One of my absolutely favorite authors is Dame Agatha Christie, the famed British mystery writer. To this day, I’m still amazed by her intricate plotting and charmed by her unique cast of characters. Chief among those characters is the indomitable Miss Marple. Miss Marple, the sharp, elderly spinster from the quaint village of St. Mary Mead, has had a varied film life. In the early ‘60s, the one and only Margaret Rutherford put her spin on the character in four hilarious films. While Dame Margaret certainly stellar, and certainly enjoyable, performances; it was not the truest adaptation. Later, in 1980, Angela Lansbury would star as Miss Marple in the all-star production of The Mirror Crack’d. Angela’s performance of Miss Marple is very enjoyable, albeit somewhat ordinary, and is more important because it would later inspire the producers at Universal who were casting Murder, She Wrote that she could play a convincing sleuth. The rest, they say, is history.
Back to The Mirror Crack’d. There are two bright redeeming factors to this film. The first, is the cast, which is absolutely incredible when you think about the breadth of talent assembled for the film. Actually, when you consider the casts for Christie adaptations in the ‘70s and ‘80s, especially the Poirot films like Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Evil Under the Sun, it astounds you because some of the biggest names in Hollywood in both the past and contemporary times are appearing in these films and giving paramount performances. The Mirror Crack’d is no different. Angela’s costars included Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson- to name a few.
The second redeeming factor is the plot, which is one Christie’s finest. More interesting enough, it’s a plot made for the cinema. Why? The main character of Marina Gregg, the American actress, is based upon the unfortunate life of the gorgeous Gene Tierney (star of a number of Noir films including Laura). The cast of characters includes Hollywood “elite” and offered the readers and “inside” look at a movie scandal. It’s a vastly entertaining and enjoyable read, and the superlatives apply for the film adaptation as well.
Interestingly enough, one of the chief clues in this film that helps Miss Marple figure out who the killer’s identity is a painting: a painting which I will discuss here. Just to inform you, my analysis is more a summary of Miss Marple’s own analysis, so I can’t claim that I’m being more original.
In the story (both film and novel), a Renaissance painting of the Madonna and Child hangs across from a landing in Marina’s new British estate. During a fete to celebrate her arrival, she welcomes the villagers into her home. At one point, as her costar and nemesis enters the party, she becomes transfixed by the painting giving a look reminiscent of the look of doom the Lady of Shalott has when she peers out the window- hence the title. (For all those not up on your Christie or Arthurian poetry, in Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott, when the titular Lady becomes cursed after looking outside, she gives a look of foreboding, knowing her imminent doom, and her mirror cracks from side to side as an omen of things to come). I’m not going to give anything else away, lest I give away the plot, but that painting is very important.
In the novel, Miss Marple identifies the painting as a copy of Bellini’s Laughing Madonna, a painting of a happy mother and child. As far as I know, no such painting exists. In the film, a copy of a different Bellini painting hangs in its place. Similar subject, but not entirely. The painting that one views in the film in Bellini’s Greek Madonna (appr. 1460). While similar in subject matter, the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, it is not entirely the same. Miss Marple describes the Laughing Madonna as a painting portraying a happy mother and child. While certainly beautiful and technically superior, it doesn’t seem that Mary and Jesus are very happy.
Marina, whose own parenting experience turns out to be less than joyful, sees this painting and experiences great ennui because the painting represents something that she does not have. But why does it give her the look of doom? I’m certainly not going to tell. You’ll have to let Miss Marple explain the reasoning to you, as only she can.
Of course, if it could upset her so much, I don’t quite know why she would hang it in her home in the first place, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. Besides, my complaint would be directed at Dame Agatha, not at the humble filmmakers.
As far as paintings are used in films, this painting is not used in any incredible or original way. It has the same meaning as originally intended, even the same artist. But it does play a large role in helping figure out the killer and therefore serves a rare purpose as a Renaissance masterpiece that is also a major clue in the plot. Its presence is altogether necessary and important. And I must compliment Bellini, albeit a few hundred years too late. His painting certainly stands out in the film, even as it is surrounded by more earthly, but certainly beautiful stars of the screen. It is, like the beauty of costars Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak, timeless in loveliness.