Sunday, November 26, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #21: Sleuth (1972)

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Andrew Wyke), Michael Caine (Milo Tindle), Alex Cawthorne (Inspector Doppler).

Crew: Joseph L Mankiewicz (director), Morton Gottlieb (producer), Anthony Shaffer (writer), John Addison (music), Oswald Morris (cinematography), Richard Marden (editor), Ken Adam (production design).


Synopsis: Milo Tindle accepts an invitation to visit the country estate of English crime novelist Andrew Wyke. Milo is having an affair with Andrew’s wife, Marguerite, and wants to marry her. Andrew questions the younger man’s background and financial circumstances. He says Milo cannot afford to keep Marguerite, but the problem can be solved. Andrew persuades Milo to stage a burglary, stealing £250,000 of insured jewels from the house. But afterwards Andrew says this is all a ruse so he can murder Milo and claim the killing was self defence. The writer shoots several bullets from a revolver to prove he is serious before viciously humiliating Milo. Finally, he fires the revolver into the back of Milo’s head. Two days later, a policeman called Inspector Doppler arrives, investigating the disappearance of Milo. He interrogates Andrew and discovers dried blood. The writer claims it was all an elaborate double-bluff to humiliate Milo, but insists the final bullet was a blank.

The inspector arrests Andrew before peeling away his own face to reveal that Doppler is actually Milo. Andrew claims he knew that and was just playing along with the game. Milo says he doesn’t want to play a game – he wants revenge. Milo claims he murdered Andrew’s mistress and then hid four pieces of evidence in the house linking the writer to the crime. The police are due within minutes. Andrew doesn’t believe him, but when he tries to contact his mistress he learns she is dead – strangled. Andrew frantically searches to find all the clues, eventually locating and destroying the murder weapon. Milo reveals this was just another game. Andrew’s mistress is still alive. Milo taunts the author, telling him Marguerite is never come back. Andrew murders Milo but loses their final game – the police are outside, waiting to arrest him…


Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth opened in 1970 and became a success on London’s West End, running for nearly 2400 performances. The show was also a smash hit on Broadway in New York, winning a Tony award. But Shaffer didn’t want his script turned into a film, believing any cinema version would stifle the play’s future success. He was persuaded to surrender the film rights and American director Joseph L Mankiewicz began working with Shaffer on an adaptation. Mankiewicz had won Oscars for writing and directing All About Eve (1950), and also for helming A Letter to Three Wives (1949). The two men added new material to keep Sleuth fresh for those who had already seen the play.

Sleuth only had a cast of two, so choosing the right actors was crucial. For the part of Andrew Wyke Shaffer favoured Anthony Quayle, who had originated the role on stage, and Alan Bates as Milo Tindle. Instead Mankiewicz secured the legendary Laurence Olivier as Wyke, even though the actor had once dismissed the play as ‘a piece of piss’. Olivier reportedly chose Caine to be his co-star. The two actors rehearsed for a fortnight before filming began. In an interview on the Sleuth DVD, Shaffer recalls the younger man was frightened of playing opposite the veteran. ‘Michael Caine was really scared about working with Larry Olivier,’ Shaffer says. ‘He thought Olivier would overwhelm him.’

In fact Olivier struggled for the first few days of rehearsals, having just been fired from the National Theatre. Caine talking about the turning point during a public interview at the NFT in 1998: ‘One day he came in with a little moustache and he stuck it on, and suddenly it all went right. He said: “I can never act with my bloody face! I have to have some bloody nose, or something on, and this will do.” But up until then he was floundering about, not know what he was talking about. Larry was crafty. He would do rehearsals, and he’d mumble away and then suddenly he could be this absolute giant of an actor, although he was shorter than me. Sometimes he’d come out of the bloody shadows, like a whirlwind at me, and take me completely by surprise, because he’d never do it in rehearsals. He was a very craft bugger, Larry, and you had to hang on. The greatest review I ever got was after about a week [of filming with Olivier]. He said to me, “I thought at the beginning, Michael, I had a servant. I see I have a partner.”’

Sleuth was shot during Spring 1972. All the exteriors were filmed at Athelhampton House in Dorset, with production designer Ken Adam temporarily adding a hedge maze to the grounds. The interiors were shot on elaborate sets at Pinewood Studios. ‘Ken Adam is a brilliant designer,’ Caine told the Evening Standard when a reporter visited the production in May 1972. ‘He’s given a very weird feeling to the sets. And that’s real oak, you know, in the hall, not a load of old plastic.’

In 1980 Caine told Film Comment that the 16-week shoot for Sleuth was the most exhausting film he had worked on. ‘Incredibly tiring. I’d have six-minute monologues at a time. I used to get home in the evening and say to Shakira, my wife, “I really can’t talk now. I’m sick of the sound of my voice. I don’t want to hear it again. You tell me everything, but don’t ask me any questions. Let me just sit here and listen.”’ With a cast of only two, neither actor could take a day off. Mankiewicz had to shot coverage of everything to give the editor pictures to cut to.

Sleuth was released in American cinemas with a PG rating during December 1972, just in time for consideration at annual awards ceremonies. The picture attracted raves from critics and nominations for Caine, Olivier and best picture at the Golden Globes. At the Oscars Caine and Olivier were both nominated as best actor, but were beaten by Marlon Brando’s performance in The Godfather (1972). Mankiewicz was nominated as best director for what proved to be his final film, while the score was also nominated.

Sleuth didn’t reach British cinemas until 1973, when it was rated AA. Reviews were strong, with many complimenting Caine for matching Olivier on screen in such a demanding part. The film eventually received four BAFTA nominations for Olivier, cinematography, art direction and screenplay. A late night screening of the film inspired a Manchester singer called Morrissey to write ‘This Charming Man’, providing his band The Smiths with their first hit single. The song borrowed a line of dialogue from Shaffer’s screenplay: ‘A jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place.’ ‘This Charming Man’ reached Number 25 in November 1983 and peaked at Number 8 when re-released in 1992.

Sleuth was released on video in 1987 and made its DVD debut in 2002. Shaffer died in November 2001, soon after recording his interview for the DVD. In November 2002 Caine told the Hollywood Reporter he was hoping to remake Sleuth with himself in Olivier’s role and British actor Jude Law taking over Caine’s part. Six months later Variety reported US filmmaking company Castle Rock had acquired the film rights to Shaffer’s play as a vehicle for Law. Playwright Harold Pinter had been commissioned to write a fresh adaptation, having never seen the 1972 film version. The report suggested Caine might co-star with Law in the new adaptation.

Reviews: ‘Although brilliantly plotted, flawlessly constructed, genuinely thrilling and more than usually attentive to character, Sleuth is essentially a piece for the theatre...’ – MFB
‘Mr Caine, with the help of spectacular make-up, shows a range of which one had not expected from this excellent player of layabouts and secret agents.’ – The Sunday Times

Verdict: Sleuth is a flawed diamond of a film – a priceless gem with sparkling dialogue, stunning production design, and two bravura performances from Olivier and Caine. But it still has blemishes. Mankiewicz’s film never truly escapes the theatricality of its source material. The middle section fails to convince because Inspector Doppler is all too obviously Caine in makeup, especially when the wrinkles on his forehead abruptly stop at the front edge of his bald cap. This distracts your attention and makes it difficult to discern whether or not Olivier’s character believes in Doppler. But Sleuth overcomes these problems to deliver a compelling thriller riddled with sly asides about prejudice, the class system and gamesmanship. This film is among the finest of Caine’s long career.

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