Deathtrap (1982)

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A whodunit with more turns and combinations than Rubik’s Cube.

After I saw Christopher Reeve as Superman he became my first movie crush, but somehow I still haven’t gotten around to seeing some of his other big movies, the ones that I was told at the time were only “for grown ups.” So Deathtrap popped into mind after I saw Dyan Cannon in The Last of Sheila and felt like following up with another mystery, and it turned out to be another clever, darkly funny whodunit that makes fun of entertainment egos.

Michael Caine plays a once-successful playwright whose latest mysteries are flopping hard. Even though his wife Dyan Cannon is super wealthy and he hardly needs a hit for the cash, his ego is starved for accolades and he would literally (I say literally!) kill for a comeback. Christopher Reeve plays a brown-nosing former student of Caine’s, and also one of his biggest fans. Reeve sends him the first play he’s written, wanting his work’s “spiritual father” to give an opinion and maybe even help him get the play produced. Reeve’s play is so perfect a whodunit, such a surefire crowd-pleaser that Caine is consumed by jealousy and greed and decides he must murder Reeve and claim the play as his own.

Reeve shows up at Caine’s for what he thinks is an editing session, and despite seeming to be a big dim, golly-gee “starry-eyed” amateur, he soon senses threat in the tension between his host couple. Cannon tries to talk Caine out of “doing it” (giving free advice without credit, is what she says) while Caine insists on drawing Reeve closer to his antique weapons collection, starting with trying on Houdini’s handcuffs. From here it’s hard to describe further and not ruin some surprises for the first time viewer, and there are a lot of surprises. More on the mechanism of the plot later, but so much credit has to go to Caine and Reeve for their fine jobs playing multi-layered characters who constantly have to scheme, lie, trick each other, everyone around them and the viewer, and make us believe all those reversals. Cannon mostly shrieks and frets and wipes away her mascara and does her weak heart no good. Living next door is a world-renowned psychic, Helga Ten Dorp (Irene Worth), who’s appearing next week on the Merv Griffin show, and has a nasty habit of popping over uninvited to spook Caine with her accurate predictions of murder in his house.

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The movie is an adaptation of a hit play by Ira Levin, which ran on Broadway for a record number of performances starting in 1978. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the movie has a decidedly stagey feel, but it’s deliberate that you notice the staginess, because it’s making a biting commentary on the personalities and nature of success in that field, and it’s an important part of the story structure. So for example, you see Caine as an expert at staging his “crimes” to see if they’ll work, and that becomes something he uses to get the best of Reeve. Or you have those last few scenes, which are overacted with increasingly convenient and phony thunder and lightning, but then you find out there’s an important self-referential purpose to that, leading to the final twist.

The movie very nearly piles on too many reversals and surprises. As you approach the end you almost get tired of the never-ending twists, and instead of just enjoying the plot, your mind tries to keep one step ahead and guess what the next one might be. The film’s poster had the leads sitting mostly obscured inside a Rubik’s Cube, which describes how I felt as the gadgetry of the story wanted so badly to impress you that it threatened to distract from the good work of the stars. But on the whole, the story is an entertaining puzzle, thanks to the expert handling of Lumet and great acting by Caine and Reeve.

If I keep following this thread, the next movie I should watch is the similarly plotted Sleuth, with Michael Caine in the Reeve role.

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5 thoughts on “Deathtrap (1982)”

  1. Hm . . . too long since I’ve seen this one! You’re right about the similarities with Sleuth; I always have to think hard lest I get the two mixed up. (I actually saw Sleuth on the London stage — must have been ~1971. I see Shaffer’s play predates Levin’s by about 8 years. Another hm!)

    1. That’s interesting, now I’m even more interested in Sleuth, will be fun to compare them. Love a good mystery, the mystery here was not so much WHOdunit as what’s next? Thanks!

  2. Haven’t seen this one for years but the mention of Sleuth brings back memories. One of those films that I fell in love with immediately. Need to revisit both of theses titles. So yes, give us Sleuth!

    1. Excellent to hear, ok I will do that sometime very soon. I like watching on a theme whenever I can, plus when they’re that similar it’s fun to compare. Thanks!

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