Before — and after — there was Jessica Fletcher and “Murder, She Wrote,” there was Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, who in a dozen murder mysteries published between 1930 and 1976 outwitted even the most clever killers. Inevitably, this spinster detective leapt from page to screen, both big and small, with actresses as storied as Helen Hayes and, yes, Angela Lansbury portraying her. More recently, Joan Hickson and Geraldine McEwan have donned Miss Marple’s sensible tweeds.
But the first to do so was that indomitable force of the British screen, Margaret Rutherford. In four B&W films produced by MGM’s U.K. arm — “Murder She Said” (1961), “Murder at the Gallop” (1963), “Murder Ahoy” (1964) and “Murder Most Foul” (1964) — Rutherford, a formidable, big-bosomed fireplug of a woman, took the role of Miss Marple and made it her own. Rather than sober whodunits, these pics are romps, rife with gentle digs at English manners and morals. The murders are merely excuses to get Rutherford’s Marple moving, the mysteries as thinly plotted as the lamest “McMillan and Wife” or “Hart to Hart.”
Still, anyone who appreciates Rutherford’s singular persona will likely cherish this set, which comes without extras. Supporting performances often rival the star’s — especially Robert Morley’s pompous innkeeper (“Murder at the Gallop”), Lionel Jeffries’ effete ship’s captain (“Murder Ahoy”) and Ron Moody’s overripe thespian (“Murder Most Foul”).
Just as beguiling are Ron Goodwin’s scores, an infectious amalgam of ’60s pop and aristocratic airs, with some witty musical allusions thrown in for the real detectives among us.