Thursday, December 08, 2005

Day 69: Sleuth

Sleuth is a rich, fun little movie about a mystery writer and his wife's lover.  Laurence Olivier is the writer, Michael Caine the lover.  It's based on a stage play by Anthony Shaffer (incidentally, he also wrote the screenplay for The Wicker Man) and, boy, is it ever a fun romp.  It's a twisty, turny movie in which the two men engage in a game of wits, instigated by the jealous, cuckolded Olivier.  

Wealthy beyond any practical use, Olivier's character lives in a huge house, surrounded by automatons and board games.  He's invited Caine over to plan a scheme in which Caine will steal some valuable jewels from Olivier, enabling both of them to get rich since the jewels are fully insured.  But, beholden as he is to the conventions of mystery novels, Olivier insists that the skeptical Caine set about the burglary "right", disguising himself in the right costume, using the right props, and following the proper, clichéd procedures to lift the jewels from a safe.

Inevitably, the plot thickens as it's stirred; both men clearly have more on their minds than the money involved, and the prejudices inspired by the differences in their class and nationality (not to mention the fact that Caine is schtupping Olivier's wife) bring a raw, volatile element into the Producers-like sub-par insurance scam plottings and the camp, reflexive proceedings by which Caine is forced to "rob" Olivier.  The script is a treat, as witty and as devious as both of the characters it's depicting.  The movie takes several shocking turns, never backing away from the opportunity to push these two men as far as they'd be willing to go under the circumstances.  And, by the end, it's come as close to improbable as any movie in memory without, ultimately, betraying itself or us.  

A lot of this has to do with the actors.  Olivier is chewing the scenery here with marvelous aplomb, playing a man, giddy with the idea that he could live inside fiction and quickly irritated when his partner won't play along.  The actor also invests the character with such believable, rancid class prejudices and impish glee at deceit and other dastardly doings, that he's great fun to despise.  Caine acquits himself so well in this role that I'll never look at him quite the same way again.  He moves from polite anger in a scene with Olivier to earnest, embarrassing child-like joy at the prospect of dressing up like a clown rather well here.  When his politeness slips away from him and he lets his anger out fully, it's great, twisted fun.  And then… well… I hate to be coy, but I simply must be here.  Oh man.

I'm not usually spoiler-sensitive, but part of the joy of Sleuth…  scratch-that…  most of the joy of Sleuth is watching these two actors duke it out in surprising, delightful ways.  As mentioned, it's based on a play and the structure of the film is definitely of the theatre.  It's mostly just these two guys walking around a very, very large house, constantly trying to one-up each other and gain an advantage over the other, like a game of chess played with words.  Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz does all the right things to open the location up, moving the camera all around the space in as giddy a way as the actors stomp through it.  There are a few too many cutaways to the automatons (this delivers a cheap and easy creep-out factor) that feel like someone trying to create artificial patches between scenes, but this isn't really an issue so much as a nitpick on a very wonderful film.  Sleuth is one of the few films I've seen where the plot seems like it's actually an important element to enjoying the film, probably because it's so focused on the characters and nearly everything it does is an attempt at subverting their own expectations as to how their individual stories play out.

1 comment:

Laika the Space Dog said...

A great film. You can watch it time and again, even after you know all the plot twists, just to admire the cleverness of the set up, the waspish dialogue and the brilliance of the acting, particularly from Caine. How many films of today offer you that?