Sleuth (1972)

*. Sleuth is a classic two-hander, meaning a play with only two main characters. In fact, despite the necessary subterfuge here in the credits there are only ever the two characters on stage (or screen) period.
*. Being a filmed play already puts the movie into a bit of a box. Most filmed plays look like filmed plays. They are stuck with certain limitations put on them by their origins on stage. But in the case of Sleuth this is compounded by the fact that there are only the two parts and the action takes place on a single set with one scene break.
*. With all that said, I was surprised how little this movie made me think I was watching a play. Yes, we go outside on a couple of occasions, and move about different rooms, but I think what really opens things up is the use of all the closeups on the menagerie of automatons. By focusing so much on these smaller things, and the tiny dioramas of Andrew’s novels, it makes the rest of the film look bigger.
*. Another point in the film’s favour is its pacing. This is a long movie. Two hours and 18 minutes. Why? I’ve seen stage productions that ran well under two hours. Kenneth Branagh’s Sleuth (admittedly a very free adaptation) came in at a tight 88 minutes. But it doesn’t seem like this version dawdles.
*. Still, I think it’s fair to ask why this movie is so long I’m not sure. There are some visual elements that are added, but they mostly take the form of quick cutaways. The main thing, I think, is that the film gives Olivier and Caine a lot of room to move about and use the physical space of the set. Which is, in turn, another way the film is made to feel bigger.

*. The two players get a lot of credit, and I think it’s mostly deserved. The first time I saw it I thought Olivier was hamming it up a bit much, but then I thought that Andrew is a ham. Indeed what I think makes the play so much fun is that both characters are: they love putting on a show. Milo, however, realizes that a show is all it is. Andrew has gone over to the other side and it’s all he has. Writers lead lonely lives. And chances are he’s in the closet too.
*. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in pointing out Andrew’s attraction to Milo. It’s there in the play, as he hates Milo for his very attractiveness and then is drawn to him as “my sort of person.” That is, they are both performers and both love playing games. Indeed they are almost (in Andrew’s eyes) soul mates. It’s cut from the film, but in the play he even calls out to Milo as he leaves to get Marguerite’s coat: “Don’t go. Don’t waste it all on Marguerite. She doesn’t appreciate you like I do.”
*. The movie doesn’t play this angle up (I mentioned how that line has been cut), but it’s still there in Olivier’s performance (and will be made explicit in Deathtrap and the 2007 Sleuth). Andrew is a dandy, and his movements are at times effeminate, especially as he almost dances with himself to his show tunes. Most noticeable of all, however, is that admiring glance he gives Milo as he forces him to strip to his “smalls.” It’s hard to mistake that. Is Andrew really impotent then? Or is it just a matter of orientation? Is he in denial? Each man kills the thing he loves.

*. Shaffer’s play was first produced in 1970, so this film is nearly contemporary. But already inflation has set in. The £90,000 Milo was going to get for selling the necklace has almost doubled to £170,000 (in 2007, if you’re keeping score, it will become £800,000). I wonder how much of that is due not to real inflation in the broader economy but rather to the inflation of making a movie vs. putting on a play.
*. There are a couple of other minor changes that have been made. Milo’s Jewish grandmother is quietly elided. They could get away with calling him a wop but that’s as far as they’d go. He also runs a hairdressing salon now instead of a travel agency. That makes his skill at disguise easier to credit and I guess makes him more of a ladies man, perhaps someone a bit like George Roundy in Shampoo.
*. English country-house murder stories enjoyed a golden age and today seem very much a product of their time, but they also have an eternal appeal. I think the film draws on this, while cutting almost all of Anthony Shaffer’s more direct, classist critique of the genre (“It’s a world of coldness and class hatred” being another line that’s dropped from the script). As a result, it feels a little safer, a point I feel is underlined by the change in the play’s final line. Yes, it’s all been a bloody game. But don’t we think Andrew will have a good lawyer? That he’ll be able to come up with a new narrative? It’s not game, set and match. He’s still playing.

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