Published on April 24th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Summary: A ballsy masterclass in stage acting from Michael Caine and the great Laurence Olivier. 'Sleuth' may lack variety, but its constant twists and turns will keep you engaged.
PG | 139 min.
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz | Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer (from his Tony-winning play)
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine
Studio: Palomar Pictures | Distribution: 20th Century Fox
There are a number of reasons why you rarely come across movies like Sleuth anymore. One reason being that minimalism was far from vogue during the blockbuster-heavy 80’s & 90’s, another being simply that most actors can’t carry a 2.5 hour dialogue exchange–which is essentially what director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s final film boils down to. As I’ve written before, nothing thrills me more than seeing an actor completely embody a character. In most movies, you’ll be lucky to find a single actor in the entire cast who pulls this off, but here you get a pair of virtuoso performances from Laurence Olivier & Michael Caine, who are forced to carry the entire load of this stripped-down movie.
If you’re only interested in explosions, sex, dramatic music, and special effects, don’t even bother with this one. What you get in Sleuth are one set, two actors, and a screenplay that dares you to keep up.
Anthony Shaffer penned the dizzying script, adapting his own play which won him the 1971 Tony award for Best Play. I’ve never seen the play but I can’t imagine he altered much in writing a film version as Sleuth feels like a stage production put on screen. The setting is a mansion in the English countryside, and aside from a memorable opening scene in the exterior, the majority of this film takes place in a wide-open living room full of automatons, furniture, and a staircase.
The film’s only two characters are the snobbish British writer Andrew Wyke (Olivier) and a young entrepreneur from a humble Italian-immigrant family named Milo Tindle (Caine). Tindle has been invited to Wyke’s lavish home under awkward circumstances, eventually finding that he’s to take part in a burglary scam that’s sure to make both men rich. What follows is a story balancing between comic farce, heist, murder plot, and intellectual pissing-contest.
Wyke’s riches have come from writing a successful series of detective novels, which seem to fill his mind with dreams of crafting the “perfect crime”. His home is full of games–he dominates an entertaining billiard match where the two characters begin taking verbal jabs at each other. From the start, the viewer gets a sense that Wyke is simply toying with Tindle, as the opening scene features the latter meandering through a hedge maze which subsequently has only a trick solution. The balance of power constantly shifts in this film though, with each man being reduced to tears at some point.
At 39-years old, Michael Caine was no child when he made Sleuth, but the idea of going one-on-one with a three-time Oscar winner (eight-time nominee as of 1972) in Lord Olivier had to be an intimidating feat. Olivier was so concerned about this possibility that he reportedly wrote a letter to his co-star before filming began, clarifying that after their initial introduction, he should call him “Larry”. With an ego the size of
Big Ben The Elizabeth Tower, it’s likely that Olivier thought of Caine as an understudy at the beginning, but after an intense staircase scene in which the younger actor goes from cocksure to hysterical crying, it was clear they were comparable. Caine’s Sleuth experience would come full-circle with the 2007 remake in which he played Wyke to Jude Law’s Tindle…but from what I hear, leave that one alone.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better duel of acting talent than is present in Sleuth–Mankiewicz and Shaffer ask a ton of their actors, and are repaid in full. The movie’s plot takes at least five dramatic twists, demanding full attention from its audience. This is old school, hard-nosed filmmaking as, spare some nifty makeup, there are no tricks for this movie to lean on–just pure talent and confidence from its cast & crew.
Like Zemeckis’s Cast Away and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Sleuth is an acting powerhouse that will give you a renewed appreciation for what just a pair of performers are able to do. It marked another great notch for a master and showed that Britain’s next great actor may have arrived. Olivier certainly saw a star in Michael Caine, later writing in his book On Acting, “Mark my words: the mark of Caine on the cinema will be deeper yet.”