Olivier vs. Caine: Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972)

sleuth

Sleuth is a gimmick movie in which the gimmick actually works. Adapted from a play by Anthony Shaffer, it’s a two-hander between Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Olivier is Andrew Wyck, a mystery writer with too much money and too much spare time who is obsessed with puzzles and games. His estranged wife, Marguerite, is on the verge of marrying Milo Tindle (Caine), a mild-mannered hairdresser who’s the son of an Italian immigrant. Upon learning this, Wyck invites Milo to his country mansion, and their congenial chat turns into a confrontation, which turns into a game, which turns into another game, with escalating consequences. Wyck’s plans for Milo don’t go perfectly, however, and he soon finds himself partaking of a new game, at his own expense.

For the most part, this film only involves two characters. It’s worth seeing simply for how well it manages to do this; it makes sense for most of the action to be contained within one set, and the plot twists keep the story interesting. Even if the audience is a step ahead of the characters, there’s still small details or double meanings to appreciate. There’s also too many clever lines to pick up in one viewing.

Olivier is ideal in the role of an irritating old ham, but handles the weightier moments better than Caine, who at this point in his career was better at yelling than crying. Caine mostly plays to type, but does get to stretch himself. He would return to Sleuth in 2007, playing Wyck this time, opposite Jude Law. The idea is irresistible.

My main issue with this film is that it veers towards being too self-indulgent. It becomes its most stagey when it’s aware of its own gimmick, and allows Olivier and Caine to perform and show their interplay rather than pushing the story forward. The dialogue can become too dense, with a feeling that the film is running on the spot. It’s 133 minutes long; although it does a remarkably fine job of being engaging despite its narrow focus, it could have been better with the script edited down.

Still, Sleuth is near-essential viewing for how well it succeeds at its gimmick. Two guys in one house, talking for more than two hours? It can be done.

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