It was only a bloody game…
After The Last of Sheila led me to Deathtrap, I thought the next movie in that thread had to be Sleuth, which turned out to be the perfect mix of the previous two, in a plot combining Sheila’s love of games and puzzles that escalate quickly and turn deadly, with several Deathtrap-style reversals. It’s a fantastic film with a brilliantly elaborate screenplay and stellar performances.
Laurence Olivier plays a prolific and renowned mystery writer who invites his wife’s lover Michael Caine to his mansion, ostensibly to talk Caine into sharing a scam wherein Caine will “steal” the wife’s jewelry for them to live on, while Olivier will bid his shrewish, spendthrift wife good riddance and also enjoy the insurance money. Sounds like a great deal, but we soon learn that Olivier is too clever, too in love with his talent for crafting mysteries, too possessive of his wife and too incensed at this second generation Italian’s intrusion, to let it all slide with such a polite and profitable little scheme. Caine falls for the whole thing, to the point of donning a clown costume, and then learns that Olivier actually plans to murder him in the act of robbery. And, as in Deathtrap, that’s about all I can say without ruining the movie.
If a 138 minute picture based on a play with only 3 actors and one set, makes you think “stagey” and overlong, stop thinking that because you’ll be totally involved throughout. There is a lot of talking but thanks to director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, it moves fast and with actors like these, every word, every action is a wonder to behold. And there’s nothing dull about that massive, magnificent manor, with every manner of mechanical dummy, toy and trinket that act as background, prop, clue, comment and personality at different points in the story. The set (built in Pinewood Studios) is packed with detail ranging from fun to creepy; a safe is revealed when you hit bullseye on a dartboard, a cellar is full of stage scene miniatures, skeletons and costumes. On the walls you can see some real photos of Olivier with celebrities (yes I paused to study them).
The screenplay, adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his own hit play, depends on the tricks and conventions that make the best mysteries work, and it also twists and reinvents those same cliches. The movie gives you the clues to its own nature in addition to revealing the story and characters’ personalities, right from the beginning when Caine can’t find his way through to Olivier in a garden maze–there’s a shrubbery that spins open, yet the real way in/out is ridiculously easy once you know it. It should have been clear from a detail like that, and then from the numerous games and half-completed puzzles scattered through the opening scenes, that Olivier is a master player of any game, that intense, extreme gaming and toying with people is his life, and he’s not above seizing any kind of advantage to win.
Olivier is amazing in what he called an “actor’s dream role” as the proud, aging writer with a Ronald Colman moustache, who shows his desperation, insecurity and a good deal of shame as his marriage (unhappy though it is) is suddenly threatened by this lower class man’s vitality and brash appeal. Olivier despises Caine’s youth, confidence and ease in any situation. He also takes great offense at anything less than reverence toward his life’s creation, the fictional detective St. John Lord Merridewe (as we are constantly reminded). He’s cold blooded and cruel, witty and wickedly funny, mocking with devastatingly accurate impressions and mugging to inject some humour here and there. We’re shown at the start that he vigorously acts out his novels as he writes them, so whenever he speaks in voices, prances about with childlike glee or dons a costume, it suits both the character and the great actor. It’s wonderful work creating an eccentric upper class ‘type’ that almost defies description and that no Olivier fan should miss.
Which is not to say that Caine is anything less than great as the hairdresser who seems goofy and dim at the start, but quickly ramps up to meet Olivier in both cunning and dedication. Where Olivier operates on entitlement and indignance, Caine is fueled by rage and one-upmanship. He’s proud too, only his pride is of a self made man, with ambition that drove him to exceed the failures and perpetually low status of his immigrant ancestors, a pride that once injured, makes him want revenge. He can roll up his sleeves and play dirty, and proves himself a match for the older master’s skill, wit and cruelty, coming back at him with weapons and clues in the form of childhood rhymes, riddles and word games, all while keeping his common sense, common man grit and easy charm.
Little wonder that Mankiewicz, Olivier and Caine got Oscar nominations; once they get going it’s a grand battle between two giants and you forget there’s even a woman at stake. Excellent movie.