Once, twice, at least three times a murderer…
An MIT stats professor Luke befriends an old lady who is later killed in a hit and run accident. But what’s the probability he’s in love with the culprit?
Murder is Easy-Fan Made Trailer, billysgirl, Dailymotion and photos © CBS
This Movie adaptation may begin on a train but it’s not Hercule Poirot in the remake of Murder on the Orient Express (1974). it may star Helen Hayes, but she’s not playing Miss Jane Marple as in Murder with Mirrors (1985). You don’t have to be a detective to know both these films were based on Agatha Christie novels with Christie’s more famous detectives.
This TV Movie, however, has a different sleuth, an American MIT professor of probability and statistics, Luke Williams. He’s supported by a cast of lovelies headed by the birthday girl of 102 years today, Olivia de Havilland in the TV Movie Murder is Easy (1982).
The dramatic music announcing the beginning of the credits we are in Christie inspired Englandshire, with the obligatory all-star cast and murder afoot. On a train, we meet our MIT professor Luke Williams (Bill Bixby) trying to work out a problem with calculator in hand and puzzled look on his face. As the train stops at Wydewood Under Ashe, a little old lady joins him in the carriage.
Miss Marple Lavinia Fullerton (Helen Hayes). Luke asks her who won the Derby, and then burbles on about those statistics and computers that helped him win his bet! (but to be fair had an unfair advantage as a professor in probability and stats). Lavinia is much more interesting.
She confides she’s off to Scotland yard to report on a murderer. This person residing in the wee village she lives in and 3 murders later, she’s a wee bit concerned. The pair part ways at the station, after he’d given her a copy of his book (presumably autographed).
After leaving the train, Luke is met by a jolly English friend, Jimmy. And then suddenly the screeching of tyres is heard, with Lavinia mowed down in a hit and run accident. What’s the probability of that? With blood over that book. Luke tells his friend about her concerns and says he wants to attend her funeral. Luke believes Lavinia was murdered.
At Lavinia’s funeral, the
all-star suspects line up in apparent grief. There’s Abbott the legal advisor, Major Hawton, Mr Ellsworthy (Jonathan Pryce) and Lord Gordon Easterfield (Timothy West) and his young secretary and fiance Bridget Conway (Lesley Anne Down). And Honoria Waynflete (Olivia De Havilland) who’d been friends with Lavinia as young girls. All introduced with a wee nod to Lavinia’s most significant part in their lives.
Jimmy and Luke are invited for tea – as this is Englandshire – by Lord Easterfield. With Luke claiming to be writing a book on witchcraft, he gets invited to stay with Easterfield and his live-in fiance, Bridget. Bridget is half Easterfield’s age, and very pretty. Luke is actually investigating Lavinia’s sudden demise, feeling he owes it to her. And on meeting Bridget, and spending time with her he’s becoming more than besotted.
The other “murders” are all put down as accidents, but apparently, Easterfield had a wee bit of a grudge with all of the victims. With one victim drowning, another dying of blood poisoning and one falling out a window. We learn that his home, a stately home, was originally in Bridget’s family and her father, a doctor recently died.
Luke’s introduced by Bridget, to the local spinster, Honoria Waynflete. She’s the curator of the museum and invites them for tea (of course). She tells how her maid Amy is being most troublesome, After calling her and finding her room locked and no reply. Luke simply climbs up from the outside to her window and discovers Amy’s dead. Murdered?
Luke thinks so, after weighing up the odds. The local village cop (Freddie Jones) and the doctor visit the scene. With heroin found in Amy’s make up compact case… and the local doc confirming this after he’s tasted it. Luke suspects Amy knew her killer. Again the suspects line up with Ellsworthy having recently broken up with her the no 1 suspect.
Meanwhile, Bridget cottons on Luke isn’t all that he seems. Luke tells her about his encounter with Lavinia and the pair go, full tilt detective, as she introduces him and tells him more about the others in the village. (Well the ones who matter anyway).
After meeting Ellsworthy, he’s grappling with a bong and confirms he knows about drugs. it appears he was quite loved up with Amy… with sketches of her and he appears very eccentric. But he seems genuinely shocked by Amy’s sudden death.
Luke goes to chat to nice Ms Waynflete again who saves him from nearly falling out of a window. After she’s recovered from getting a wee bit panicky from this near accident. She tells him about her engagement to Easterfield in her youth and his dark side where he killed her canary. She broke their engagement off, because of this.
Luke tells her about Lavinia’s thoughts on the recent “deaths”. Luke and Bridget get close and Luke makes a pass at Bridget which she passes off with a flirty double entendre. And we meet the lawyer – in his one of two appearance – who works with wills and investments.
We find out from the all-knowing barmaid that Amy stole Bridget’s boyfriend. And Bridget is overheard fighting with the chauffeur who has something urgent to tell Easterfield. On a day trip to Oxford with Bridget, Luke adds all the information he’s learnt so far into the computer.
Then he asks the computer who it thinks the murderer is. This place is more than probable the best place to leave you with odds are that you might tune in to this wee movie or read the book (which has the same characters and outcome to the story).
This was a fun 80s adaptation to an Agatha Christie novel and it was a nice slant of the MIT professor investigating with one of the suspects. I felt Bridget and Luke’s burgeoning romance at times irritating as it distracted from the murders but more often a nice original touch to the story.
This is best seen with Luke’s fears that he may have fallen for the wrong girl when he has his doubts over Bridget’s role in those “murders”. However, despite these worries, Bridget and Luke had a sweet, flirtatious relationship which developed naturally as the story progressed.
Bixby was a lovely American addition to this mainly British cast and setting. Bixby had a nice easy rapport with everyone and I loved his portrayal of this mild-mannered MIT researcher teamed up with Bridget. Bridget was wonderfully played by Down. Her Bridget appearing like an ice maiden with her fiancé but thawing out with Bixby’s Luke.
These acting talents were wonderful casting choices for this storyline for two post-thirties aged characters made the romance more likeable and credible. This much better than if these parts had been adapted to be played by two young things which would have made the romance feel more contrived and annoying.
I felt however Hayes and many of the other actors in the cast were in the movie for too short a time. So it was sad not to see more of the back story to these murders and Lavinia’s role with the suspects and those who had been “murdered” before the story started on the train. This especially true after seeing Hayes sweet scenes and rapport with Bette Davis in Murder with Mirrors a few years later.
More time with all of these characters would have given more credibility to those suspected. It meant only a few of the characters could be validly seen as true suspects and a few felt like red herrings. Johnathan Pryce, however, was a delight in his all too short contribution to the movie as was Freddie Jones as the policeman. Both hammed it up perfectly with their eccentric characters.
However, the star turn must go to Olivia De Havilland, as the Golden Hollywood actress naturally dominated her scenes. From the start with her appearance at the funeral to her scenes with Bixby and later with Down she led us – and their characters – on a merry dance, with her portrayal of this old spinster with a past. Be it her talking of Ms Waynflete’s relationship with Easterfield to her over concern about Amy her maid.
In her scenes, she showed a great range of emotions and vulnerabilities. This made her character have more presence than others. She made her role one of the most memorable, as she, directly and indirectly, dropped a few clues into her conversation.
This with the tone in her voice or in her performance with her actions. She also as the professional actress of many years, gave support to the other actors. Like Bette Davis, she was a welcome addition to the proceedings of this TV Movie after so many delightful Hollywood roles.
To conclude, with the help of Bridget, Luke a man obsessed with numbers and figures was able to see the human angle to the murders. As things not as clear-cut as what he or the computer proposed. With both Luke and Bridget’s character’s contrasting thoughts and angles about the possible “murders”, it’s a shame that Bridget and Luke didn’t get their own detective show.
As it could have been equivalent of Hart to Hart (1979-84) but with an appeal for both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. As you could say – that Bridget and Luke like those happily married Harts – when they met it was murder…
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 10
Hulk Rating: /10
This post was added to In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies Third Annual Olivia De Havilland Blogathon. Other posts with this cast include Olivia De Havilland in Airport 77 and The Swarm. Lesley Anne Down also starred in Dallas. Helen Hayes starred in Murder with Mirrors. Bill Bixby directed Three on a Date and starred in Fantasy Island and The Twilight Zone. Both Bixby and Hayes starred in The Love Boat.