Deathtrap (1982)

*. In my notes on Sleuth, a film that Deathtrap derives at least in part from, I mentioned how the genre of the country estate murder mystery was both historically bound and for all time. As a result, it’s a play (and a film) that hasn’t dated.
*. Deathtrap is slightly less successful in this regard. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “Deathtrap is not a great film and will not live forever.” I’d concur with both points, though it has managed to hang around longer than I think he might have suspected.
*. There are elements that stand out as dated. The theatrical poster, for example, has the cast popping out of a Rubik’s Cube. We’ll grant them a pass on that, however, as the same conceit was used on the poster for The Cabin in the Woods (2012), where I thought it was kind of witty. Things that haven’t aged as well include Clifford’s boots (which are, alas, mentioned in the script several time) and references to the Merv Griffin Show. I wonder how many people today even know who Merv Griffin was, despite all of his success in creating game shows. Along with most of the other wisecracks from the play, the references to Griffin’s show don’t even bring a smile.

*. Then there is the fact that the two leads — Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve — play a gay couple. This was pretty daring for 1982, and their on-screen kiss even more so (a kiss that isn’t in the play). It was also a big risk for Reeve, who was best (or really only) known as Superman up till then. And here he’s not only gay but a sociopath as well!
*. I wonder how much the gay subplot confused audiences at the time. I mean, it would be clear to most people that Sidney staged the murder of Clifford, but to what end? I think that’s a twist that might have surprised people in 1982, though it doesn’t now.
*. This brings me to the biggest difference between now and then. Today we’re used to complicated plots like this, and movies with several surprise twists. As a result, Deathtrap just doesn’t seem sophisticated or complicated enough. I think modern audiences have an easy time staying on top of it and there really aren’t any big surprises. Even the murder of Myra is no big shocker, being taken directly from Les Diaboliques. I was actually thinking she was going to be coming back at some point.
*. So is it still enjoyable? Not so much. For me, with every twist it became not only more improbable but far less interesting. More than that, however, is that nobody seems to be having any fun. Compare Olivier and Caine in Sleuth, where the two characters they play are obviously both enjoying themselves immensely as they put on a show for one another.
*. Pauline Kael: “What this comes down to is a broad, obvious movie that looks like an ugly play and appears to be a vile vision of life. . . . the actors don’t disgrace themselves. But their skill gives no one pleasure.” No one involved, and few people watching.

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