A man who loves games and theater invites his wife's lover to meet him, setting up a battle of wits with potentially deadly results.
Nominated for 4 OSCARS: Best Actor (Caine), Best Actor (Olivier), Best Director (Mankiewicz), Best Music (John Addison)
A man enters a maze.
So begins Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Sleuth (1972), based on the play of the same name by Anthony Schaffer. A man (Michael Caine) enters a maze, meets another man (Laurence Olivier), and the two walk out together... kind of. Although he physically leaves the maze, Milo Tindle (Caine) finds himself immediately sucked into a bigger and far more dangerous puzzle—one with potentially life-changing, and maybe even deadly, consequences.
As the men meander from the maze to the mansion that overlooks it, we get some of the backstory. Milo, a young hairdresser, has been invited out to the country by Andrew Wyke (Olivier), a successful mystery author and games enthusiast. And just like the characters in his books, Andrew has an ulterior motive: he has discovered that Milo is sleeping with his wife. But, he is quick to reassure Milo, he is not angry! In fact, knowing that Milo’s salary will not let him take care of her, he has a proposition: Milo can steal his wife’s jewels and the lady herself, and Andrew can cash in on the insurance and be a happy bachelor, even richer than before.
There’s a catch, though. Andrew can’t just give Milo the jewels. To make it look real, Milo has to break in himself and take them—with Andrew’s help and guidance, of course. Like everything else in Andrew’s house, it has to be a game. Milo, too poor to refuse the offer, warily agrees. Of course, Andrew’s plan turns out to be more than meets the eye, and his loathing and disdain for both Milo and the police are quickly revealed. As the game winds on, Milo schemes to turn the tables, and—
--And I can’t say anything else without completely spoiling the film, save to say that what follows Andrew’s proposal is a tightly-plotted series of escapades, games at increasingly high stakes, a series of events at alternate times hilarious, ridiculous, and incredibly tense. Sleuth is too nerve-wracking to be madcap, too clever not to be funny, too dark to not be just a little scary too. Mostly, what it is is brilliant. What makes Sleuth remarkable is Anthony Schaffer’s script, which should be in textbooks under “How to write a good mystery.” As Andrew and Milo’s battle of wits becomes more intricate, Schaffer weaves his themes through their interactions.
While the game itself is fascinating, the film becomes about far more than that, dealing with such issues as class warfare, xenophobia, obsession, mania, and the private little terrors and shames that drive us all.
What makes the film great is Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. Don’t get me wrong: the cinematography, the editing, the sound, and so on, are all perfectly fine. They efficiently transfer the play from stage to screen. But with the exception of some clever cutaways to Andrew’s disturbing menagerie of antique toys, the filming is fairly standard, and may even seem stagey and static to a modern audience used to smash cuts and crazy angles. As I mentioned, the script shines like a supernova—but what anyone with any appreciation of good acting will want to see this film for is to see two powerhouses do what they do best. Both men turn out some of the finest performances of their career, and watching them dance around each other is like watching two black belts fight; no matter what the outcome is, the most enthralling thing is the fight itself. They are simply brilliant, and they make an already-good film brilliant too.
Now for the bad news:
The DVD is out of print, making Sleuth hard to get a hold of these days. There was a 2007 remake, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it; the late Harold Pinter did many great things, but rewriting the script wasn’t one of them. In this case, it’s worth it to wait for the original—a film that is on the IMDB top #250, was nominated for four Oscars (including two for its leading men), and won the Edgar Allan Poe award for best mystery film of 1972, and yet is almost totally unknown today. If you get a chance to see it, then in the words of a particular favorite game of mine: do not pass GO, do not collect 200 dollars.
Just watch the movie.