Saturday 18 January 2014

Movie Review: Sleuth (1972)

A battle of wits between two determined men, Sleuth adapts Anthony Shaffer's play to the screen, with twists and turns galore and two bravura performances from Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.

Andrew Wyke (Olivier) is a rich and playful author of murder mysteries. A lover of games and puzzles, Andrew lives in a large and isolated estate in rural England. He invites Milo Tindle (Caine) for a visit and a chat. Milo is carrying on an affair with Andrew's wife Marguerite, and Andrew would like to discuss the matter. Milo is from an immigrant family and owns a couple of fledgling hairdressing salons as he tries to scrap his way up England's social ladder. Andrew can barely conceal his disdain for Milo's unworthiness as a rival for Marguerite's affection.

Nevertheless, Andrew convinces Milo that while he would be pleased to have Marguerite out of his hair, she has expensive tastes, and both men can benefit by staging a fake break-in and robbery. Milo would steal Andrew's expensive collection of jewelry valued at £250,000, and Andrew would claim the insurance money. Milo buys into the plot, putting on a clown outfit, breaking in and stealing the jewels in a fake heist orchestrated by Andrew. But Andrew's plan has an unexpected twist, and soon Inspector Doppler arrives at Andrew's estate, investigating Milo's sudden disappearance.

Sleuth is an enjoyable cerebral romp, as Andrew and Milo engage in a thrust and counter-thrust battle to settle an individual contest and also to score points in the greater battle of the classes. There are plenty of surprises as the games get ever more dangerous, and each man has to guard against the next block and sly counter-attack. But the film does stretch credibility, both in the robustness of each individual prank and then in attempting to layer too many antics. Men as smart as Andrew and Milo should not be falling for some of the more obvious deceptions, and for all the haughtiness on display, the film over-invests in its own wit.

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, working from Shaffer's own adaptation, does not try too hard to release the film out of its stage origins. Other than the opening introduction in the front yard maze and a few other scenes at Andrew's front door, most of the movie takes place inside Andrew's palatial playhouse. The action does move within a few rooms, but this is very much a stage-bound film for its 138 minute duration.

Mankiewicz does add some cinematic energy by interjecting frequent quick cuts of the many colourful mechanical automatons who witness, sometimes noisily, the intellectual struggle between Andrew and Milo. An interesting device, it gets rather old with over-use.

The acting from Olivier and Caine is superb, but also clearly theatrical. Olivier in particular frequently falls back on over-the-top, stage-appropriate mannerisms, his loud voice, arm waving, and at times, panicked running around perfect for the context but not exactly subtle.

Caine is more subdued, and more than holds his own against his illustrious co-star. With a more controlled performance to convey Milo as a man struggling against Britain's rigid class structure, Caine registers a strong impact when he does finally unleash seething anger and frustration, Milo seeking a measure of revenge against the invisible attitudes that hold immigrants back. That Laurence comes from British acting royalty while Caine is the combative cockney kid adds a distinctive sub-context to the film.

Sleuth is a grand contest between egos, where stylish humiliation is the objective, and the game does not end until that final, sharp sting.

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