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Sleuth (2007) Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 June 2008
ImageIn 1970, Anthony Shaffer’s play “Sleuth” made its debut, and delighted audiences around the world.  It was turned into a movie two years later by veteran director Joseph Mankiewicz (it was his last movie), and starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.  It’s a clever thriller, lots of fun to watch, with great, showy performances by the two leads.  It’s not really intended to be taken any too seriously—so why did Nobel-prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter write a new screenplay?  The question is hard to answer.

This new “Sleuth” also stars Michael Caine, amusingly cast as mystery writer Andrew Wyke, Olivier’s role in the first version.  Jude Law, who seems to have launched this new version, is cast as Milo Trindle, Caine’s original role.  As with the first movie, the most fun this film provides is to see two crafty, lively actors—both of whom clearly love what they’re doing—going head to head in this contest of wills.  But this movie is 45 minutes shorter than the original.  It is not 45 minutes better.

In the original film, Olivier resided in a classic English manor, stuffed to the gills inside with bric-a-brac, games, toys and other things that delighted Andrew Wyke.  In this movie, Caine also lives in a classic English manor—but inside it’s radically different.  It’s a black concrete box of a structure, with minimal (and minimalist) art here and there, chairs that look like nobody could sit in them, and a few monumental displays Wyke has mounted to himself.

In the original, Milo was a hairdresser who caught the eye of Wyke’s wife; here, he’s an out-of-work actor—but Wyke still insultingly considers him a hairdresser.  Milo is visiting Wyke in hopes of getting the older man to agree to a divorce, so Milo and the wife can marry.  In the first movie, Olivier greeted Caine with, “So you’re the young man who wants to marry my wife.”  Here, Caine greets Law with, “So you’re the young man who’s f****** my wife.”  This exemplifies the differences between the movies; the original was witty and collegial, a thriller of the old school; this one is witty and brittle, something other than a thriller.

But if you want to do something other than a thriller, why do “Sleuth”?  The story always fell neatly into three acts, because it was a three-act play.  The biggest change between the original and this is in the third act.  The big change is interesting, no doubt about it, and similar to elements in some of Pinter’s earlier works, specifically “The Servant.”  Thrillers are, basically, fun.  They’re not serious, but provide a lot of thrills; it’s a cliché to say they’re roller-coaster rides, but it’s also true—they provide similar excitement that you can (hopefully) walk away from.  But Pinter and Branagh are after something more serious here, but this plot really can’t support what they seem to be trying to do.

Still, Caine is always—ALWAYS—great fun to watch.  I don’t think there’s a better actor working today, and yet he always makes it seem effortless and like the greatest job in the world.  Here, he’s a cold, calculated egoist, sure that he’s infinitely Milo’s superior.  He wants to torment Milo, to destroy him, not because he values his wife so much, but because she is a prized possession that the other man threatens to take away.

At first, Milo is lost in Wyke’s carefully engineered wonderland of words and technology.  This Andrew Wyke doesn’t have lots of literal toys, he has dozens of TV-surveillance cameras mounted everywhere, he has gadgets in the walls, he can raise and lower screens, all by using one small remote that he wields like a magicians’ wand.

And he hates Milo.  But he’s also amused by Milo, and the control he has over him.  He eventually gets Milo to essentially jump through hoops—he says Milo needs to fake a robbery, making off with Wyke’s wife’s jewelry as a means of getting started.  This means Milo has to scale the roof of the house and descend through a skylight.  And all the time, they keep up their witty, verbal sparring.  Milo proves better at this than Wyke was expecting, but it delights the older man.

There’s a surprise at the end of the first act.  The second begins a day or two later, when a gruff British police detective arrives at Wyke’s home to talk about the disappearance of Milo Trindle.  And this leads to the twist at the end of the second act, one of the most famous in recent theatrical/movie history.  It worked better in the original movie, but it still probably surprises the uninitiated.

But this movie just does not generate the surprise and delight of the original, especially if you know that story twist.  Pinter’s dialogue is sharp and arch, twisting in on itself, barbed and venomous, yet unexpected.  But it doesn’t make “Sleuth” better, just (obviously) more Pinteresque.  Even though the older movie is 45 minutes longer, it’s this version that seems to run longer, because it’s devoid of the kind of theatrical glee common to three-act, big-twist mystery thrillers.  Audiences love those; it’s why Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap” ran in London for fifty years unbroken.  (It may still be there.)  If Pinter wasn’t going to embrace this concept, why take on “Sleuth”?

Kenneth Branagh is a great actor, has directed several movies very well, including his epic of “Hamlet” and another twisty mystery thriller, “Dead Again.”  But he’s not very creative here; things seem too stylized AND too formal; too often the two stars end up posed in picturesque but unnatural positions on the wide screen.  There’s nothing organic about this movie; it’s almost as mechanical as Andrew Wyke’s house.

But there’s still fun here, including in the commentary tracks.  Branagh and Caine do one together; in it, we learn that Caine appeared in Pinter’s very first (one-act) play, that they’ve known each other for years.  We hear Branagh’s surprise when he’s told that in the original version, the police inpector’s name, Doppler, was German for Double.  Here, he’s merely inspector Black.  It’s an entertaining commentary track, more fun, actually, than the movie itself.  Law has his own commentary track, but I didn’t have a chance to sample it.  There’s a making-of documentary on the disc, and a short piece on the makeup for Black.

As an example of high-definition, “Sleuth” is adequate but not much of a showcase.  The original “Sleuth” would be, but that was released on DVD once years ago, and is now very hard to find on home video.

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