Friday, September 19, 2014

Murder is Easy ( 1982 )

The person in question is just the last person anyone would suspect. And so long as no one suspects you...murder is easy "

Who would dream that an English respite could lead to danger and romance? That is exactly what happened for Luke Williams in the television adaption of Agatha's Christies' 1939 novel, "Murder is Easy". Onboard a train en route to London, the visiting American computer analyst meets a little old lady who confesses to him her suspicions of a murderer in her village, along with the name of the next victim. "I feel certain Dr. Humbleby will be next!"  Soon after, she finds herself applied to the pavement in a most unladylike manner and, donning his deerskin hat, Luke sets off for Wychwood to warn Humbleby of his impending doom and unmask the culprit himself. 

Murder is Easy was originally released on January 2, 1982, on CBS. The television movie was one of several Agatha Christie productions ( A Caribbean MysterySparkling Cyanide ), that producer Stan Margulies released in the 1980s. Negotiations for the rights to convert Christie's novels into TV features took three years and, once approved, Margulies immediately set to work in bringing the stories up to date to appeal to American audiences. 

Murder is Easy is headed by a stellar cast, featuring Bill Bixby in the lead role along with a slew of British stalwarts such as Helen Hayes as Miss Fullerton, the little old lady; Lesley Anne Down as Bridget, the requisite love interest; Timothy West as Lord Easterfield, a man who is certain that God is pronouncing vengeance on his enemies; Jonathan Pryce as Ellsworthy, an antique dealer who deals in more than antiques; Olivia DeHavilland as Miss Waynflete, the clever neighborhood spinster; and Shane Briant, as the young needle-jabbing Dr. Thomas. A host of familiar English actors also have brief parts, notably Patrick Allen, Freddie Jones, Leigh Lawson, and Anthony Valentine. Now what is the probability of finding a mystery with such a great cast?

Helen Hayes is delightful but has a much too brief role as Miss Fullerton, the intrepid old gal on her way to reveal her suspicions to Scotland Yard. With the inclusion of this film in the Agatha Christie Miss Marple DVD collection, some fans have mistakenly believed Murder is Easy to be a Marple mystery and found themselves in for a disappointment. Fullerton and Miss Marple share a lot in common however: Fullerton may have appeared to be a dotty old spinster but she had a keen eye for human nature and quickly recognized "that look in the killer's eye before striking". You see, after three times one knows. Alas, Miss Fullerton did not realize that the killer knew what she knew and the poor dear quickly becomes victim number four. 

"This story is quite strange," explained director Claude Whatham in the original publicity notes, "There is no murder at the beginning, just a number of unexplained deaths, which as far as our computer expert is concerned defies the laws of probability. So we have an air of menace, but without anyone to solve a murder. What I'm trying to get is something which is ordinary, but which looks slightly threatening. As far as the visual looks go, I would say it has the brightness you get before a thunderstorm. Everything looks idyllic, but it has an unreal quality about it. For the actors, there are two interpretations for what they do - one is normal, the other is slightly suspect."

Indeed, Whatham did a stellar job in keeping all of the characters looking suspicious. Every one of them has a plausible motive for killing and the available means. Luke Williams finds himself as baffled as the audience and turns to his "bread and butter", his trusty computer, to see if it can uncover the identity of the killer for him....but he finds it takes more than ram power to crack open this case.

The filming of Murder is Easy went underway on July 15, 1981, with the tennis match being the first scene filmed. Lesley-Anne Down had not held a racket since her school days but managed to pull off looking like a respectably good player. Down also was new to driving. She obtained her driver's license only a week prior to filming and, for one scene, was given a $70,000 Aston Martin to drive in keeping with her role as the lady of the manor - the manor being Ashe Manor, which was really filmed at Binfield Manor in Berkshire. 

The picturesque village of Wychwood was in fact the tiny hamlet of Hamleden, an old Roman settlement, with a population of only 150 inhabitants. The town boasts a Norman church, a pub, general store, and butcher's shop, and that's about what we get to see in the film. Hambleden also appeared briefly in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Candleshoe.

Bill Bixby was delighted to be in England for the first time and took off during an afternoon lunch break to visit the nearby village of Bix, hoping it might be his ancestral home. It turned out to be a Roman-named village, with "B IX" standing for Plot B Nine. Unfortunately, he didn't get to see much else of England except for some location driving.

Olivia de Havilland, who stems from an illustrious English family, was also happy to be on British soil and playing the role of an English lady, which oddly enough she had not yet done. She was also delighted to be performing with Helen Hayes, whom she had met only once before.

Helen Hayes arrived in London in a Concorde, flying for the first time in one with her young god-daughter. She was excited to be in London for the upcoming royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana and decided to stay after filming wrapped, to stand with the other tourists outside St. Paul's Cathedral and get a glimpse of the preparations. 

The acting of all of these members is far from award-winning. Some of the dialogue is delivered with exaggerated emphasis, but somehow that makes screenwriter Carmen Culver's lines all the more memorable because of it. Who can forget such remarks as "Amy, we're wanting tea!" or "I'm beginning to remember now why I don't get involved with people"?

Murder is Easy is a charming and absorbing whodunnit. It features lovely location filming, a grand cast, and a plot filled with twists and turns. Overall it is a perfect mid-summer mystery to be savored on a warm afternoon with your beloved Wonkey-Pooh and a cup of Earl Grey. 

1 comment:

  1. I remember watching this back in the '80s and seeing it was David Banner.