*. It should have been good, if not great. Anthony Shaffer’s play has a timeless quality about it. Michael Caine and Jude Law are more than capable of holding their own. Harold Pinter did the script and Kenneth Branagh was behind the camera. So what went wrong?
*. To answer that I want to go back to what I said about Deathtrap. Instead of that “timeless quality” Sleuth had that I just mentioned, Deathtrap was very much a film of its time (the early ’80s). The same goes here, with Andrew Wyke’s country manor now being redone as an ultra-modernist dream home that we could never imagine anyone actually living in, complete with a full suite of CCTV cameras (that, curiously, play no part in the plot). Only ten years later it looks silly.
*. Another thing that’s been lost is any sense of Andrew being an author possessed by his genre. Olivier in the original was someone who had trouble separating detective fact from detective fiction, he’d become so steeped in the latter. In both Deathtrap and this film Caine is playing a hack who doesn’t seem that interested in whodunits, which makes his obsessive gamesmanship (in both films) harder to understand.
*. More than this, what’s missing (again, as in Deathtrap) is the sense of fun. In the first Sleuth movie both Andrew and Milo were people who loved playing the game, putting on performances, and besting their rival. Here they just like being mean to each other.
*. The Shaffer/Mankiewicz Sleuth had its dark moments, but was still a comedy. Deathtrap tried to be funny, and maybe it was in 1982, but the jokes haven’t aged. This Sleuth, however, doesn’t even seem to try for laughs. There’s a laboured bit of stale Pinter in the “I’m you, you’re me” scene but aside from that there’s no attempt at levity that I can discern.
*. The homosexual couple in Deathtrap was obviously not a match made in heaven, but it was at least believable and didn’t play to stereotypes. The seduction scene here is, to use the cliché, cringe-inducing. The final third of the film plays the gay angle as something sick, making the nastiness even more distasteful.
*. Distasteful and dull. I mentioned how surprised I was in my notes on the 1972 version that it was so long. This movie is nearly a full hour shorter but actually feels the opposite. The final act (or, in the tennis lingo they use, set) of the original game is disposed of so that the icky and ultimately very boring homosexual angle can be played out, which was more lively and sincere in the original for being left unstated. Here the only thing that happens is that Andrew pretends (or does he?) to fall in love with Milo, who plays along in kittenish fashion until he finally calls Andrew a poofter, which gets him shot. How interesting is any of that?
*. For what it may be worth (and I don’t think it’s worth much in this case) Caine says on the commentary that he thought Andrew only wanted a companion and not a sexual partner in Milo. Hm.I think the sexual angle is played up pretty obviously from the moment he makes his proposition.
*. A proposition, by the way, that Branagh found “touching.” An older man offering to buy a rent boy? I doubt Pinter thought there was anything touching to it.
*. That’s Pinter (interrogating Branagh) appearing in a cameo as the detective on the crime show Andrew is watching on TV. I wasn’t paying much attention and thought it was John Thaw’s Inspector Morse.
*. Branagh wanted to keep things interesting without leaving the confines of the postmodern box of a set he’d constructed, which leads to a lot of irritating camera work. None of it seems natural and it has the effect, I found, of depersonalizing the leads when what should have been driving the film is their personalities. I mean, we don’t even see their faces until about eight minutes in.
*. I’ve mentioned how unnatural the sets and camera work is and I’d say the same about the acting. The way Law in particular uses his body and bellows some of his lines seems very much geared toward playing to a live audience and not to the camera.
*. So Sleuth (1972) is still there, despite Pauline Kael’s saying that only two or three people were still interested in it ten years after it came out. Deathtrap has dated less well but still has some admirers. This movie, however, is already almost entirely forgotten. Which is, I think, probably for the best.