaged Rutherford in the part. Now, for many people, Marple is Rutherford. She's that strong a character.
Jane Marple is on a train when she looks out at another train passing by on the next track. In the window of one of the carriage rooms she sees, for a few moments, a woman being strangled. When she reports this and the police search the train at the next station and the area where Miss Marple says it happened, there is no body to be found.
The trains were passing Ackenthorpe Hall, an estate run with a loud voice and an irascible temper by old Ackenthorpe (James Robertson Justice), a bed-ridden man who believes he's on his last legs. He intends to keep his family, most of whom have their eyes on the estate, firmly in line. It's only a short while before Miss Marple decides to investigate Ackenthorpe Hall, where she believes the body must have been hidden. She manages to get herself hired as the maid, a position which frequently is vacant because of Ackenthorpe's rudeness.
"There is one thing I cannot tolerate," he tells her as she stands in front of his bed in her maid's uniform, "and that is impertinence!" Miss Marple is having none of that. "Well, we should get on admirably," she says. "Neither can I!"
She also must deal with a precocious grandson, young Alexander. "You know, it isn't just that you don't look like Jane Mansfield. You're not my idea of a maid, either," he tells her. "Well, quite honestly," she tells the kid, "I don't think you're everybody's idea of a boy."
The only non-family members in the place appear to be Miss Marple, Dr. Paul Quimper (Arthur Kennedy), the housekeeper, Mrs. Kidder (Joan Hickson, who years later made a quieter and equally memorable Marple) and a surly groundsman. Needless to say, Miss Marple finds herself in the middle of clever dialogue and grave danger as she eventually discovers the motive for murder and unmasks the killer.
This is the first of the four Marple movies which starred Margaret Rutherford. The others are fun, but rely much more on Rutherford's personality. Murder She Said benefits not just from Rutherford, but from a clever, witty script, a mystery which plays reasonably fair and which is tough to solve, solid acting by the other players, especially Arthur Kennedy as the sincere but ironic doctor who plans to marry Ackenthorpe's daughter, and James Robertson Justice's Ackenthorpe. Justice specialized in blustering characters and few were better at it than he.
Margaret Rutherford was 71 when she made Murder She Said. She first began making movies when she was 44. Noel Coward wrote the part of Madam Arcadi, the spiritualist, for her when he created Blithe Spirit. She played the role in the 1945 movie version which starred Rex Harrison. If you can find the DVD, it's worth getting just for Coward's dialogue and Rutherford's way with it.