Sleuth (United Kingdom, 1972)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sleuth, a 1972 "thinking person's thriller," is a rich, engaging motion picture with surprises lurking in the shadows behind every narrative corner. The film opens with a shot of Michael Caine making his way through a hedge labyrinth in search of Laurence Olivier, who, like a spider, waits at the center. It's a perfect metaphor for all that is to come, as the two men square off in a series of increasingly-desperate games. This is the kind of movie where the payoff isn't about getting to the end, but in savoring every moment on the long, winding trip that takes us there.

The main reason Sleuth stands up well on repeated viewings, while many serpentine thrillers fall apart, is the amazing performances turned in by the two leads. This is essentially a two-man stage show transformed into a movie. With the exception of a brief showing by British thespian Alec Cawthorne, the only actors on screen are Olivier and Caine. Both are so good that there's not a moment when we wish for someone else to interrupt their duel. Never has such seemingly limited one-on-one interaction been so arresting. The running time, which exceeds two hours, flies by.

Olivier is universally recognized as one of the best actors ever to grace the screen (big or small). Whether as Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the lead in Hamlet, Moriarty in The Seven Per Cent Solution, or Lord Marchmain in "Brideshead Revisited," Olivier never disappointed. Sleuth is easily one of his meatiest roles -- a chance to let go and act with relish. Andrew Wyke is a petty snob, but Olivier makes him into a figure of both great humor and great tragedy. While we never sympathize with Andrew, we do something far more important -- we understand him. Olivier received one of his ten career acting Oscar nominations for his work in this film, and, while it would be hyperbole to call this his most impressive outing, it's certainly one of his most memorable.

Michael Caine's career has been somewhat more checkered than Olivier's. While it's true that the older actor did appear in some questionable films towards the end of his life (Clash of the Titans, The Betsy), Caine's entire career has been a series of wild ups and downs, with notable low points coming in Blame it on Rio and On Deadly Ground. Nevertheless, while one might question the man's motives for appearing in certain films, there's no doubting his talent, and it's all on display in Sleuth. Caine's character is Milo Tindle, a low-class British hairdresser who has the audacity to carry on an affair with the wife of one of his betters, Andrew Wyke. When we first meet Milo, he cuts a rather pathetic figure as someone desperately trying to fit in where he doesn't feel comfortable. But, as a result of Andrew's cruelty, we soon recognize there's steel beneath Milo's mild-mannered exterior. When Andrew's unconscionable actions give Milo the excuse, he sees an opportunity to use this one man as a focal point for all of the rage he feels at the class-based injustices he has been subjected to throughout his entire life. The brilliance of Caine's portrayal is that we accept and believe every small transformation of personality that Milo undergoes.

At this point, I want to insert a warning into this review: because it's virtually impossible to discuss Sleuth in any detail without giving away some of the surprises, I'm cautioning readers who want a "virgin" experience to stop reading now (and come back once you've seen the movie). While my intention is not to reveal everything (the ending, for example, will go unmentioned), certain plot elements will be exposed. And, while Sleuth can easily be enjoyed by those who know the story inside out, why spoil some of the fun if you haven't already seen it?

Andrew and Milo are both expert gamesmen, but their views about playing are radically different. Milo is a hard worker who has struggled for every gain in life. He has known pain, hardship, and humiliation. For him, games are a form of recreation. His primary goal is to settle down peacefully with the woman he loves (who happens to be Andrew's wife). Andrew, on the other hand, is an upper-class elitist who has never endured misfortune. He's a staunch conservative who holds that class isn't just a circumstance of birth; it's an indicator of character. To a successful mystery novelist like him, everything is a game: sex, life, death. And, when it comes to crime, the police are minor obstacles - plodding idiots who couldn't solve a case even with all the clues laid out neatly for them.

The first phase in the game has Andrew luring Milo to his house under the pretense of discussing the terms by which Andrew will grant his wife, Marguerite, a divorce so she can marry Milo. Much to the younger man's surprise, Andrew seems delighted to be rid of his spouse. "Sex is the game," Andrew laments. "Marriage is the penalty." Since he has a mistress to take care of the former, the wife has become expendable. Using his personal experience as a guideline, Andrew advises that for Milo to keep Marguerite happy, he will need a source of significant income. To that end, the wily mystery writer has a proposition: Milo will steal a cache of Andrew's jewelry, then Andrew will report them stolen. As a result, Andrew will get the insurance money and Milo can fence the property for a significant amount of cash. To Milo, it sounds like the perfect plan. There's only one problem - Andrew isn't serious. The whole plot is a setup designed so that Andrew can humiliate the man who has stolen one of his baubles (his wife). Once Milo is in the process of committing the crime, Andrew pulls out a revolver and calmly informs Milo that he is going to shoot him, a burglar interrupted in the crime. He isn't serious, but Milo believes him and, when Andrew pulls the trigger, he faints dead away.

Round two is Milo's revenge. Andrew thinks the game is over, but Milo, wounded to the quick, has other ideas. The vicious scheme he hatches to get back at Andrews comprises the second half of the film, and is even more devious than the one used against him. Milo proves that not only is he a player of Andrew's caliber, but he's faster, less principled, and more shrewd. By the time the end credits roll, it's clear who has had the final laugh. The viewer sits enraptured through the entire match between these two players, watching a series of unexpected plot twists unravel on- screen. The labyrinth at the beginning is indeed an apt metaphor.

It's easy enough to guess that Sleuth began life on the stage - the narrative, with its limited setting (most of the action takes place within a few rooms in Andrew's house) and focus on dialogue and character interaction is the kind of approach one would expect from a play. But it's hard to imagine that any live version could have been as riveting without Olivier and Caine, who elevate Sleuth from the level of a rollicking good story to a masterpiece. Here, the acting is the key, and it is never found lacking.

Of course, I don't mean to downplay the contribution of director Joseph Mankiewicz or playwright/screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, both of whom share credit with the actors for Sleuth's success. Shaffer's script is delicious - witty, intelligent, and full of the unexpected. And, while Olivier certainly has all the best lines, Caine has the most glorious non- dialogue moments, such as the scene in which he dresses up as a clown in preparation for breaking into Andrew's house.

Those who enjoyed the convolutions in David Fincher's The Game will find that Sleuth offers many of the same pleasures without the most obvious drawback (blatant manipulation of the audience). This tremendously entertaining motion picture is as effective today, more than a quarter of a century after its release, as it was in 1972. It's not the easiest movie to find on videotape (although it has just been released in the new DVD format), and many of the existing copies are in poor condition, but it's more than worth the effort to seek out. Sleuth is a hidden treasure.

Sleuth (United Kingdom, 1972)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine
Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer based on his play
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Music: John Addison
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.75:1