Release Date: December 10th, 1972 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Actors: Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine
ne of the most imaginatively scripted films ever made (written by Anthony Shaffer from his stage play), “Sleuth” pits a wickedly sadistic avenger against a seemingly outmatched opponent in a continually shifting game of murder, mystery, intrigue, deception, and deducing. Featuring outstanding acting from its two main players, each earning an Academy Award nomination for their efforts, the film is careful to build an intricate story that unfolds in a highly unpredictable manner. Yet a prime testament to its cleverness is that repeat viewings retain the appeal of the fascinating conversational interactions and nuances, even after the numerous twists are already known.
Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) is invited to Andrew Wyke’s (Laurence Olivier) secluded mansion to discuss Milo’s desire to marry Andrew’s neglected wife Marguerite. Andrew is a detective fiction novelist who prides himself on solving dastardly crimes with his main character Sinjon (St. John) Lord Merrydew, while Tindle owns a local salon. Well aware of his wife’s frivolous activities and her infatuation with riches and exquisite possessions, Andrew offers Milo an opportunity to burglarize some expensive jewels (£170,000 worth) so that Milo can comfortably provide for Marguerite, and Andrew can collect the insurance money and live happily with his mistress Teia. But nothing is quite what it seems, especially when the game-obsessed Andrew convinces Milo to use a clown costume and dynamite to stage the robbery, along with a wild recreation of a swashbuckling fight with a fireplace poker and a pistol. A riveting competition of deadly one-upmanship ensues, boasting several unforgettable shocks and an unparalleled conclusion.
Expertly helmed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (a director adept at handling dialogue), the production opens with delightfully circus-like music (by John Addison, who also received an Oscar nomination) that lends itself throughout the entire project to mix up the tone as each of the characters transition from serious to comical and back again. Tindle starts with a solemn demeanor, instantly weary of Wyke’s proposition, but as a whimsical and carefree manner overtakes him, Milo soon dons a surprising mask of laughable lightheartedness to join in the dancing and jocose mockery. The interplay constantly changes from the severe tone of adultery and fraud to the nonchalant air of drunken pals reveling. And it’s all woven together with Shakespearean duologues and sensationally rivalrous chemistry. A most astoundingly coincidental moment arrives early on when Wyke mentions that in years to come their roles might be reversed, with Tindle fending off admirers of his trophy wife. 2007 proved his cinematic prediction correct, as the remake by Kenneth Branagh saw Caine cast in the role Olivier previously perfected (though the story and the twists were significantly altered).
“Sleuth” is essentially just two people in a single location, yet it never slows and never misses a beat, staying relentlessly engrossing with little more than sharp discourse and steadily unveiling motives. The mansion setting is filled with eerie toys, odd décor, and plenty of games, as mental diversions quickly become the focal point. The designs of the rooms are fantastic, stuffed with creepy dolls, mystifying puzzles, and electronic puppets, including Jolly Jack Tar the Sailor, a particularly unsettling life-size monstrosity that laughs and claps his hands at the touch of a button. These complex distractions emphasize the calculating battle of wits and wills – a series of contests that quickly crosses the line of harmless practical jokes. When one match ends, another is initiated, though the sheer excitement of playing easily surpasses winning or losing or jostling justice.
– Mike Massie