Because of PBS, ITV, and Masterpiece Theatre, Agatha Christie stories have long become exclusive to television. But there was a time years ago, when her books enjoyed big screen adaptations. The biggest hit was of course the Academy Award winning Sidney Lumet classic, Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Because of the success of the film, other Christie thrillers were made into films, copying Lumet’s all-star approach. Unfortunately, each successive film saw diminishing returns and before long, Christie’s creations were relegated to TV.
The Mirror Crack’d is an interesting entry in the Christie filmography because it featured Miss Jane Marple, not Hercule Poirot. The joy of watching Poirot is his dashing adventures. As a professional detective, he sparred with hostile police officers and traveled to exotic locales. Miss Marple was largely confined to the cozy confines of her little village, St. Mary Mead. Also, Miss Marple was a very unassuming character. Instead of being boastful and eccentric, she was slightly dotty and self-effacing (that is until Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, and Julia McKenzie took on the role).
In Guy Hamilton’s 1980 adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d (the title referring to a line in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”), we have an interesting take on the story – a campier take on Agatha Christie. The director assembled a hugely starry cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Geraldine Chaplin, Edward Fox, and as Miss Marple, future TV detective Angela Lansbury.
Before I go on, I have to comment a bit on Lansbury. Because of Murder, She Wrote, she would seem like a perfect fit for Miss Marple. She would be. Now. In 1980, the actress was only 55 years old – a good 20 years too young. The aging makeup was rather unflattering and not terribly convincing. There are peaks of Jessica Fletcher, but one only feels Lansbury is good for the role because of hindsight. Normally a brilliant actress, in The Mirror Crack’d, Lansbury has a hell of a time working against her miscasting, and ultimately, she doesn’t succeed, which is a shame.
But aside from the miscasting of Lansbury, The Mirror Crack’d benefits from the other stars – namely Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak. They play actresses who are nursing a healthy rivalry. They trade insults and bitchy quips that sound like vintage Joan Collins/Linda Evans duels in Dynasty. Obviously, a large bulk of their sniping deals with age, weight, and beauty. Both Novak and Taylor are heralded as great beauties, and inform their respective roles with that history.
In the film, Novak has maintained much of the looks she had at her peak. She’s outfitted in slim-fitting suits that push up her bust. Taylor, while still beautiful, has become slightly matronly due to her well-publicized issue with weight and food. Novak, always a limited actress, does well with the two-dimensional role, allowing for primping and preening.
Taylor’s performance is more interesting because she shows a good, healthy sense of humor about herself. By the 1980s, Taylor’s image shifted from the glamorpuss of the 1950s, to the extravagantly loud and brassy celebrity. She injects a slight coarseness into her acting, laughing louder and screeching more shrilly than everyone else. A very underrated actress, Taylor also gets a chance to show off hidden comic talents with some great one liners.
The plot is a predictably convoluted affair. St. Mary Mead is the improbable location for a film shoot about Queen Elizabeth I, and Taylor’s Marina Rudd is even more improbably cast as the Virgin Queen. Novak’s Lola Brewster is starring as Mary, Queen of Scots. Marina is staying in St. Mary Mead with her husband, hack director Jason (Rock Hudson), who is devoted to his tempestuous wife. Also on hand is Marina’s devoted, if resentful, assistant, Ella Zelinsky (Geraldine Chaplin).
During a swanky party, crashed by Lola, a pretty young village girl is poisoned. Because the daiquiri she drank was meant for Marina, it’s quickly established that the famed movie star is in mortal danger. Police Inspector Craddock (Edward Fox) is called to investigate the murder and to figure out who is trying to kill Marina; luckily, he happens to be the nephew of the local amateur sleuth, Miss Marple.
Those familiar with Christie’s book, will know the ending – I’ll leave it be because I don’t want to spoil it. There are tiny clues sprinkled throughout the play, and Hamilton’s good about dropping them without cheating. Unfortunately, there isn’t much suspense in the story, but still The Mirror Crack’d is an enjoyable campy film.
And much of the success of the film is due to the screenwriters: Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler. Without delving too much into stereotypes, I imagine that a lot of the film’s arch, waspish, bitchy sense of humor is due to openly gay Sandler’s input. There’s something practically Warholian about some of the jabs, as well as, an historic nod to queer cinema. In one memorable scene, Taylor is scrutinizing her face in the mirror, singing “Wrinkles, wrinkles, go away, come back on Doris Day,” which gets a bemused double take from Hudson (Day’s perennial costar in a series of sex comedies in the 1960s).
What’s interesting about Hudson’s contribution to the film, is that he comes off as the most natural. While the other performers mug for the camera, chewing scenery and practically winking at the camera, Hudson gives a nice, warm performance that is understated. Like Novak, he was never a great actor, but he was a great star. But his naturalism and subtle emoting doesn’t fit with the film, and despite his looks and tall stature, he actually starts to blend into the background (it doesn’t help that his wardrobe, oddly, matches the scenery).
If Hudson is too low key, then it has to be said that Tony Curtis’ performance as film producer Martin Fenn could be characterized as near-Kabuki. As if spoon fed on every Jewish stereotype as well as every Hollywood film producer cliche, Curtis’ performance is a jumble of grimaces, hand waves, and sentences punctuated with “bubbe.” It feels as if Curtis’ performance has been inspired by a large oil slick (it’s also strange seeing the actor without his signature pompadour, and he looks not unlike a weird combo of Joe Pesci and Frank Sinatra). If anything does work with Curtis’ work, it’s his clipped, deep voice.
Aside from the cutting dialogue and the hammy acting, another notable aspect of the film is that it begins with a film: elements of the 1931 Frank Strayer potboiler Murder at Midnight opens the film. It’s black and white, and the night sky is illuminated by shards of lightening. The movie-in-the-movie is a classic whodunit, and like every whodunit, a detective assembles the guests in a drawing room to reveal the murderer. Hamilton and his scribes ramp up the corniness of the genre, by having the suspects all act idiosyncratically, with one young lady madly twirling a string of pearls like a demented flapper. Before we’re told who the murderer is, the film cuts off, and we’re suddenly transported to a rec hall at a church, filled with disgruntled villagers, all frustrated at being denied a satisfying conclusion. It’s at this moment that we are introduced to Miss Marple, who stands up, gathers her things and quickly solves the mystery with an air of smugness. Interestingly enough, because Murder at Midnight only takes about ten minutes (maybe even less), the whodunit cliches are announced to the audience, almost with horn-filled fanfare. Maybe two hours of this would be tiresome, but the ten minutes or so we watched was pretty funny, and strangely enough, was far more compelling then the denouement at the end of The Mirror Crack’d. It doesn’t bode well for a film when its jokey send up, a minor plot point, comes off stronger than the film’s own climax.
Still, at the end of The Mirror Crack’d I have to say, I did enjoy it. It’s clear that it isn’t on par with Murder on the Orient Express, nor is it even on par with its inferior followups (Evil Under the Sun, Appointment with Death, Death on the Nile). I understand that ITV’s Marple is finished – because Angela Lansbury is still in incredible good health, it’d be great if she returned to the role that now would be far more appropriate for her. Miss Marple is a nontraditional heroine – rarely do films revolve around an elderly woman as their central protagonist, so just for that reason The Mirror Crack’d is worth a try.