Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenwriter: Anthony Schaffer
Starring: Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier
Release details: 20th Century Fox, UK 1972, 138mins
Full details: IMDb
Genre: Comedy thriller
Rating: 9 out of 10
Milo Trindle (Caine), owner of a chain of hairdressers, is invited by his lover's husband, Andrew Wyke (Olivier), one of the world's best-selling mystery writers, to the latter's stately home, supposedly to discuss how they take the matter forward. Wyke claims to accept that his wife will leave him, but just wants to make sure that he's not financially ruined. He makes an unusual proposition to Trindle: participate in an insurance scam by setting up a fake burglary so that he can claim enough money to afford the divorce. But Wyke isn't interested in letting his wife or Milo get away with their betrayal of him.
It's hard to discuss the plot without giving away the twists and turns which make the film so appealing, so suffice to say that Wyke's proposition sets of a series of bluff and counter-bluff in which each man tries to best each other in a deadly game. The set itself is a major factor in the plot, the dimly-lit house (Athelhampton House) and its sinister curios adding to the sense of malevolence, with Stephen Sondheim's score echoing the end-of-pier ambience.
Both actors rise to the challenge, trying desperately to upstage each other, working with Shaffer's sharp, smart dialogue to great aplomb. The great critic Pauline Kael felt that Olivier's performance was over-mannered, but this is also a film about the class system. Whereas the British viewer will recognise the Daily Mail reader mentality of Wyke instantly (he is scathing of foreigners and the lower classes), perhaps it is less familiar to Americans.
In fact, it's an interesting film in which to see Caine and Olivier sparring in this manner. Olivier is the archetypal theatre actor, who never really managed to translate his stage mastery to the silver screen, while Caine understands perfectly that movies are about nuance and small gestures. These traits actually fit the characters perfectly, Olivier's use of voice and grandstanding movement suits the arrogant aristocrat Wyke, while Trindle's more used to the subtleties of modern living.
Only the fact that the film is incapable of fully escaping its stage-bound feel prevents it from being an out-and-out treat, but this is nonetheless an intelligent piece which won't disappoint.
Nominated for 4 Oscars: Best Actor (Caine, Olivier), Director (Mankiewicz) and Best Score. Also, 3 Golden Globe nominations (both actors and Best Picture) and 4 BAFTA nominations (Olivier, Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography). Olivier won the New York Film Critic's Circle award for Best Actor (1972).
Caine credits fear of being upstaged by Olivier for his performance: "I had to be good in that, because Olivier was so bloody marvellous that if you didn't play your part right, he'd play it for you and you'd end up blending in with the scenery."
Schaffer, who also wrote outstanding Scottish horror The Wicker Man, didn't want to sell the rights to Sleuth, as he felt (rightly, as it turned out) that it would curtail its Broadway run. He also wanted Alan Bates for the Trindle role. He was, however, happy with the finished film.
The maze at Athelhampton had to be grown for the film, but was kept on by the owners and is now a visitor attraction in its own right.
This is the kind of movie where the payoff isn't about getting to the end, but in savoring every moment on the long, winding trip that takes us there... ReelViews
The R2 DVD may be lacking in any contribution from Caine or original interviews with Olivier, but there's a 23 minute interview with Shaffer, who is engaging and informative about both the development of the play and the film production. In one of the most entertaining DVD interviews yet recorded, he reveals counless gems, such as Sondheim being a notoroious trickster and Agatha Christie being involved in an in-joke for the stage production which has been carried through to the film.