If this film were a spoof, a send-up, a parody of a typical PBS Mystery Show, it would succeed admirably. But it is not. We are intended to take it seriously, and suffer a 160-minute disaster, which proves again that the PBS Mystery Show is off the rails.
This film starts promisingly by introducing us to Dr. Edmund Bickleigh and his older, overbearing wife, Julia. But it never makes clear how this mismatched couple came to be married. Julia was of the upper class and remains a snob. Edmund Bickleigh had told Julia and others that his father was a doctor, but in reality, his father was a quack who sold a nostrum made of gin, chalk dust, and sugar syrup that his father and mother cooked up in their kitchen. With no explanation of how this twosome met and came to marry, we'll just have to accept their marriage as "the given" of this show. Plausibility is definitely not this film's strong point.
Into a nearby mansion moves the young and beautiful Madeleine Cranmere. Beautiful is probably not the correct word--flashy, trendy, and perhaps even tacky would be more appropriate to describe her looks. Anyone with an iota of sense would understand immediately that this woman was a phony and on the make. But not Edmund. He quickly falls in lust with her, and with her ardent encouragement, they begin an affair--a sexless affair, however, for Madeleine always stops Edmund before they can have sex. Her object is marriage to a rich man, for she is actually broke and on the lam from French debt collectors.
Madeleine is supposed to be the femme fatale of this mystery, but she is so badly acted by Megan Dodds that she's a caricature, a hoot--appropriate for a spoof but not a serious film. Even her obvious blond wig was funny. In every scene that she appeared, I watched closely to see how bad her acting would be.
At this point, viewers will fall out of sympathy with Edmund, and the film begins to fail, for there is no other character to sympathize with. Edmund is obviously a fool propelled by his gonads, hot to trot with any available woman. We learn that Julia knows of several affairs Edmund has had over the years but ignored them because the women were "lower class." The remaining characters are domineering (the wife), nags (Ivy), liars and fakes (Madeleine), adulterers, drunks (Madeleine's husband Denny), stupid, unperceptive (Rev. Hessary Torr), gossips, hypocrites, etc. The viewer is set adrift and can only watch what has now become a predictable drama unfold.
To be able to marry Madeleine, Edmund plots to kill Julia and does so. But it's too late. By the time Edmund has administered a fatal dose of morphine to Julia, Madeleine has already agreed to marry Denny Bourne, a rich young alcoholic. In his eagerness to stop this marriage, Edmund declares himself available, stupidly revealing to Madeleine that Julia is dead--BEFORE Julia's body is found and their maid phones Edmund at Madeleine's place to inform him of his wife's death.
The plot goes on and on, ricocheting from one film noir cliché to another, eventually ending up with the biggest cliché of all--Edmund found not guilty of the murder he did commit but convicted and hanged for one he did NOT commit.
We have a trial scene here that marks the nadir of the film and perhaps of the entire PBS Mystery Series itself. The judges are stereotyped bewigged old farts asking their long, involved questions in plumy tones. The spectators hum and haw and gasp on cue. If this film were a spoof, this courtroom scene would be perfection.
"Malice Aforethought" has already been made once for the Mystery series. Why did we need another version, and a poor one at that? Is this what PBS is using my donations for? The new Miss Marple series gives the old woman a backstory consisting of an adulterous relationship with a soldier who is killed in World War I, a Miss Marple who reads Raymond Chandler (Could anyone be further from Philip Marlowe than Miss Marple?) and, in the first episode's conclusion, the grisly reality of showing the two culprits being readied for their hangings. Please! No more of this Marple series for me, despite Geraldine McEwan.
According to Spoto's biography of Alfred Hitchcock, page 341, just after Hitchcock had finished "I Confess," Hitchcock wanted to turn Malice Aforethought into a film starring Alec Guinness as the mild-mannered but murderous doctor. However, Guinness would not be available to make the film for at least a year, so Hitchcock went on to "Dial M for Murder." I wonder what Hitchcock would have made of this novel had he filmed it. Hitchcock made some stinkers in his day, but I don't think he would have made one this bad
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