Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Reappearing Portrait from "Murder, She Said"

I guess it is not that surprising that my post about Miss Marple has strong elements of mystery in it. That is because, I've spent over a month trying to identify a portrait and have found it impossible. So, I'm requesting your help: if this picture looks familiar in any respect- sitter, style, appearance in another movie, or (best of all) actual title and artist- please let me know.

This painting was actually brought to my attention by Susan, a reader from sunny California, and I have to thank her again for letting me know about it because its story and history is quite interesting. She noticed one particular portrait that appeared in two adaptations of the same Agatha Christie novel nearly fifty years apart. Therefore, the credit for the discovery goes to her, but I'm going to flesh it out a little bit.
As far as "we" know, the portrait first appeared in the classic Miss Marple movie Murder, She Said (1961). This was the first installation of the famed Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films. Now, I'm quite the Agatha Christie purist and would be the first to admit that Margaret Rutherford is certainly not the embodiment of the literary Miss Jane Marple, but she is something and something wonderful at that. If you have never seen the films, they are just a lot of fun: they're smart, humorous, and all around good fun (as long as you don't mind a murder or two). Most Agatha Christie fans agree with me: even if Margaret Rutherford isn't perfect, her positive factors make for some excellent entertainment.
Now, the film Murder, She Said is based on the Agatha Christie novel 4:50 from Paddington (alternatively titled What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw. What, exactly was seen, is, of course, a murder. In the novel, a friend of Miss Marple's witnesses a murder in a passing train. In the film, Miss Marple herself witnesses the murder. In both instances, the elderly woman is not believed and Miss Marple is left to solve the crime herself. In the novel, Miss Marple enlists the help of an intelligent, beautiful, industrious woman Lucy to go into the mansion near where the murder took place to find out what exactly went down. Again, in the film, Miss Marple enlists herself to be the housekeeper and discover the murder.
In either case, as Miss Marple is being shown the house, she is directed towards the imposing portrait of a turn of the century gentleman who Miss Ackenthorpe, the daughter of the cantankerous owner, identifies as the great industrialist founder of the family. He is the source of wealth and money for this now-corrupt family. Not surprisingly, in such a mysterious setting conjured up by Dame Agatha, not too much time passes before bodies start falling all out of the woodwork.

Marple (2004)
All well and good- the portrait never shows up again prominently in the film. In actuality, it doesn't seem that important. Perhaps it would be faintly interesting to find out who painted it and of whom it portrays, but otherwise, not climatically or thematically importantly. But, here is the real mystery. In 2004, ITV redid an adaptation of the story (which had actually been done by Joan Hickson's BBC Miss Marple series earlier). This version was titled "What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw" and starred Geraldine McEwan who is, in all honesty, not my favorite Marple. (My favorites, if you were wondering are Rutherford, Lansbury, and then Hickson- all equally good in their own respects).
detail from Murder, She Said (1961)
Detail from the color version of the portrait seen on the telly
This detail was shown in the show: I didn't create it- so I know
its accurate despite the lack of clarity in the other two stills
Well, this version follows some aspects of the novel more faithfully. The character of Lucy plays an important role. Like Margaret Rutherford before her, Jane is given a small tour of the house by the daughter of the Crackenthorpe family (notice the different spelling). Once again, she is introduced to the portrait of the source of the family's wealth, the great grandfather or whatever who was a candy baron in turn of the century England. But, here is the mystery: it is clearly the same portrait!
My computer generated color version of the whole
portrait: I know, its a little sloppy
Now, I've checked the Joan Hickson version very quickly and I can't seem to find anything to suggest that the portrait was also used there. But I am dying to find out exactly what this painting was used for. How did it end up in MGM in the '60s and ITV in 2004? Who is it? It is a prop portrait or a real historic portrait of a historic figure? And why was the same portrait used in two adaptations of the same story? Was it coincidence or was it purposeful, and if so why? You know I don't believe in coincidences, but either this is a very subtle homage to the Rutherford original or it is something that I do not understand. And I'd really like to! From what I can tell, the portrait can be dated anywhere from 1880-1910, which is obviously a wide range. I am unable to find an incredibly clear version of the portrait but I've engineered one the best I can. So, if you can help me find anything about this mysterious portrait, let me know. Unfortunately, my knowledge of human nature in St. Mary's Mead isn't going to help me out in this case!


  1. This is fascinating! Thank you for telling me about your post Dan. I've never seen any of the McEwan series, but even if I did I wouldn't have had the observant eye to spot that painting! A good mystery is too irresistible to pass up, so count me in in the hunt. I'll see what I can scrounger up. Also, thanks for the swell comment on my Miss Marple post!

  2. The portrait might belong to the set, which is to say, England is rife with stately homes that "earn their keep" by being rented out as sets for film and television. It might be worth investigating where each film featuring the portrait was was shot to see if they have a location in common. The picture looks typical of family portraits of the period.

    Another thought. Google has an image search. It might be instructive to crop out just the portrait and do a Google image search on it.


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