Sleuth (1972)
Review by ScottC

Written by Anthony Shaffer, based on his play
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Alec Cawthorne, John Matthews, Eve Channing


Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Own it.

During a weekend in an English country manor, a game will be played. The players are Andrew Wyke (Olivier), an aristocratic, self-satisfied, but rather clever and successful mystery writer and owner of said manor...and Milo Tindle (Caine), a working class, ambitious but street smart up and coming owner of several hair salons who is also Wyke’s wife’s lover. The object of the game begins with an insurance fraud over some stolen jewelry, but the game becomes a battle of wits and wills where each man tries to outthink and outbluff the other with pride and eventually life on the line. The rules of the game are that there are no rules in Sleuth.

There are no eye popping special effects, no exotic locales, and no jiggling female co-stars (I wonder if they should be under special effects); all you have is two actors at the top of their game acting the hell out of a tight, suspenseful script. There’s Olivier who has forgotten more about acting than most of the stiffs out there are capable of. And Michael Caine holds his own against the veteran actor. Watching these two go from genial conviviality to committing acts to destroy the other in the most calculated fashion is engrossing.

The dialogue is razor sharp; it had to be to engage the audience when this was originally a play. The director adds just enough camera work to take advantage of close-ups, cut-aways, and other cinema techniques without distracting from the two actors. Having the collection of automata, antique games, and theatrical trappings in the house increases the feel of fantasy created by the two characters when they blur truth and fiction. It’s a real shame that most modern suspense films can’t achieve the sense of dread and tension with more actors and more money.

The extras are small but superior. The biographies for Olivier, Caine, and the writer Anthony Shaffer are detailed and actually well written. Do you know how refreshing it is to read a well-done bio on a DVD instead of the anemic little pieces of fluff you usually get? The featurette, A Sleuthian Journey with Anthony Shaffer, has the playwright tell how Sleuth came about (a story involving Stephen Sondheim and a scavenger hunt), its production on London’s West End, and the first meeting of Olivier and Caine. When Caine asked Olivier what to call him, he said, “You will call me Lord Olivier”. Then he said with a smile on his face “But that’s just for the first time, after that you’ll call me Larry”. The details of the production are definitely more instructive and interesting than the usual love-fest featurettes you find. For a wonderful example of the suspense genre and a quality DVD, get this.

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Buy the play from Amazon!

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