Murder is big business.
Just ask Agatha Christie, grand dame of the English murder mystery. Just ask the ushers for her very own 1953 stage sensation The Mousetrap.
Murder She Wrote? Murder She Earned is more like it.
But as The Mousetrap’s actors and producers toasted the play’s 100th performance, Christie wasn’t the only one making a killing.
The stage production was such a success that a movie was in the works. Sure, the rights stipulated that filming couldn’t begin until the West End play had been shuttered for at least six months. But no matter: The public is fickle, and they’d soon be moving on to other distractions. The days of every stage production are numbered, just as sure as those of an unlikeable Christie character are.
But the track from stage to screen rarely runs as smoothly as the Orient Express. And Leo Köpernick, the hot-shot Hollywood director contracted to bring The Mousetrap to American movie houses, had some changes in mind. More sex! More violence! More everything!
Perhaps Leo’s desire to twist a cherished piece of stagecraft was the reason why, a few hours later, he was found dead—killed, it seems, by … a sewing machine. Though dispatched in the theater’s wardrobe area, his body had been dragged on stage and positioned on the couch.
“Staged, as it were,” quips the young, enthusiastic Constable Stalker.
But Leo had made other enemies for other reasons. Then again, perhaps the killer had not been after Leo as much as The Mousetrap itself—a desire, perhaps, to shut down the play for the sake of the movie, or perhaps to extinguish the movie for the sake of the play.
But whatever the motive, a murderer is afoot. And it’s up to Stalker and her world-weary superior, Inspector Stoppard, to bring the ruffian to justice.
Murder may be big business. But it’s a bloody business indeed.
It’s been said that the murder mystery is one of the most moral forms of storytelling: It may take a couple hundred pages or so, but ultimately the killer is brought to justice. Order overcomes chaos, good overcomes evil, and everyone has a nice spot of tea.
But, of course, for a mystery to find its tidy conclusion requires quite a bit of work. And that work lands, in this case, on Inspector Stoppard and Constable Stalker.
Stalker is certainly the more enthusiastic officer. The single mother wants to solve the crime and bring its perpetrators to justice in the worst way—even if she sometimes goes about solving the mystery in the worst ways herself. She can let her zeal get the best of her sometimes.
Thankfully, Inspector Stoppard curbs the young officer’s more spontaneous instincts, leavening them with introspective thought. He encourages her not to jump to conclusions (and Stalker, the ever-conscientious note-taker, writes “DON’T JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS” in her notebook). Ultimately, the two shepherd the case to a satisfying conclusion.
Not much, though we do hear a reference to “theatrical purgatory.” We also hear a rendition of Hank Williams’ rendition of “I Saw the Light,” which is littered with spiritual references.
Agatha Christie wasn’t one to put a lot of unnecessary titillation in her work, and this homage/spoof to her and her work follows suit—to a point. While certainly intimate relations are potential motives for murder, we don’t see those intimacies play out explicitly on camera.
That said, movie producer John Woolf does canoodle with his assistant, Ann. (We see them lightly flirt and embrace on screen, and Woolf talks about divorcing his current wife.) Mervyn Cocker-Norris, The Mousetrap’s would-be screenplay writer is in a relationship with another man (it’s suggested) named Gio. (Given the 1953 setting, Mervyn unconvincingly tells others that Gio is his “cousin”.) We learn that Inspector Stoppard’s wife cheated on him; he only learns of the affair when his wife ends up pregnant with another guy’s baby.
Leo is presented as a first-class cad. He tells us that British women “go wild for an American accent and a promise of a pair of nylons.” (Constable Stalker seems to at least half-confirm that assertation; She holds up a bit of hosery in his hotel room as he an the inspector search for clues, and she gasps in appreciation.) Leo also flirts with a married woman. His “little black book” is filled with apparent paramours, and we learn that Leo fathered a child out of wedlock.
Inspector Stoppard occasionally is shown in his underwear. And Leo accidentally includes a drawing of an apparently naked woman (shown from the back) in a storyboard presentation.
“The modern audience will walk out in protest if we don’t give them at least one violent death in the opening frame!” Leo shouts at Mervyn.
Fittingly, then, we see one violent death in the opening frame.
Leo’s fight with his killer takes longer than a standard stage intermission, with the murderer first thwacking the guy with a ski. “It was all downhill from there,” Stalker later notes, and so it was. The camera turns away before Leo receives the fatal sewing-machine blow, but we do see his bloodied, dead body on stage later. We’re told that someone apparently tried to rip Leo’s tongue out.
To avoid spoilers, we’ll make the rest of this section somewhat perfunctory. But we see people punched, strangled, poisoned, rolled into carpets, shot, thwacked with snow shovels, beaned with sandbags and pushed into cakes. Threats are hurled. Fires are set. Scripts are ripped.
Miss Marple would not approve. Two s-words are uttered, along with a smattering of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–tard”, “h—” and variations of the British profanity “bloody.” God’s name is misused about 10 times, at least twice pairing it with “d–n.”
Champagne flowed during The Mousetrap 100th performance celebration, but champagne wasn’t strong enough for Leo. So he stuffs a bit of money into an usher’s pocket and says, “Why don’t you scare me up a real drink, kid?” (We later see that the usher has returned with a bottle of Scotch.)
While on the case, Inspector Stoppard lies to Stalker—telling her that he’s going to the dentist when, in fact, he’s going to a nearby pub. (He drinks at least two glasses of gin while there.) Later, he and Stalker go out to another pub to discuss the case. Stoppard gets seriously plastered, and Stalker has to drive him home and help him to his apartment.
Woolf—who produced The African Queen some years before—tells a story about how both stars (Humphry Bogart and Katharine Hepburn) refused to brush their teeth with water while filming in Africa: The quality of the water was poor, so they brushed their teeth using bourbon instead.
We see characters drink wine, martinis and a bevy of other alcoholic beverages. Stoppard tries to conceal his own drinking with mints. Someone is described as having been as “intoxicated as a newt.”
Lying is a part of most murder mysteries, and so it is in this one. Lies are told about a great many things, and not just about murder. You could say that the film is filled with death and denial. (Get it? De Nile? Never mind.)
We hear that Leo was blacklisted as a suspected communist.
Yes, murder is big business. In entertainment, it’s always been big. Even the classical Greek playwright Aeschylus saw a winner in losing one’s life—penning a trio of plays (the Oresteia) centering on a pair of noteworthy murders.
But those ancient Greeks never showed people getting killed on stage. As the ill-fated Leo Köpernick could tell us, we live in different times.
Still, for a movie centered on murder, See How They Run feels like a winking return to those dainty murder mysteries of Edwardian Britain (and the movies they inspired). This is far more Agatha Christie than Quentin Tarantino, far more parlor room than oubliette. It’s gentler than the well-regarded 2019 whodunit Knives Out, kinder than this year’s needlessly bloody remake of Death on the Nile. It has its problems, to be sure: The sexual plot points, the frequent drinking, the bloody bodies on the floor. But in context, this spoofish murder mystery feels paradoxically innocent.
You could argue that Agatha Christie herself was responsible for making murder—at least fictional murder—respectable. More than 2 billion copies of her books have been sold, making her the most popular author of all time. The real-life play The Mousetrap? Yep, it’s still going, with more than 28,500 performances under its belt. Outside a respite forced by the COVID epidemic, it’s been in continuous production since 1952.
Why no Mousetrap movie, then? Well, the author really did have a clause saying that the play had to be out of production for six months before one could begin. Hollywood is still waiting for its chance.
Agatha Christie showed the world that even murder stories don’t need to be needlessly bloody to work. And perhaps this latest wave of whodunits will convince more contemporary directors of the same. Death, it seems—at least this peculiar brand of death—has a life of its own.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.