Warning: If you haven't seen this film, the synopsis below features plot details that may spoil your enjoyment of the movie.
Cast: Michael Caine (Sidney Bruhl), Christopher Reeve (Clifford Anderson), Dyan Cannon (Myra Bruhl), Irene Worth (Helga ten Dorp), Henry Jones (Porter Milgrim), Joe Silver (Seymour Starger), Tony DiBenedetto (Burt, the Bartender), Al LeBreton (Handsome Actor).
Crew: Sidney Lumet (director), Burtt Harris (producer), Jay Presson Allen (writer), Johnny Mandel (music), Andrzej Bartkowiak (cinematography), John J Fitzstephens (editor), Tony Walton (production designer).
Synopsis: Sidney Bruhl used to write smash hit comedy thrillers for Broadway. But his last four plays have flopped and he is getting desperate. The playwright receives a wonderful script from a former pupil, Clifford Anderson. Sidney decides to murder the budding scribe and steal the play for himself. Sidney’s weak-hearted wife Myra is not sure whether he is being serious. When Clifford arrives, Myra unsuccessfully tries to talk Sidney out of murdering the young writer. Sidney chokes Clifford and buries him in a shallow grave. The Bruhls are visited by Dutch psychic Helga ten Dorp. She warns them there will be violence and pain in their house.
That night Clifford reappears and terrifies Myra so much she dies of a heart attack. Sidney and Clifford are lovers. They staged their elaborate charade with a fake play to frighten Myra to death. After her funeral Clifford becomes Sidney’s secretary. But the veteran playwright discovers Clifford is turning their crime into a play called Deathtrap. Sidney decides he must murder his lover, fatally wounding Clifford with a crossbow. Helga reappears and accuses Sidney of murder. A storm cuts off the electricity. In the confusion Clifford kills Sidney. Several months later the events are replayed on Broadway in the opening night of Deathtrap – a play by Helga ten Dorp…
In the early 1980s Ira Levin’s Deathtrap held the record as Broadway’s longest running thriller. The creative pairing of screenwriter Jay Presson Allen and director Sidney Lumet collaborated on adapting the play for film. The duo had been Oscar-nominated for the screenplay of their previous project, Prince of the City (1981). Caine wanted to play the lead in Deathtrap but Allen had doubts about his suitability. The actor had been stuck in horror films and disaster movies for four years. Caine eventually persuaded Allen at a dinner party arranged by the actor’s agent.
Caine described his preparations for the part to interviewer W. J. Weatherby: ‘You look at what the character does and says, and then try to figure out what kind of person he is. What came out for me in studying Deathtrap was that my character was simply criminally insane. Just crazy. That was the only way to translate the theatrical quality into a realistic medium – make his behaviour crazy. But I also try to play this insane character as a real person with human quirks. I see him as a born nut. He’s been under terrific pressure … the pressure has brought out things that were already in him but were under control, until separated failures turn him more and more into a desperate character. It’s a study of a menopausal nut case.’ Caine was keen to highlight the macabre comedy elements: ‘The theatricality has been toned down, but the humour’s still there. I’d forgotten just how funny it is, a comedy hidden inside a thriller. The thing I really enjoy doing is comedy, but nobody gives anything to me that’s funny.’
The film was shot in the spring of 1981, almost entirely on studio sets in New York’s East Harlem. A few exterior sequences were added to open out the play, with scenes set in a Broadway theatre book-ending the movie. Lumet also shot exteriors of a converted windmill house in East Hampton as the Bruhls’ home in the country.
Deathtrap featured a gay kiss between Caine and his on-screen lover Christopher Reeve. ‘Neither of us had kissed a guy on the lips before,’ Caine told Premiere in 1999. ‘We had a pact that neither of us would loosen our lips. We practised the scene over and over again so we wouldn’t blow the lines or anything, it was the most well-rehearsed scene – except for the kiss. It’s one of those things that if you don’t want to do it again, you have got to throw yourself into it with tremendous enthusiasm so everyone thinks it wonderful.’ The scene was completed in a single take. ‘If you’re gay, that’s fine, but if you’re not, it’s bloody difficult to kiss a man.’
The film opened in the US during March 1982. Initially rated an R by the MPAA, this was reduced to PG on appeal. The picture received a muted reaction from critics, although Caine and Reeve were praised for their performances. Deathtrap grossed nearly $20 million in America. In Britain the movie was given an A rating. Again, reviews were mixed but Caine got good notices. After appearing in the likes of Victory (1981), The Island (1980) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), Deathtrap was seen as a return to form for the actor.
The film was released on VHS in the UK during 1986, reclassified as a PG. The video has been unavailable in Britain for nearly a decade. It is available on DVD and VHS in the US.
Reviews: ‘Caine … is the main pleasure of a concoction that otherwise depends for its effect on a succession of ever more unlikely surprises.’ – The Guardian
‘The chief surprise is Michael Caine. Here as beleaguered Bruhl, firing off incensed aphorisms at all passers, he’s a joy.’ – The Financial Times
Verdict: Deathtrap is an adequate thriller with plenty of plot twists and turns, but it suffers by comparison with the superior Sleuth (1972). Both are adaptations of hit stage plays featuring Caine, both revolve around two men trying to outsmart each other and both feature murderous machinations and intrigues. Where Sleuth wins out is a stronger, tauter script and the presence of Laurence Olivier. Reeve is good, but no match for one of Britain’s finest actors. Deathtrap never escapes its stage origins, with Lumet’s attempts to open it out cursory at best. The climatic ending is fumbled, as choppy editing renders the denouement unclear. Caine gives a strong performance as Bruhl, giving the character unwritten depth and believability. But the gay kiss looks more like two friends trying to avoid sharing a cold sore. Deathtrap is worth watching – but only once.