Looking Back At THE MIRROR CRACK'D (1980) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE MIRROR CRACK'D (1980)

Tony’s face has crack’d many a mirror. But anyway…
In the great battle to decide which of the actresses who have played Agatha Christie’s sharp-eyed busybody sleuth, Miss Marple, there are two main camps, and a scattering of support for the rest.

Margaret Rutherford embodied a sturdy Miss Marple in a series of films that, while still delivering some of Christie’s twists (albeit, ironically, sometimes in plots filched from Hercule Poirot stories!), verged much more on a comic element in the character and the situations in which she frequently found herself than Christie ever wrote – or indeed, apparently approved of.

Joan Hickson on the other hand, was a rather more petite, bird-like Miss Marple, quieter, but with the most piercing blue eyes and the ability to speak a lot of hard truths when the need arose. Contrary to her view of Rutherford’s Marple, Christie herself told Hickson she hoped she would one day play the role – albeit forty years before she ever got the chance to do so!

Between them, these two constitute the “Major Marples” of public memory.

Relatively recently, there have been two new TV Marples, Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie, and each has their devoted fans, despite each taking a different direction on the character. As McKenzie has pointed out, the truth is that Christie wrote Miss Marple in two distinct directions over time, and each of them have embodied the “kind” of Miss Marple appropriate to their televised stories.

But all of this rather leaves one pristine Miss Marple unfairly overshadowed.

Before she stepped into the writerly shoes of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote in 1984 (coincidentally, the same year Joan Hickson became a legendary Miss Marple on British TV), Angela Lansbury got a taste of the sleuthing game in the 1980 all-star – no, really, allll-star – movie version of the Miss Marple story, The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side – shortened to simply The Mirror Crack’d for movie audiences.

How all-star are we talking about? Well, the two leading ladies, besides Lansbury herself, are played by Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak – is that all-star enough for you?

Want more? How about the three male leads in the piece being played by Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, and Edward Fox. Throw in some more domestic UK legends and you can count Charles Gray, Geraldine Chaplin, Margaret Courtenay, Carolyn Pickles, Charles Lloyd-Pack, an unrecognisable and uncredited Piers Brosnan, John Bennett, Dinah Sheridan, and Nigel Stock into the mix.

All together, supporting Angela Lansbury in her outing as Miss Marple is some serious star power and some high-quality acting talent too.

And above all, in sharp contrast to Rutherford’s “clever clown” interpretation of the role, Angela Lansbury took Miss Marple deadly seriously. Before Hickson’s natty, knowing, needle-minded Marple, Lansbury in essence redeemed the character from the Rutherford inheritance. She made her Miss Marple bright, deep, inquisitive, and always striving to see the exact way of things, irrespective of the noise and clutter that forced its way to the front of the picture.

Physically, she made her neither especially robust, nor especially frail, the kind of wind-up older woman who has things to do, people to talk to, and who knows every secret in the world of her orbit, whether or not she chooses to share them with anyone.

If there’s one oddity about Lansbury’s Marple, it’s a tiny thing, in that she’s seen smoking in one scene. It’s only really odd in that most Miss Marples don’t, but think it through for a moment and there’s no reason why a woman who was young in the Edwardian era particularly wouldn’t smoke – it’s just not mentioned in the books, so we assume she doesn’t.

Beyond that, Lansbury’s Miss Marple is a revelation in quickness and depth – a kind of blueprint, based on the books, which Hickson’s Marple would in many ways significantly emulate and then make her own.

The story of The Mirror Crack’d is rather more glamorous than the denizens of St Mary Mead are used to – Hollywood has come to the village, or more precisely to the nearby Gossington Hall. Ageing and reputedly somewhat emotionally frail diva, Marina Gregg (played with no small sense of good-hearted self-parody by Elizabeth Taylor) is in town, making her first picture in years, a somewhat temperamental epic about Mary, Queen of Scots.

The picture is being directed by her husband, Jason Rudd (Rock Hudson), but there’s a catch. The film’s producer and money man is Marty N Fenn (Tony Curtis) – who used to have a relationship with Marina. Now entwined with the relatively up-and-coming Lola Brewster (Kim Novack), he has insisted she takes the role of Queen Elizabeth I opposite Marina.

The two women plainly loathe each other – think Crawford and Davies, with some excellently scripted cattiness. “There are only two things I really dislike about you,” hisses Taylor through a miraculously immobile, smiling grimace. “Your face.” Also, “Oh yes, Lola’s one of my old, old, olllllld friends…”

The two genuine Hollywood legends give this simmering loathing all they’ve got, and it makes the central dynamic of boiling animosity completely believable on-screen.

There are other joyful lines, too. When considering her face in a mirror, Taylor’s Marina intones “Bags, bags, go away, come right back on Doris Day.” It’s funny in its own right, but given that she’s also addressing the line to Rock Hudson, Doris Day’s co-star in a series of career-making comedies, it becomes absolutely priceless.

But beyond the lines, the plot is a thing of stark simplicity (apparently drawn from real life). At a party at Gossington Hall, which Miss Marple is under doctor’s orders to miss, thanks to a sprained ankle, Marina and the rest of the cast and crew entertain the villagers, Hollywood style, to get them all on side for the film being made in their midst.

At that party, two noteworthy things happen.

First, while being babbled at by Heather Babcock, her biggest fan (Maureen Bennett), Marina Gregg goes rigid, staring – or so it seems – at her hated enemy Lola, who’s making a splash of an entrance into what Marina sees as her domain.

And then, minutes later, Heather Babcock – simple, babbling village woman, Heather Babcock – drops stone dead on the floor, seemingly from barbiturate poisoning.

When it emerges that the poison was in her drink, and that, thanks to an accident, the drink she took was one that was intended for Marina, the thing makes significantly more sense. Plenty of people could have reasons to want to kill Marina Gregg – not least her co-star, her husband, and her producer.

No-one could conceivably have a reason for killing Heather Babcock, so it looks like Hollywood drama has taken on a little St Mary Mead style, with people dropping dead from inexplicable, tragically misplaced poisonings.

Miss Marple’s “favourite” nephew, Dermot (Edward Fox), is a dashing inspector from Scotland Yard, and he sets about diligently putting cats among Hollywood pigeons, in the hope that he can find the killer before his aunt can – at least, given the fact that she wasn’t personally present at the event.

The banter between Fox and Lansbury feels genuinely familial and warm, adding another strand of believability into the drama.

We discover some elements of Marina’s past that make her seem like a troubled woman – a trauma earlier in her life means there is a minefield in her mind that should not be tap-danced through.

When she starts receiving threatening letters, the absurdity and grandiosity of Hollywood begins to seem like it’s really coming home to one of Tinsel Town’s great divas.

And then, Jason Rudd’s social secretary, Ella Zielinsky (Geraldine Chaplin) – who has both hay fever and a desire to flush out the would-be murderer, dies a horrible death by the inhalation of prussic acid. That would be almost as inexplicable and misguided as Heather Babcock’s death, were it not for one thing – she’s been anonymously calling all the prime suspects, telling them she saw them put the poison in Marina’s drink, which then got handed off to Heather.

She’s been hoping to flush the murderer out into the open, and panic them into making some rash move – without ever stopping to consider that the rash move they might make could be her own murder.

We won’t spoil for you exactly what made Marina freeze on the night of the party, or who put the poison in her drink – that would be like reading you the last page! But we will tell you that Miss Marple sees the whole thing clearly in a dream before her police-trained nephew is anywhere close to the truth.

And that the whole thing is both simpler than we could possibly imagine, and more complicated, more emotional, and more somehow understandable than it at first appears.

And, if you press us, that there’s one more body to bury before the film ends, but that’s it!

The 1980 production of The Mirror Crack’d gives us an impeccable Miss Marple before what, for our money, is the defining portrayal from Joan Hicks. It shows us a potential revival of the Marple brand in major Hollywood movies that somehow never came to be.

Lansbury had signed on to a three-picture deal as Miss Marple but surprisingly muted reaction at the box office meant she only got to play the role once.

It’s quite possible that the world would have been robbed of Lansbury’s superb Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote had she continued and made the two other Marple movies. It’s ALSO possible that had she gone ahead and made the movies, the Miss Marple property might not have become available for Joan Hickson to inherit in 1984, robbing us of a complete and practically perfect Miss Marple throughout the Eighties and Nineties.

All of that is a lot of joyous crime detection television to wipe out for the sake of a single portrayal, and on balance, things are probably better the way they turned out.

But for just that one shining moment, Angela Lansbury’s Miss Marple became as close to definitive as we ever seemed likely to get, and gave us a Hollywood mega-powered version of Saint Mary Mead that still felt believably rich in character. The Mirror Crack’d has very few flaws to pick at, and delivers on its star power with some really naturalistic “Hollywood” performances. It also gives us an inkling of what a definitive big-screen Miss Marple should be. With the greatest of respect to Margaret Rutherford, it should be like Angela Lansbury.

Watch The Mirror Crack'd today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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