Judge Christopher Kulik acts like a sleuth only when he when he watches movies with actual clues.
Obey the rules…just obey the rules!
Anthony Shaffer's play Sleuth won a Tony award for best play soon after it premiered in 1970. It has only two male characters, and the setting is a Wiltshire manor house. The play proved to be such a raging success, and it led to Shaffer adapting it into a film in 1972, with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve), the original film became a major hit and now, 35 years later, we have an update courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Facts of the Case
Aging mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine, Hannah and Her Sisters) invites thirty-something, out-of-work actor Milo Tundle (Cold Mountain) to his lovely, elaborate England home, which happens to be boasting a high-tech security system. Evidently, Andrew's wife has been having an affair with Milo, and he confronts him about it almost as soon as he arrives. The unimitated Milo is floored when he hears Andrew's request, which is indeed unusual: he wants to get rid of his wife, and asks Milo to leave the country with her…along with over 800,000 pounds in stolen jewels from Andrew's house. Milo thinks Andrew is a bit nuts, though he sees the logic behind it: he would be able to be with the woman he loves, and at the same time be financial secure for perhaps the rest of his life. Milo gives in, on the condition that Andrew agrees to sign divorce papers. The agreement is made, though it quickly becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between the two men which goes on for almost an hour-and-a-half. Here's the ultimate question: who will win? Answer: the one who obeys the rules and takes charge.
With a screenplay by Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter and direction by the highly theatrical Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet)—oh, and not to mention two huge actors—I was disappointed that this wasn't the knockout it could have been. I haven't seen the original 1972 film—which I've read plays out differently—or have seen the play on the stage for that matter, though I have the curious feeling that this story just feels better suited to the theater. Nevertheless, Branagh and his production designers use the setting for all it's worth, adding details to every single frame which will hold your attention even if you become impatient with the plot proceedings. Branagh's direction is terrific, as he opens up the film with a high-angle shot showing Milo arriving at Andrew's home, and then he simply moves the camera over the home so we can view the two characters as if we are a fly on the ceiling. The use of blues and reds are especially evident and highly effective. Plus, the director uses a variety of different shots sometimes only watching the actors without seeing their faces, or going for close-ups with half of the faces obscured by darkness. I didn't care for the story, not because it skirts reality with glee, but rather because its surprises are minimal. A half-hour into the film, Caine shoots Law, and then sometime later another character shows up out of the blue; makeup may work wonders, though it's all too obvious who the visitor is. Still, Pinter's gift for witty (and profane) dialogue is noteworthy, and it adds much to the heavy-handed histrionics.
Sleuth is definitely one those films that serves as a tour-de-force for two experienced, professional actors. Caine and Law more often than not pull out all the stops as the conflicted, complex characters in this cinematic chess game. Incidentally, Caine played Milo in the 1972 film, so those who have seen it will want to check him out as the scheming Andrew this time around. Caine is magnificent as usual, and it's just another in a long line of exceptional character portraits, this time as a General Zaroff-like individual who seems to exhibit having fun and being serious at the same time without revealing which feeling is true. Branagh wanted Caine to come off to be as an "electric puppet master" of sorts with the Andrew's mental jabs constantly testing Milo's ability to carry out his part of the plan—and then to show Milo getting a handle on the game and getting an equal shot of emerging the winner. Andrew may hold all the cards with the house and head-starts, but Milo has a few tricks up his sleeve as well, which will eventually challenge his nemesis. While Andrew's wife is never seen, she is talked about so much that we become intrigued with her character as well. Despite my reservations with how the story plays out, both of the actors make it more than watchable (P.S. The only other person see in the film—on a television set—is Pinter himself).
Sony Pictures Classics presents a nice Blu-Ray package of Sleuth, complete with not one but two commentary tracks: one by Caine and Branagh, and also a solo track by Law. Caine is a delight to listen to as much as watch, and he more often dominates the discussion, providing a wealth of information about his experience playing both roles in Shaffer's play. He also amusingly recollects about working with other directors, like Sidney J. Furie in the classic spy thriller The Ipcress File. Law's commentary is not as compelling, though he manages to hold his own and keep on talking, avoiding silence as much as possible. Rounding out the bonus features are two mini-docs, "A Game of Cat and Mouse," which boasts revealing interviews laced with behind-the-scenes footage, and "Inspector Black," which focuses on the "third man" and the ingenious makeup effects (courtesy of Eileen Kastner-Delago, who also worked with Law on the remake of Alfie) applied to mask the inspector's true identity. Both featurettes are well worth your time, even if they are kind of short. After viewing several movies on Blu-Ray since joining Verdict, I must give credit to Sony for always delivering more goods than other studios. The 2.35:1 widescreen print looks spectacular and stunning in 1080p high definition, taking much advantage of Branagh's use of color and lighting schemes. I didn't detect a single defect in the flawless presentation, and the Dolby TrueHD Surround track bring out the most in Patrick Doyle's offbeat score. Surround tracks are also available in Portuguese and Spanish, along with subtitles in all those languages, including French. Subs are also available for the commentary tracks.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At this point, the story and individuals involved should give you an idea if you would enjoy this film or not. While I enjoyed it for the most part, there were several instances where I just shook my head in disbelief. Then again the actors and technical details manage to compensate more often than not. Besides, it certainly is the better remake of a Shaffer work to come out in the past two years; 2006's The Wicker Man was a laughable update of his classic 1973 film.
Sleuth is definitely recommended as a rental, though you may want to see the '72 film first. I won't say you will be upset at the changes and differences—unless you are a staunch purist—but it might be advisable to have your bases covered. Plus, watching Caine do both roles will be a pleasure unto itself, and it will make it a fine double bill for one night.
The film and Sony are found not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Kenneth Branagh and Actor Michael Caine
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