Sleuth (1972)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/22/07 11:19:47

"Just turn your brain on."
5 stars (Awesome)

It is easy (inasmuch as any creative process is actually easy) to do parody or pastiche; one simply has to be aware of the familiar elements of a genre and repeat them, either mockingly or slavishly. Homage is a more difficult, and is sometimes as awkward. What writer Anthony Shaffer and director Joseph Mankiewicz do in "Sleuth" is almost scholarly in comparison.

The Agatha Christie-style puzzle mystery has always taken a lot of flack, in part because its priorities are complementary to those of modern critics (that is to say, there is nearly no overlap between the two groups): Mysteries are simple where Quality Literature is complex (they frequently use plain language to describe cardboard characters whose motivations are straightforward, and have a straightforward moral code) and vice versa (the smallest details must be observed, and characters often act upon their simple motivations in roundabout ways). Taking place as they so often do among England's landed gentry, there's often unspoken classism hidden just below the surface. By the time Sleuth premiered on stage and in cinemas, the classic mystery was looking a bit long in the tooth; a relic of a bygone age.

And, indeed, Shaffer and Mankiewicz expose it as such. Mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) lives in a sprawling mansion complete with a labyrinth of shrubbery and hidden passages, filled with curios, reminders of a more genteel time, and in the most prized position, the Edgar Allen Poe award he received from the Mystery Writers of America. He's an imperious snob, and he has summoned Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) because he wishes to make his wife's lover a deal: Although he figures he would be well rid of Marguerite (Eve Channing), he knows that she will want money, more than even a successful hairdressing entrepreneur like Tindle can provide. So he hatches a plan by which Milo will break in, steal some of Marguerite's jewelry, and sell it to a fence Wyke knows. As the first act wears on, it becomes clear that behind Wyke's jovial mask is a man whose attitude toward the lower classes is patronizing at best and hateful at worst, with a mind geared toward elaborate schemes where simple ones will do, and whose ultimate plan is far more sinister than the one he initially outlined. Sinister, but not necessarily perfect, as the second half of the film finds him matching wits with Inspector Doppler (Alec Cawthorne), a working-class detective who is unimpressed with Wyke's status but has a keen eye for forensics.

Mankiewicz and Shaffer gleefully tear all of the trappings and even some of the foundations of the mystery story apart. Wyke is an eccentric protagonist with an ego to match his intellect straight out of the Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot book, but there's no attempt to make him look like anything other than an arrogant snob. Tindale, on the other hand, although he's got the tendency to overreach often displayed by the nouveau riche, seems a practical, reasonable person; he points out every part of Wyke's plan that seems contrived and unbelievable. Doppler, meanwhile, is everything the cops in that sort of mystery novel aren't - meticulous, polite, competent. Everything that is false about the form is highlighted, and plentiful shots are taken at the class structure it represents: Wyke is a pathetic anachronism desperate to remain important, even if he has to try and kill the next generation (which has earned its success) to do it.

But Shaffer and Mankiewicz aren't content to settle for mockery, even if it's erudite, well-disguised mockery. That sort of mystery, with its almost mathematical precision, is very appealing to a certain part of the brain, and even the shopworn devices got overused became popular because they work well in the right spot. Shaffer's screenplay (based upon his own stage play) has had every connection double-checked and hides its important details in plain sight. While being scrupulously honest with the audience in some respects, the filmmakers also engage in misdirection from the opening credits onward, and it's so perfect that the audience feels compelled to maintain appearances when discussing it later (like in this review, for instance). And while Wyke may be a complete, insufferable ass, he is still compelling to watch in the same way that Sherlock Holmes is.

This, of course, is in large part because of Laurence Olivier. Shaffer gives Sir Laurence Olivier great, heaping piles of words to spew forth at Caine and the audience, and Olivier delivers each one with relish. His portrayal of Wyke is theatrical, maybe even a bit hammy, but only when it needs to be. Olivier knows when Wyke should be making the audience laugh, when he should appear to be trying to make the audience laugh but in fact making them nervous, and when he should be trying too hard, and hits just the right pitch at every moment. Caine and Cawthorne, in contrast, match their characters in their responses to Olivier's Wyke: They're willow trees that bend in the wind, giving Olivier all the space he needs while snapping back during his lulls, at least at first; the scenes in which tables turn (and then turn back, and then...) display performances that are just as sharp.

Mankiewicz's film never quite escapes its origins on the stage - for all the filmic flourishes, it's still basically two and a quarter hours of dialog - but that's not entirely a bad thing. There are games scattered all over the crowded set, and having just two or three characters active at any given time plays up how the entire production is a deadly serious test of wits. An opening sequence that would have been nearly impossible to do on stage, where Mankiewicz shoots Milo navigating Wyke's garden maze from overhead tells the audience exactly what kind of film this is going to be and challenges them to play along.

"Sleuth" is near-perfect, and yet I'm still excited about its upcoming remake: Caine playing Wyke and Jude Law (who has tackled an iconic Caine role before, in "Alfie") playing Tinsdale will add a delicious meta-level to the idea that Wyke sees Tinsdale as taking something that belongs to him. And, besides, the world can always use more films that show audiences that there's a great deal of entertainment to be had from turning their brains on.

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