There have been Agatha Christie film adaptations for almost as long as there have been Agatha Christie novels. From the silent era, all the way up to the ongoing Kenneth Branagh Poirot movies, something about Christie’s devilish plotting and seemingly inexhaustible back catalog has always made her irresistible to filmmakers. With 171 IMDB writing credits to her name, it’s inevitable that many of these adaptations have fallen out of our collective consciousness. Many of them deserved to. One that didn’t, however, is turning forty this week: The Mirror Crack’d.
Directed by Guy Hamilton, best known for helming some of the best entries in the Bond franchise (and Diamonds Are Forever…), The Mirror Crack’d was the third of a four-movie series released between 1974 and 1982. Murder On The Orient Express was both a critical and commercial success. Death On The Nile didn’t do quite so well, but it made a significant profit and earned largely positive reviews. Perhaps Christie fatigue had set in by the time audiences got to see The Mirror Crack’d? Perhaps, after being taken to Turkey in the first movie and Egypt in the second, the sleepy English village of St. Mary Mead just wasn’t exciting enough? Either way, it made little impact at the box office (and the final entry in the series, Evil Under The Sun, also directed by Hamilton, did even worse).
The story is traditional Christie fare. St. Mary Mead is all abuzz at the news that Hollywood has come a-calling. Marina Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor) and her director husband Jason (Rock Hudson) are staying at the nicest house in town whilst they shoot their new movie; producer Marty Fenn (Tony Curtis) and his actress wife Lola (Kim Novak), are also nearby. At a fete to celebrate their arrival, a local falls down dead. Though at first the death appears accidental, diligent detective work from one of the village residents uncovers that it was, in fact, a poisoning. Who was this amateur sleuth? Why, it’s Miss Marple (Angela Lansbury) of course!
Although she was a prominent character actor in Hollywood for decades, Angela Lansbury is best known for her role as amateur detective Jessica Fletcher on the long-running show Murder, She Wrote. Watching The Mirror Crack’d, which was released four years before Murder, She Wrote premiered, it’s lovely to witness Lansbury discovering her niche. She makes a terrific Marple: sharp and sweet in equal measure, and very witty too. It’s notable how, in a movie where Taylor and Novak’s characters are each battling to seem younger than the other, the 54-year-old Lansbury is playing someone two decades her senior.
The Mirror Crack’d is set during the 1950s, which inspired the casting of Taylor, Hudson, Novak, and Curtis, who each did much of their best work during that decade. Parachuting them into Miss Marple’s village creates some truly hilarious moments, not least the sight of Hudson’s enormous 6’ 5” frame being mobbed by a group of little old English ladies and gentlemen. You also get Taylor’s spectacular entrance at the village fete, where she swans in wearing a glorious violet creation (complete with an extravagant floral swimming cap), as a brass band plays “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Later at the fete, Curtis says to the local vicar, who has a question about movie-making, “What would you like to know, Vicar baby?” Hamilton finds infinite fun in the clash of cultures between Hollywood and St. Mary Mead.
The most entertaining scene of all is when Taylor and Novak meet, showering each other with sweetly venomous barbs: “You’re looking lovely as always… of course, there are fewer lights on than usual.” “I’m so glad you’ve kept your adorable figure… and added so much to it!” Taylor portrayed a whole raft of gleefully entertaining divas over the course of her career, but it’s particularly pleasurable to see Novak, who spent her Hollywood heyday playing icy beauties, embody someone so exaggerated and crass with such evident relish.
In addition to the comic delights the Hollywood contingent bring to The Mirror Crack’d, they add an unexpected poignancy. Watching Taylor and Hudson together inevitably recalls the last time they played a married couple: 1956’s Giant. Twenty-four years later, the once absurd beauty of both actors has faded considerably. They are a little greyer, a little duller, and a little fuller of face. In the ‘50s, Hudson and Taylor looked like movie stars. In the ‘80s, they looked like people.
Christie’s writing has always favored plot over character; it’s usually up to the actors to provide the necessary shading. Hudson and Taylor oblige. They had a dear offscreen friendship that spanned all the way from Giant until Hudson’s death from AIDs-related complications in 1985; his struggle with the disease inspired her to become an ardent advocate for his fellow sufferers at a time when celebrity AIDS activists were few and far between. Taylor and Hudson loved each other, platonically but passionately, and you can feel that love all over The Mirror Crack’d. Hudson made two more feature films and a handful of TV projects before he died, but he never acted with Taylor again.
Forty years after The Mirror Crack’d debuted to little fanfare, we’re in a world that’s as obsessed with Agatha Christie as it has ever been—and it’s clear Hamilton’s film is ripe for re-evaluation. Between Lansbury’s dry run as Jessica Fletcher, the riotous juxtaposition of movie legends and a quaint village in England, and Hudson and Taylor’s long love story reaching its poignant conclusion, The Mirror Crack’d is essential viewing for those with even a passing interest in Hollywood history.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.