Michael Caine Gives a Killer Performance in 'Sleuth'

CTV.ca, 12 September 2007
By Howard Gensler

By Constance Droganes

Hollywood loves its remakes. Yet for Michael Caine, the idea of simply repeating a classic film like "Sleuth" (1972) was one that did not interest him in the slightest.

"I'd never remake Joe Mankiewicz's version," says Caine. "You know it's Mankiewicz and Olivier. What are you doing to do?"

A light-hearted mystery based on Anthony Shaffer's hit play, the original stunner featured Sir Laurence Olivier as a games-playing mystery writer who invites his wife's lover (Caine) to his country mansion to deal with the matter. The typically British, stiff-upper-lip appearance of things quickly changes, however, once Olivier leads the social climber into a diabolical trip.

As Caine says, "I thought we'd done the job there."

Then a few years ago Caine's friend Jude Law mentioned he was trying to get Harold Pinter to rewrite this story for a new film. Caine was intrigued. Caine had known Pinter for decades, but the actor had never been offered something by legendary playwright before.

"We were having dinner. Jude told me his plans, I said yes and then I finished my dinner," Caine laughs. "It's not a rewrite. It's a completely Pinter scenario with no reference to the original. It's a completely different set, dialogue and intensity. The whole thing is different otherwise Id never have done it."

A new twist

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Caine plays the role that Olivier did in 1972 and Law stars as the lowborn lothario.

"The two men are confined to this house fighting over a woman who isn't even there," says Branagh. 'No actress would want to be Maggie because in the mind of these men she's become this goddess. She became irrelevant because it's more about winning."

With all good manners of a crisp afternoon tea Caine announces that he knows the cad is screwing his wife. "That comment," says Branagh, "unleashes this primal, testosterone quality and the competition begins."

Suddenly the camera shows the paranoia and irrational passion that makes Branagh's version of "Sleuth" a completely different and gripping ride.

Even the stately manor house becomes a character in this dark and devious little gem.

"It's convincing, beautiful period house but when you walk inside it's all modern and full of steel," says Branagh. "We came up with the idea of a place where Michael's character shows off his success, his mastery of technology and his taste. Even the artwork is all by famous British artists."

Yet this house is not a home. It's a cunning ring in which these two adversaries play their little games, both trying to outwit one another with crafty glee until violence, inevitably, ensues.

Law, who also produced the film, had a hard time not being awed by Caine.

For Branagh it was the same

As the three men walked through the studio together for the first time, Caine told his young colleagues about shooting classics like "Alfie" (1966) and others on the same site. Law and Branagh both felt utterly awestruck.

In one instance, where Law and Caine where face-to-face in a big scene, Branagh noticed something was off. "I cut and Jude said 'I'm sorry. I just couldn't get over the fact I was in the same shot with Michael Caine. I turned into a 6-year-old who was so thrilled I wanted to ring my mom and say you'll never guess who I'm working with?'"

Law, who was scheduled to appear during the film's press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, was delayed at the airport. As Branagh extended Law's apologies to the crowd Caine joked, "Well how many bags [sic] he have? I never carry a lot of bags so I'm here in less than half an hour."

Caine on Olivier

Made in just four weeks, the original took 16, Caine says, "My first day with Laurence Olivier was not a walk in the park. This is Lord Olivier and here's 'Alfie,'" he smiles. "England was very class conscious, much more so 30 years ago. The idea of this Cockney actor going to work with Olivier was impossible."

Recalling the legendary Olivier as being quite scary at times, Caine says, "I did understand Jude's position with me. But the disparity between me and Jude is much less than between me and Olivier."

At 74, the actor has done some of this best career work in recent years, including such films as "The Cider House Rules" and "Little Voice."

"I remember a journalist asking me what's your main talent when is [sic] was in my 40's. I said survival."

"Growing up during the blitz," Caine says, "I became a movie actor not a movie star. A movie star looks at the script and says Michael Caine would do this, look like that. A movie actor reads the script and changes himself for the writing."

"With his passion to act still strong, the Hollywood icon says, Now I only do exactly what I want to do with whom I want to do it when I want do it."

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