Murder Mystery: Who Killed "Sleuth"?

Time Magazine, 12 October 2007
By Richard Corliss

On consecutive weeks back in December 1972, the Palomar production company and 20th Century-Fox teamed to release two films: "Sleuth" and "The Heartbreak Kid". Now, on consecutive weekends in October 2007, come remakes of those movies. As it happens, the original "Sleuth" and "Heartbreak" were smart and funny and took a fairly brutal view of their main characters. The remakes, though honoring the basic plots of their predecessors, are dumb, witless and humiliating to all parties.

I guess I could spin this coincidence into a mournful essay on the devolution of movie culture over the past 35 years: how moviemakers have jettisoned subtlety in their attempts to appeal to a teen audience, how shades of gray have been coarsened to simple blacks and whites, how everything then was better than anything now, etc. etc. That alterkocker argument might be made to apply to the Farrelly brothers' dumb-down of the Neil Simon-Elaine May "Heartbreak Kid", which I was unkind to last week. But it doesn't work on "Sleuth", an art-house effort with more modest box office aspirations, a much loftier collection of talent, on and off screen and, you'd think, an unwreckable scenario.

In Anthony Shaffer's 1970 play, which he adapted for the 1972 film, Andrew Wylie is an aging writer of mystery novels, living well but not comfortably in a home whose gadgety furnishings reflect his obsession with game-playing. The reason for Andrew's discomfort: his young wife is having an affair with her hairdresser, Milo Tindale. Enter Milo into Andrew's lair. The older man has an attractive, illegal proposal for Milo that could make them both rich and happy. But that's just a teaser to Andrew's much darker scheme one that will bring a policeman to inquire about a missing body.

In the original movie, directed by Hollywood veteran Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Andrew was played by Laurence Olivier, widely considered the century's greatest actor; and Michael Caine, who came to movie fame as the charming cad Alfie, was Milo. In a promising symmetry, this "Sleuth" has Caine playing the older man and Jude Law, who starred in a 2004 sequel to "Alfie", as his young rival.

At the helm this time is Kenneth Branagh, the actor-director who in his youth was seen as the hope of English-speaking theater "the new Olivier," critics said and who had one-upped Olivier by directing and starring in an acclaimed film of Shakespeare's "Henry V" while still in his 20s. The new script for "Sleuth" is by Harold Pinter, the most demanding and honored playwright of the past half-century. Pinter, after all, did win the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature; and at 77, this imperious Brit is surely beyond the worry of writing scripts for 14-year-old American boys. So his criminal botch of the job can't be attributed to marketplace timidity. Indeed, "Sleuth" (which Pinter has said he never saw performed) is a project that seems perfect for him. He made his esteemed rep with creepy, enigmatic studies of human menace works like "The Caretaker", "The Homecoming", "Old Times", "No Man's Land". He'd put two people in a room (that is, on the stage) and not let them out till the bitterness erupted and the blood flowed. Such was Pinter's craft and nerve that the audience felt as caged as the characters. It just made sense to let him loose on Shaffer's one-room play about two devious men playing killer tricks on each other.

There are some blunt objects on display, and a gun does go off, but the play is basically two men talking, firing elaborate insults at each other, scheming to find the perfect humiliation for slights received, the most elegant revenge. All this was catnip for the original film's director. Mankiewicz (whose older brother Herman wrote "Citizen Kane") had been in movies since the early days of talking pictures, and "talkies" is a good description of his very voluble films. His Oscar-winning scripts for "A Letter to Three Wives" and "All About Eve" were filled, stocked, clogged with clever badinage. Nearly 60 years later, those films are still among the pearliest repositories for Hollywood's verbal chic.

To Mankiewicz and the urban sophisticates he wrote about, words were swords in the duel of wits. He thought of himself as a screen playwright, and Hollywood as Broadway West: films were theater in closeup. (Academy voters apparently agreed with Mankiewicz: they named him best director as well as best writer for "Three Wives" and "Eve".) No question, he loved the sound of his own authorial voice; it had an overripe eloquence that could beguile any viewer-listener. And when he turned plays into films producing Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story" or directing Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" he could fall in love with other voices, too.

Shaffer was a kindred spirit to Mankiewicz: a cunning wordsmith with a playwright brother; his identical twin, Peter, wrote "Equus" and "Amadeus". Like Mankiewicz (and Pinter, for that matter), Shaffer was fascinated by the ability of language to reveal, conceal and distort the workings of a person's mind and desires. In "Sleuth" he created a Chinese-box plot that on the surface was a very theatrical mystery, but at heart was a parable of sexual envy and English class hatred. Again, right up Pinter's dark alley.

Yet Pinter, in adapting the play, betrayed a carelessness bordering on contempt. The original is a two-act story that takes more than two hours; the new one synopsizes all that plot into the first hour, then adds a third act that diminishes, demeans, defames both the material and the actors. To slam home the theme of sexual aggression, Pinter forces one of the characters to dress in drag. Which makes Sleuth fit into the year's dominant movie trend: guys channeling their attraction for each other.

The reason that the first film version (available on an Anchor Bay DVD, and showing on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel this Sunday at 8pm Eastern) worked is that Mankiewicz filmed what Shaffer wrote. It's a play about role-playing, an unapologetic display of actors doing their tricks, putting on masks, throwing their voices all the delicious stunts that say the theater is a game. Was it not cinematic? Mankiewicz didn't care. And most viewers were too appreciative of the sleight-of-hand to care either.

What's clear from the opening shot of Branagh's version is that he desperately wants this "Sleuth" to be not the record of a play but a real, filmy film. Unfortunately, his notion of film is a combination of bizarre camera angles and an alternation of baffling long shots and punishing closeups. Once upon a time, Branagh directed some agreeable movies: the burly "Henry V", the inventive "Much Ado About Nothing". So I can't say his visual choices here are made from ignorance. They have to be called willfully stupid. The mise-en-scene becomes so aggressive that in its last third the picture is almost literally unwatchable.

I won't reveal what happens, except to say that by the end both stars are utterly humiliated, and that the final victim is...the viewer. I wouldn't necessarily put this film in the atrocity category of a lower-I.Q. torture exercise like "Captivity". But if you consider what the exalted quartet of Branagh, Pinter, Caine and Law might have done with the project, and what they did to it, "Sleuth" has to be the worst prestige movie of the year.


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