Sleuth (1972)
May 9, 2018 5:49 PM - Subscribe

A man who loves games and theater invites his wife's lover to meet him, setting up a battle of wits with potentially deadly results.

Roger Ebert: "Sleuth," a totally engrossing entertainment, is funny and scary by turns, and always superbly theatrical. It's the kind of mystery we keep saying they don't make anymore, but sometimes they do, and the British seem to write them better than anyone. The movie is based on the long-running play by Anthony Shaffer, who also wrote Hitchcock's "Frenzy." Both films have in common a nice flair for dialogue and a delicate counterpoint between the ironic and the gruesome.

What really makes the movie come alive--what makes it work better than the play, really--are the lead performances by Sir Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, and Alec Cawthorne. Olivier plays the wealthy mystery writer Andrew Wyke as a true-blue British eccentric: His head, like his house, is cluttered with ornate artifacts largely without function. The hero of his detective stories, the wonderfully named St. John Lord Merridewe, is equally dotty. Olivier is clearly having fun in the role, and he throws in all kinds of accents, asides, and nutty pieces of business.

Michael Caine, who might seem an unlikely candidate to play Milo Tindle, turns out to be a very good one. He manages somehow to seem smaller and less assured than Olivier (even while he towers over Olivier). And he is strangely touching as he dresses up in an absurd clown's costume to steal the jewels. Inspector Doppler, the kindly old investigator who suspects that Andrew has murdered Milo, is played by Alec Cawthorne, a veteran stage actor making his movie debut.

It's difficult to say more about "Sleuth" without giving away its plot--which in this case would be a capital offense. Let me just mention that the play makes a remarkably easy transition to the screen because of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's willingness to respect its timing and dialogue, instead of trying to jazz it up cinematically. And, despite the fact that most of the movie takes place indoors, we never get the sense of visual limitations because Ken Adam's set designs give us such an incredible multitude of things to look at (and through) in the mansion.

AV Club: Engaged in constant dialogue as they move through Wyke’s home—an old-money estate decorated with electronic figures, toys, and gags (including a life-size mechanical sailor who laughs at Wyke’s jokes)—the two soon reveal their own deep-rooted hang-ups: Wyke’s arrogance and humiliation-fueled vengefulness, and Tindle’s resentment and ferocious desperation. Olivier affects a wide range of flamboyant mannerisms and accents to deliver a theatrical turn as a man consumed by intellectual (and amorous) competition. Caine segues seamlessly between confused buffoonery and calculating coldness as their initially polite rapport transforms into a verbal sparring match of deceptive volleys. Through it all, director Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Cleopatra) stages his material with assured acuity. The film’s midway table-turning twist isn’t much of a surprise, but that hardly mitigates the considerable pleasure of watching two of England’s finest actors—one figuratively passing the superstar torch to the other—duke it out in a film of cunning social and class warfare.

posted by MoonOrb (5 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I absolutely adored this film as a kid. And the thing is I was totally taken in by the twist when I first watched it. I thought it was a thing of beauty. Watching it today, it's harder to figure out how I was so easily duped. Of course Michael Caine being a much less familiar actor to me then than he is now probably helped.

Still: Incredible dialogue and two actors at the top of their game working wonderfully off each other. Also: Stay the hell away from the remake (Good intentions. Awful movie).
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 4:57 PM on May 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've always liked this movie, but it's one of my mom's all-time faves so I have a kind of secondary affection for it, for her sake. Critics like to talk about a movie's "wicked" wit, but this is one where it really applies. What a tricksy devil of a film. It's been years since I saw it, but when I did I knew about the twist up front... and even THEN it was kind of hard to believe Caine was playing both parts. He's such an idiosyncratic actor, with a voice EVERYBODY imitates and that accent that just seems baked into him, so it's shocking how much he disappears into the role of the cop. One can certainly see how how Olivier's character bought the ruse!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:56 PM on May 10, 2018

I saw the 2007 version with Jude Law before the 1972 version. I liked both, but casting Michael Caine again for the remake was pretty remarkable. I'm going to have to find copies of both of those again. Thanks MoonOrb.
posted by porpoise at 5:42 PM on May 11, 2018

I love this movie so much. One of my all-time favorites. Back when my wife and I were dating, I showed her this movie and she loved it, which was a great early sign (that and the fact that she had a bunch of dialogue from Clue committed to memory).

I saw a production of Sleuth at Seattle's Taproot Theater many, many years ago. The programs had an actor's bio listed for the actor who "played" Inspector Doppler, with all kinds of made-up life details, which was really fun.
posted by duffell at 5:50 PM on May 11, 2018

Tx for reminding me of this.
posted by jouke at 12:00 PM on May 12, 2018

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