Murder Ahoy

Murder AhoySynopsis: A seagoing whodunit-with the spinster sleuth showing why she was Ladies National Fencing Champion of 1931!

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Murder Ahoy 6.75

eyelights: the intrigue.
eyesores: Margaret Rutherford’s mugging. Lionel Jeffries’ exuberant performance.  the setting. the ambiguous characters.

“Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead, Mr. Stringer!”

‘Murder Ahoy’ is the second of two Agatha Christie-based Margaret Rutherford vehicles released in 1964 – and the last of the series. Unlike its predecessors, it is not based on a specific novel, although it lifts a core plot element from ‘They Do It With Mirrors’.

At the beginning of this picture, Miss Marple joins the board of The Cape of Good Hope Youth Reclamation Centre, to replace her uncle, Rear Admiral Sir Hubert Marple, who has passed away. At her very first meeting, a board members dies suddenly.

Although his death is deemed to be of natural causes, Marple isn’t so sure: He was just about to make a troubling announcement about the HMS Battledore, the ship on which the Centre operates. Naturally, Chief Inspector Braddock thinks she’s being hysterical.

However, Marple has cause for alarm: right before his death, the trustee had taken a bit of his snuff. But, after the body was taken away, the tin was completely empty. Marple takes a small sample of the snuff that had been dropped and tests it, finding strychnine.

Convinced that the mystery revolves around the HMS Battledore, she decides to go visit it in her capacity as trustee – much to the dismay of the ship Captain (“Who does she think she is?”, he asks). It doesn’t take long before others wind up dead.

But Ms. Marple is on the case – with the help of her faithful Mr. Stringer, of course. Together, they will reveal what is (to me, anyway) the most interesting intrigue of the whole series – a more real-world scheme that goes awfully wrong.

Unfortunately, ‘Murder Ahoy’ is also probably the least satisfying entry of the series. It is plagued by a number of weaknesses, starting with its frivolous tone. Although the whole series is light-hearted, this has been amped up considerably for this entry.

The whimsical music doesn’t help any, given that it’s pretty much omnipresent, making it near-impossible to take the film seriously. But the staging and the performances themselves also don’t lend the picture any credibility, eschewing realism for cartoon bluster.

One of the worst is Margaret Rutherford. Although it was a problem from the onset, her mugging is completely out of control here: she’s always shoving her tongue in her cheek and doing googly eyes, distorting her face in the process and making herself look like a baboon.

But the worst is Lionel Jeffries, who hams it up the whole way through as Captain Rhumstone; every single expression he does is exaggerated wildly. He made me think of Graham Chapman in his most outrageous comedic turns. There was no way to take him seriously.

While the picture was heavy-handed, it had some amusing bits too. One of my favourites was the recurring gag of a spritely young doctor who is repeatedly referred to as “brisk”. This was reminiscent of the “clean old man” shtick from ‘A Hard Day’s Night‘.

Unfortunately, the picture gets bogged down by a series of implausibilities:

  • Why would the murderer only take the snuff, but not the tin as well, if he/she wanted to hide his/her tracks? Wouldn’t it have made it slightly less obvious that something was up? After all, who pockets snuff like that, leaving none behind? Anyone wanting to steal the stuff would simply take the tin. So why not here? To alert Miss Marple – and the less vigilant movie-goers.
  • As in ‘Murder at the Gallop‘, why would the murderer kill a second time when the first death was considered a natural death? Why add doubt and create suspicion by killing again? It’s a moronic thing to do by any standard: after all, the murderer had essentially gotten away with it.
  • Miss Marple gets all her ideas from crime novels (hence why she suggested that the whole police force should read Agatha Christie novels). But this is how she figured out the original murder, and then is convinced that the murderer is using that very same book as a blueprint. I mean, really, what a coincidence…
  • Miss Marple is now a chemist and has all the equipment to do tests on the leftover snuff. I mean, really, given that she’s just an amateur spurred on by reading crime novels, how likely, or even possible, is this?
  • The picture ends with a sabre duel between Miss Marple and the murderer. Naturally, she’s a champion at fencing. Honestly, there’s no way that this out-of-shape old woman is a good fencer (Rutherford had to train for a month for this scene!). By this point, the idea that she’s a weapons expert is a bit of a running gag in the series, but this time it’s so tied into the plot here that it’s hard to take the ending seriously.

In any event, while ‘Murder Ahoy’ disappoints on some levels, it’s still entertaining enough. Had it been the first of the series, I’m not sure that the series would have lasted as long as it did – or even gotten going. But, as a final bow, it’s decent enough; it does entertain.

There were discussions of making a fifth entry in the series, based on ‘The Body in the Library’, but that didn’t happen. However, Rutherford and Stringer Davis returned as Marple and Mr. Stringer one final time for a cameo in 1965’s ‘The Alphabet Murders’, a Hercule Poirot mystery starring Tony Randall.

Date of viewing: November 24, 2014

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