Agatha Christie’s star-studded film adaptations are perfect excuses for slumming movie stars to have a bit of fun with a polite murder-mystery story. They line up in a series of eccentric roles, providing a colorful, and loud, cast of characters to bicker, plot, and deliver red herrings galore, before Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot wrap up the who done it through a series of flashbacks and exposition dumps.
These films are the perfect type of rainy Sunday afternoon fare, which is how I watched The Mirror Crack’d. By no stretch is this a great movie, but it’s supremely adequate and mildly entertaining way to waste away two hours while stuck inside buried under blankets. It’s also an excuse to watch Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Kim Novak, and Angela Lansbury act opposite each other, and that accounts for a lot of enjoyment and mileage out of this thin material.
Lansbury takes over the role of Miss Jane Marple, investigating a murder plot on a movie set with a has-been actress (Taylor) making a comeback after suffering an emotional breakdown, sparring with her long-time rival (Novak), the producer (Curtis), and a shockingly tender and poignant romance with her director husband (Hudson). During a major reception in the small English town they’ll be filming the movie in, the studio invites a select group of villagers up to the manor house to meet-and-greet with the major production players. When a villager turns up dead, all signs point to foul play with the intended victim getting out of it through a mishap, or did they?
The Mirror Crack’d is predictable, especially if you know anything about Hollywood history and trivia. Quicker than you can say Gene Tierney, the central mystery is obvious once you see where that particular bit of backstory is going. The real tragedy of The Mirror Crack’d is how it sidelines Marple, and Lansbury by extension, with a sprained ankle for so much of the mid-section of the film, sending in her nephew, Inspector Craddock (Edward Fox), in her place to investigate the major players and scenes of the crime. In fact, the actual business of the murder-mystery is the least interesting aspect of the entire film, so it’s natural most of the business.
No, The Mirror Crack’d is much more fun when it lets its movie stars off their leashes and chew the scenery. Taylor and Novak trade bitch verbal barbs and icy glances like a pair of feuding drag queens, and it’s a riot to watch these all too brief scenes. The script lets these two actresses down, they’ve come ready to spar but the script only gives them a few brief moments to let it out then shoves them back into their respective corners. Taylor’s in particularly high-camp mode here, and it works well for an aging diva of the screen prepping herself for a glorious return to form. The same could be said for Novak, normally an actress of interior dialog and neurosis, none of that present here. Novak instead goes for ostentatious exterior, a movie star with no inner life and grand delusions. It feels like she’s getting to tear apart the visage of screen goddess past and present, perhaps even a bit of her own persona.
Tony Curtis oozes oily menace, but doesn’t get enough screen time. He spars wonderfully with Novak, Taylor, and most especially Hudson in his few scenes. I wanted more, but the script isn’t up to the task of giving all of the players enough time to shine or invest their characters with major personality, so it rests upon the stars to either bring their own personas and baggage to the parts or to play each of them as brusque archetypes of film productions. Truly, only Rock Hudson gives a fully dimensional performance. He spits acid with Curtis, fends off Novak, and is shockingly tender with Taylor, their off-screen friendship and history together bringing much of the dynamics and weight to their pairing. Even Geraldine Chaplin carries with her the vestiges of Old Hollywood, being the daughter of Charles Chaplin, one of its primary architects.
All this talk of the various supporting players and so little of Dame Angela? Well, maybe if The Mirror Crack’d had provided her with more material to work with I’d get to go full on rapturous mode on her performance. Alas, it’s not to be. She’s very good, as she always is, buried under makeup to transform her 55 years into the ancient Miss Marple, but her disappearance from the narrative is a serious blow. In the end, this feels like something of a dry-run for Murder, She Wrote, where Lansbury would once more play a delightfully eccentric and very English detective of grisly crimes.
Even worse is how the film comes roaring out the gate with a film-within-a-film, clearly a meta-moment where Marple is watching a Poirot-inspired story. This opening five minutes is more fun than the next hundred, and that is a major problem. But is a problem of the script or the directing? A little bit of both, really. Guy Hamilton lacks energy here, which is odd considering he cemented and perfected the Bond template with Goldfinger. While the script feels dashed off, a half-hearted affair that makes the killer obvious with the first murder, but painfully so by the second. There’s no mystery or suspense here, and that’s a severe impairment for a murder-mystery. Still, it’s a fine bit of entertainment for what it is, mostly as a chance to watch a series of cinematic legends transforming average material into something better by chewing enough scenery to make a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race feel tame by comparison.