Sleuth: Battle of Wits

IF IT WAS MURDER, WHERE’S THE BODY? IF IT WAS FOR A WOMAN, WHICH WOMAN? IF IT’S ONLY A GAME, WHY THE BLOOD?

sleuth72Whenever you play a game, taking it too seriously would be a mistake. That is one reason why the 2007 remake of this classic is inferior; it is also why The Game (1997) is not as accomplished as it could be. The malice in these stories can’t be allowed to dominate because that’s a turn-off. We need a sense of humor. Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Anthony Shaffer knew it and that is why there isn’t a single minute of Sleuth that isn’t hugely entertaining.

Director Mankiewicz’ last film reinforced the popularity of Shaffer’s play and became an original final chapter in a rich career. When we first meet Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a simple hairdresser, he’s arriving at successful crime writer Andrew Wyke’s (Laurence Olivier) grand estate. Wyke has invited him there to make a proposition. Tindle is dating the writer’s wife, Marguerite. Wyke has already found a new girlfriend, so Tindle wants him to grant Marguerite a divorce. Wyke shows no real interest in that, but reveals his proposition. If Tindle agrees to arrange a burglary in Wyke’s house and steal his jewelry, he can sell them abroad and afford a good life for himself and Marguerite. The writer claims to be in need of cash, so the insurance money will come in handy.

At first, Tindle finds the idea preposterous, but agrees to do it after a few drinks. Wyke talks him into dressing like a burglar (Tindle ends up wearing a clown costume) and actually breaking into the house. When Tindle gets his hands on the jewelry, Wyke points a gun at him and tells him that the game will have a deadly conclusion. However, none of them can predict the events that follow.

Going round and round each other
Shaffer based Andrew Wyke on Stephen Sondheim, a man who loved to play games (hopefully he didn’t go as far as Wyke). Olivier plays him like a person who is sophisticated on the outside but a wicked, little boy on the inside. Ken Adam’s outstanding production design goes perfectly with it; the house is full of magnificent dolls and toys that do funny things when the right, hidden button is pressed. Guests get their first taste of his playfulness when they lose their way in the huge maze in front of the house. Tindle seems to be his opposite, an earnest, hard-working lad (this is quite the battle of the classes), but he eventually shows Wyke that the writer’s not the only one with tricks up his sleeve.

It’s fascinating to watch these two men go round and round each other, their polite demeanor concealing their utter hatred for each other; the two stars are riveting, delivering their delicious dialogue with gusto. Perhaps it was expected that Olivier would make the childish author come alive, but it’s great to see a young Caine become his equal the more we get into the story. The script basically has three acts, each one with surprises; few will be fooled by the one in the middle act, but it doesn’t matter. It is still very clever and entertaining.

John Addison’s score adds a delightful touch and Mankiewicz succeeds in making the play cinematic; I love the constant, quick closeups of Wyke’s toys, emphasizing that this is nothing but a game.

The movie begins with Tindle trying to make his way to Wyke’s house through the maze, an excellent metaphor for what follows. In real life I could never enjoy these mind games. I find them frightening in a way, the cold calculations that make the manipulation work. I related to Michael Douglas’s feelings in The Game. But in the comfort of my home, watching Tindle and Wyke’s hateful, playful battle is pure pleasure.

Sleuth 1972-U.S. 138 min. Color. Produced by Morton Gottlieb. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Screenplay, Play: Anthony Shaffer. Music: John Addison. Production Design: Ken Adam. Cast: Laurence Olivier (Andrew Wyke), Michael Caine (Milo Tindle).

Trivia: Albert Finney and Alan Bates were allegedly considered for the part of Milo. The Edgar Allan Poe award on Wyke’s mantle is the one Shaffer won for writing the play. Remade as Sleuth (2007).

Quote: “It’s sex! Sex is the game! Marriage is the penalty. Round and round we jog towards each futile anniversary. Pass ‘Go’. Collect 200 rows, 200 silences, 200 scars in the deep places.” (Olivier)

Last word: “The original one was very class conscious. It was constructed with very much me as a working class company yo-bo and [Shaffer] was a very upper crust writer in the vein of old England – Agatha Christie, the gentleman sleuth he was writing about you know? You don’t deal with real common working class policemen because we’re so much smarter. All Agatha Christie’s people – even little old ladies are smarter than policemen. You know Miss Marple who goes and solves everything. So there’s this incredible snobbery that goes on and that did impart itself to the original movie in the script. Out of the script it did because everybody, the papers said Michael Caine, working class Alfie, he’s going to have to work with Lord Olivier. Boy is he gonna get showed a lesson, this little scum-bag who’s going to come and do this, you know? And even Larry wrote me a letter saying “you may be wondering how to address me when we meet” because he was a Lord. I hadn’t wondered for one moment how to address him when we meet. He very kindly said ‘you must call me Larry the moment we meet and for the rest of our relationship’, so that was… there was that class thing there.” (Caine, Collider)

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