Think of the Perfect Crime…Then Go One Step Further.
One of the true classics of the thriller genre, Sleuth is a thinking person's exercise in style, wit, and cruelty. It was also the 1972 film adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's (The Wicker Man), fabulously successful play of the same name. It features both Laurence Olivier (Marathon Man) and Michael Caine (The Man Who Would Be King) at the top of their craft, while also being the final film of legendary writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve). For the second time out, Anchor Bay has given this wonderful film a brand new anamorphic transfer while also including a nice little feature with the film's screenwriter, the late Mr. Shaffer.
Facts of the Case
Andrew Wyke (Olivier) is many things. Chief among them is a very successful mystery novelist and avid player of games. It is with this thought in mind that Wyke has invited London Hairdresser Milo Tindle (Caine) to his mansion. Tindle is a man also fond of games, but games that act as a release, not the exercises in humiliation that Wyke looks for in his form of gamesmanship. Seems Tindle is having a serious affair with Wyke's wife. An affair that will take her away from Wyke. Thus, in the spirit of fair play, Wyke has an offer for Tindle, which Tindle accepts. It is an offer that will take both men to places they could not have imagined. Throw into the mix a very dogged and inquisitive detective named Inspector Doppler (Alec Cawthorne), and you have the end of my plot summary. To reveal anything else would spoil all the fun, and I would never do that. So sit back and enjoy the contest.
There are so many charms to be found within the 138 minute running time of Sleuth that it's difficult to know where to start. Still, start I must, so let us begin with the marvelous screenplay of Anthony Shaffer. Simply put, I feel it is quite possibly one of the most perfect screenplays ever devised. It's a witty, creepy, and all around devilish display of dialogue and ideas that I could listen to for hours. It is brimming with intelligence and ideas, yet never feels forced or bloated. It is a script that offers director Mankiewicz a chance to show a little directorial flourish here and there while also setting up its actors to strut their not inconsiderable talents. Case in point, to watch Laurence Olivier go through his paces is to see one of the greatest actors who ever lived work on one of his last great roles. Olivier just sums up everything Shaffer put on the page. He is equal parts superior, insecure, vain, snobbish, and fearful. There is a glint in Olivier's eye that was rarely seen after this role. The man is clearly having a good time and it's a joy that translates through the screen. If Olivier is the upper crust intellectual bully, then Caine represents the everyman that people like Wyke hold in such low regard. In a role originally intended for Alan Bates, Caine is every inch the match for Olivier. If Olivier is breeding, then Caine is the self-made man. The street smart worker who has managed to earn everything he has today. Caine offers his own intelligent performance but in a way different from Olivier. Wyke is content and used to showing off his mind in grand, inflated displays, while Caine's Tindle shows a much quieter and thoughtful intelligence. There is also a sense of desperation to Caine's performance. Tindle wants what Wyke has. He already has the wife but he also wants the life, the ease, and the respect. It's a complex inner performance that balances out with Olivier's extroverted turn. Both received Oscar nominations that were richly deserved.
On first blush, one would think the direction of Joseph Mankiewicz to be simplistic. Like the movie itself, to take that point of view is to underestimate it. As a writer of some degree of note, Mankiewicz understood the value of sparkling dialogue. Thus, his camera is always where it needs to be to serve the words and the actors best. His direction provides the forward momentum the screenplay needs to build towards its multiple revelations and climaxes. There is an oppressive tone to the direction, one that is perfectly balanced by the verbal gymnastics of the words and performances. Of particular note is the visual montage that comes at the halfway point of the film. It is where the intermission would usually occur during its theatrical incarnation, and Mankiewicz turns it into a dark and witty portal of what is to come. Never showing the movie's hand, the director relays the passage of time and the knowledge that some bad things are about to occur. It really is a perfect marriage of words and images. It features the kind of synergy rarely seen in movies anymore and one that is a delight to watch on a repeated basis.
For their second release of Sleuth, Anchor Bay has gone back and given the film a brand new anamorphic transfer. I can't speak for the previous edition, but I have never seen the movie look better. The print from which this was struck was in remarkably good shape as there is little in the way of wear and tear. There is also little in the way of grain evident and the print is quite clear of nicks or scratches. Flesh tones appear to be life like, while the colors seem to be generally accurate if a touch faded. Black levels show great cohesion, while shadow detail is also quite strong. While I could detect a couple of instances of edge enhancement, there is nothing that should be overly alarming. Overall, a very good job.
Sound is Dolby 2.0 mono and it gets the job done. The only thing I'm looking for in a movie like this is for the dialogue to be clearly audible with little or no background distortion. Check to one and check to the second. Sleuth does not disappoint.
While a full blown special edition would have been great all we are really given is a compact but informative 23-minute interview with writer Anthony Shaffer. Apparently videotaped shortly before his death last year, it does provide a good overview of Sleuth, where it came from, and how it came to be on the screen. I knew more about the film than before I viewed it, so I suppose that is indeed something. To tell the truth, the only person deeply associated with Sleuth still alive is Michael Caine, and I really have not seen him be much of a presence on DVD outside of his commentary for Get Carter.
A theatrical trailer, talent bios, and a television spot close out the disc. I suppose it is also worth mentioning that with this release Anchor Bay has offered up English close captions. I hope that this is now a permanent fixture on all future discs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Outside of not having a ton of extra material, I have no real complaints. Still, this is hard to do when most of the people connected are no longer with us. Call it a non-issue.
What a great movie Sleuth is! It features crackerjack writing, some truly solid and effective direction, and two towering performances by two of the best actors to work on the silver screen. Tie up the package with a wonderful transfer and some solid sound, and you have a great release. To top everything off, I picked up this disc at my local Tower Records for $10.99. That is less expensive than the VHS and another example of why DVD is the way to go. At the very most Sleuth is going to cost around 15 or 16 bucks. Great movie, great price. What are you waiting for?
Everyone involved is acquitted of all charges. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• A Sleuthian Journey with Anthony Shaffer
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