Deathtrap (1982)

screenshot from Deathtrap

Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Screenwriter(s): Jay Presson Allen
Starring: Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Dyan Cannon
Genre: Comedy / Mystery
Country: USA
Running time: 1h 56m
Rating: 5 out of 10

Take a big-name director and a couple of big-name stars, a witty script which was a Broadway hit, a new twist on the whole murder-mystery routine and what do you get? A basically humdrum movie which never escapes its stage-bound origins and runs at least 15 minutes too long.

New York playwright Sidney Bruhl (Caine) is not a happy man. His latest murder-mystery fooled no-one and had more unintentional laughs than shocks. His opening night is probably going to be his last. Only problem is that this is becoming a bit of a pattern and he’s in danger of financial ruin. Drunk and despondent, he takes the last train home to his shrill wife (Cannon). Now we know Sydney’s in real trouble, because no-one in the history of cinema has ever been cheered up by Dyan Cannon.

Worse still, he’s been teaching a writing class at a local college and one young man (Reeve) has written a great script, possibly better than Sidney wrote in his hey-day. He invites the young man to his house, ostensibly to murder him so he can claim the script as his own. But events, as you would expect, do not transpire as Sidney intends.

It’s hard not to draw immediate parallels between Deathtrap and Sleuth: two men alone in a house full of serious instruments of death; first one, then the other, grabs the upper hand in the conflict; cross, double-cross and triple-cross. Sadly, it’s not a comparison which does this movie any favours, given Sleuth’s much stronger cast and script.

With a man such as Lumet at behind the lens, you might have expected more, given that he directed the 1974 Albert Finney version of Murder on the Orient Express. But that film was saved by its stellar cast and Lumet clearly doesn’t have any more of a feel for this sort of material than the screenwriter (and Exec producer), Jay Preston Allen, as evidenced by the inability of both to broaden Ira Levin’s original play out into a believable cinematic experience.

Even the shots themselves are framed theatrically: the interior of the house is usually seen from one wide angle which encompasses the living room and Sydney’s study, just as you would see on stage. The point where the first act ended in the theatre is so blindingly obvious that you actually expect a curtain to fall over the screen and an usherette selling over-priced ice-cream to appear behind you.

Caine, as we know, is remarkably at ease in this sort of black comedy, but has been better served by tighter material, as in A Shock to the System. Reeve comes out best in the acting stakes as the duplicitous young man, but he was a trained stage actor with a flair for this kind of script.