IMDB #196 Sleuth

Halfway through 1972's Sleuth, I found myself with an odd sense of deja vu until I realized I had seen Anthony Shaffer's 1970 stage play performed in middle school (much later than 1970, though).

I didn't remember the ending or anything, just some indelible images- the howling of a man in a clown costume as a shot is fired, or the oddly familiar figure of an inspector asking questions about a body that can't be found. The story, a mystery of cruel games between two English gentlemen, really has too many twists and turns to keep track of for too long anyway, but it's the kind of fun Edgar Allen Poe would be proud of.

The Key Players:

Sleuth is actually the last film of director Joseph Mankiewicz's illustrious career: nominated for Best Picture as a Producer six times (including The Philadelphia Story), he would win both Screenplay and Director two years in a row for A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve. After toiling for three years on the over-budget commercial flop Cleopatra, he returned to form for his swan song.

This is our second clash with the charisatic and devilish Laurence Olivier, but our first enocunter with Michael Caine. He and Jack Nicholson are the only actors with Oscar nominations in the last five decades. His most famous roles tend to be the subject of remakes, with The Italian Job, Alfie, and a recenter Sleuth trading down for Mark Wahlberg and Jude Law. He's also Alfred Pennyworth in the recent Chris Nolan blockbusters, of course.

Click for More...

The Story:

Olivier plays a clear analogue of Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of a hugely successful mystery series featuring a "St. John Lord Merridew," a private consultant that often beats incompetent policemen to the punch.

He invites a younger, roguish Caine to his large estate, which is full of hedge-mazes, games and puzzles, and creepy automata, to confront him- Caine wants to marry Olivier's wife, and the older man has a proposition that would benefit them both...

I'm reluctant to explain more without a spoiler wall. Hmm...


Let's rundown the twists:

1. Olivier isn't mad about the affair- in fact, he suggests that Caine steal some jewels from him to be able to keep the wife in luxury- Olivier will get the insurance money and everyone wins. To that end, he has Caine dress as a clown (for a disguise) and make a convincing show of breaking in.

2. Olivier then announces his intention to kill Caine, and the burglary was just a ruse to make it look justified. He forces Caine, who's cowering in fear, to put the clown mask on, puts the gun to the back of his head, and BANG!

3. An inspector Doppler comes to the house, investigating the disspearance of Caine. Olivier explains the entire affair had been a ruse- he shot a blank, intending only to humiliate Caine for cuckolding him. But the inspector finds blood on the bannister, and there's a mound of freshly turned earth in the garden. Olivier frantically protests innocence...

4. Until Doppler takes off his disguise (which are all well done prosthetics indeed) to reveal that he is Caine, getting revenge! Olivier claims never to have been truly fooled.

5. So Caine starts a new game, claiming to have killed Olivier's mistress and hidden incriminating evidence about the house. A phone call to the mistress's flatmate confirms this, and a distraught Olivier madly searches for the four items amid Caine's taunting clues to their whereabouts. He finds them all just as Caine lets policemen into the house.

6. Fooled again! The flatmate and mistress were in on it, and Caine didn't kill anyone. This sends Olivier over the edge, and he picks up the loaded gun, and shoots Caine in the back as he leaves.

7. But then the police really arrive, as Caine had made a complaint about the initial fake-shooting.

Sleuth begins and ends with a curtain within the frame, showing us Olivier's manneguins and robots and their idle grins, as if to remind us that what we're seeing is a show.

When Caine yells "Please!" through the clown mask right before being "shot," I realized I had seen "Sleuth" in the mid-nineties at some point, which tipped me on the identity of the inspector as well- though the film does an admirable job distracting us, with the credits claiming "Introducing Alec Cawthorne as Inspector Tindle."

There's also a fake "John Matthews" and "Teddy Martin" credited as the imaginary detectives Caine is waiting for in part 5. In fact, no one appears but our two leads, and no one else is necessary.

For a while, it seems as Olivier is going to act circles around Caine- the older man gets such a meaty part in the early going, flitting from jocularity to whimsy to rage in a heartbeat, filling each line with menace. But the tables turn often enough to showcase Caine's sadistic side as well, boiling over into class-based anger from time to time.

Both do a good job of dealing in the underlying resentments without spelling them out- Olivier's impotence and Caine's half-Italian heritage, chiefly. In fact, the camraderie after Caine reveals himself as the inspector is such that you wish these characters could be friends- if only they didn't both need to win so badly.

The reveals and double-reveals may get a little tiresome, but it ends in real bloodshed and ruin satisfyingly enough. A dying Caine even fittingly reminds a crumbling Olivier, "Be sure and tell was only a bloody game."


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher, I'd say. What was the last successful film that only featured two actors? I can't even think of something that tried it (Gus Van Sandt's Gerry?). Shaffer may have been worried about how his play would translate to the screen, but it great to have a version of it that captures the wickedly cunning spirit so well.

The Legacy:

The film would earn nominations for the Score, Mankiewicz's direction, and the rare double Lead Actor nods for Olivier and Caine, but would lose all four. Nonetheless, the play remains a popular stage production (even in Houston, TX in the mid nineties).

Harold Pinter adapted an entirely new version of the play for director Kenneth Branagh in 2007, with Jude Law in the Michael Caine role and Michael Caine in the Laurence Olivier role. Despite the star power, the fil was poorly received, suggesting the '72 version might be the definitive one in peoples' minds (or that they made it too claustrophobic and repetitive). I'll probably watch it sometime to compare.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

I looked all over for the scene early on where Olivier explains how much he hates the presumptious, lower-class Caine (and you realize It. Is. On.), but the best I could find was the big Inspector Doppler reveal. Uh, spoilers.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Forgot to mention the jaunty score that emphasizes the dramatic moments mostly by going quiet, or the Cole Porter songs that Olivier made all creepy.

-I would've nominated the eerie sailor automaton for Best Supporting Actor, the number of times they went to it for a reaction shot.

Coming Up...

195. A Streetcar Named Desire

194. King Kong (1933)

193. Rosemary's Baby

0 Response to "IMDB #196 Sleuth"

Powered by Blogger