Saturday 22 December 2018

Movie Review: Deathtrap (1982)

A mystery thriller, Deathtrap is firmly stagebound but still offers enough cerebral tricks and turns to pique interest.

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) is a famous Broadway playwright known for his clever murder mysteries, but he is losing his touch and suffering through a series of flops. At his impressive converted windmill home in the Hamptons, where one wall is adorned with antique weaponry souvenirs from his plays, he is consoled by his highly-strung wife Myra (Dyan Cannon), who suffers from anxiety but is independently wealthy.

Sidney receives an exceptionally promising draft script for a play called Deathtrap written by Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), who previously attended one of Bruhl's writing seminars. Sidney starts musing about inviting Clifford over, killing him and claiming the script as his own, horrifying Myra. Clifford does show up, hoping to get writing tips and advice to improve the script, and Myra gets increasingly frantic, not sure if her husband will go through with his devious plan.

That's as far as should be revealed about the plot, which then goes on a mazy run of surprises with varying levels of quality and success. An adaptation of Ira Levin's hit play, Deathtrap is directed by Sidney Lumet and written for the screen by Jay Presson Allen. The source material is perfect for a stage setting, inspired by intimate Agatha Christie murder mysteries and twisty thrillers like Sleuth. Lumet respects the film's origins, and mostly concentrates on capturing the play on film, with good work from the three cast members to enhance key close-ups.

The first half is by far the stronger part of the film. Lumet expertly establishes Sidney's character and the relationship with Myra, setting the stage for many possibilities to come, and the foul play opportunities are only enhanced when the cocky Clifford shows up. Despite many added convolutions the second half wilts, with next-door neighbour and psychic Helga Ten Dorp (Irene Worth) an unfortunate mismatch within the story's structure, and the film never regains a firm footing.

The performances are not unexpectedly theatrical, with slightly exaggerated mannerisms and louder than necessary dialogue delivery. Sufficient quality resides in the cast to pick up raised eyebrows, conspiratorial minds, and devious plots-in-the-making. Ten years after participating in the similar shenanigans of Sleuth, Caine provides the solemn desperation of a once-celebrated man now being discarded as a has-been by the chattering class. Reeve contributes freewheeling relative youth, and Cannon adds some on-point humour with a shriek-filled performance.

Deathtrap may not be exceptionally clever, but it is sufficiently amusing.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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