Michael Caine Swaps Roles in 'Sleuth' Remake

USA Today, 10 October 2007
By Susan Wloszczyna

After raiding Michael Caine's movie closet once before for an ill-fitting update of "Alfie" in 2004, Jude Law could have gone nuts and tried "The Swarm" on for size. At least he couldn't get critically stung any harder for the ludicrous killer-bee disaster flick than Caine did himself in 1978.

Instead, Law and his producing partners wisely decided to go for a premium title: "Sleuth", a fondly remembered 1972 classic whose inventive premise could withstand a total re-tailoring without sacrificing the minimalist power of its material.

The manly pas de deux, based on Anthony Shaffer's Tony-winning play and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz ("All About Eve"), previously pitted the Old World hauteur of Laurence Olivier's effete mystery novelist Andrew Wyke against the nouveau cool of Caine's macho hairdresser Milo Tindle.

What begins as an ego-driven tug of war over the affections of Wyke's wife soon devolves into a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, complete with attempted burglary, gunplay, hidden clues and a few fast ones pulled on the audience.

The 2007 model, directed with a sparer sense of aplomb by Shakespeare specialist Kenneth Branagh and opening Friday in limited release, wants to prove that a remake needn't be inferior to its predecessor, as Law's slick Tindle, now an out-of-work actor, trades caustic remarks with Caine, switching roles as the wily Wyke.

"I know it looks like there was some sort of logic behind it," says Law, 34, who assures he isn't about to revisit any more of his 74-year-old co-star's canon. "But it was never about playing the part. It's a great film and a great demonstration of a classical theme of two guys fighting over a woman you never meet."

Sleeker but edgier

Unlike Olivier's fussy funhouse of a country mansion with its tinkling music boxes and laughing sailor dummy, this Sleuth's ultra-contemporary setting replaces toys with tech, playfulness with menace and a thin veneer of civility with a sizable streak of cruelty.

The tricky thriller, nearly an hour shorter than the first "Sleuth", flashes its intentions early, as a security camera screen reveals Tindle's relatively modest vehicle pulling up in front of a Georgian mansion next to a more substantial luxury sedan.

As Wyke bluntly observes while speaking over an intercom: "My car is bigger than yours."

We all know what Dr. Freud would say about that.

"They are a bit more raw, a bit more needy, a bit more desperate in this one," Law says. "There is a kind of edginess in the interaction that raises the stakes from the get-go. It's not pleasant. It goes very rapidly into two dogs fighting."

Or, as Caine likes to say, "These two guys aren't inclined to take prisoners."

It was suggested in Entertainment Weekly's fall preview that Law was seeking a project that would help restore his "buzz." Given that he has suffered a slide of late with such box-office non-starters as "All the King's Men", "Breaking and Entering" and "The Holiday", it doesn't seem implausible that the two-time Oscar nominee turned tabloid target might be making a strategic career move.

Instead, he says he was thinking like a producer, more interested in attracting and collaborating with a Nobel Prize-toting literary talent such as 77-year-old playwright Harold Pinter ("The Homecoming", "Betrayal") on a revamped script based on the play instead of the original film than bolstering his own image.

Besides, Pinter's participation proved to be just the right catnip to capture Caine's attention.

Not that the actor has any problem with remakes in general. After all, he has done a few ("The Quiet American", "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"). And Caine gave his blessing to Law's stab at "Alfie", which was his 1966 breakthrough with American audiences, even though the modernization ultimately didn't do the charming rogue any favors.

"It was a good idea," Caine says. "But the trouble was the morality had changed. Girls are more like Alfie than the boys are now."

Pinter is the key

But Caine had no interest in simply repeating the first "Sleuth", which led to his second of six Oscar nominations. "I would never want to remake Shaffer's script because Mankiewicz, Olivier and I did quite a good job. I wouldn't want to go up against that."

However, Pinter's version is a whole different animal, more feral than flamboyant.

And as Caine reminds in his familiar cockney singsong, "I have a history with Pinter. It was more than just looking at his script and saying, 'Oh, this is very good.' It's that 50 years ago I did his first play, The Room. We were friends at the Royal Court in London. Then he wrote all this other stuff, and nobody ever asked me to be in anything. Until Jude turned up and said, 'I've got a rewrite of Sleuth.' I said, 'Yeah, who's it by?' He said, 'Harold Pinter.' I said, 'I'll do it.' "

Too bad it took so long for the men to team again, since, as Caine says, "I understand Pinter and the way he writes. You have to be like a straight man with a comedian. You must not at any time be funny. You just stay natural, and it's funny, or it's threatening, or it's violent. Because my character never flinches at the dialogue, you go, 'Oh, my God, what is he saying?' It's the old cockney gangster thing. A cockney gangster says to you, 'Who's been a naughty boy then?' That means you're going to die."

Pinter supposedly kept just one line intact: "It's only a game." But he did add another that often earns a laugh from those moviegoers who know their Alfies: "What's it all about?"

To finish off his Brit dream team, Law had to find a director who not only was willing to deal with Pinter's lack of details (his lone description of the house is that its interiors are aggressively contemporary) but also his deceptively plain language. Of the handful who expressed interest, only Branagh was gung-ho about the assignment.

"He was the only one who saw the absence of detail in the script as a bonus," Law says. "His reaction was, 'Oh, great, we can do what we want.' He wasn't intimidated by it."

While the first "Sleuth" took 16 weeks, this one needed two weeks of rehearsal and a month of filming.

An 'acting contest'

For an artist like Branagh who once had the audacity to combine Irving Berlin with the Bard and transform "Love's Labour's Lost" into a '30s-style movie musical, overseeing a cast of two should be a breeze. Yet that also proved a challenge.

"With two guys talking in a room, the cinematic side of it had to be partly expressed by making the house another character and offering up the sense of being unsettled," the director says, pointing to the low camera angles and the focus on certain objects, such as a drink that already has been poured in anticipation of a request.

As fascinated as he was by the staging, Branagh was equally keen to watch two generations of British actors test each other's prowess.

"Part of the essential part of the enjoyment of the piece is it's a kind of acting contest," he says. "That comes from classical theater, where people go to see the Othellos and Iagos up against one another. There is something about the very visible sense of a big acting job being taken on by the pair of them."

He was so impressed with Law, they will join forces on Hamlet on the London stage in 2009. "He reminds me a bit of what you would call the Paul Newman factor. A character actor hiding inside the body of a leading man."

Law and Caine have much in common despite their age gap. They share a background in theater. They each roomed with other actors early in their careers Caine with Terence Stamp, Law with Ewan McGregor.

Each has borne the label of sex symbol. And they regularly have been accused of the sin of ubiquity, at least one of them by Oscar host Chris Rock.

There also is a sense of pride, respect and easy camaraderie in the room, forged by their efforts on "Sleuth". As Caine says, "How the hell could I do it with a bad actor? I've only got one other person."

Besides, he has a plan for his young foil. "Jude should wait 40 years and then play my part in "Sleuth". The guy who is going to play his part isn't even born yet. You'll have to go round to children's hospitals to find him."

By Susan Wloszczyna

Don't be surprised if you have trouble detecting any new DVDs of the 1972 version of "Sleuth". Anchor Bay brought out the last one in 2002, and it is now out of print.

But if you are desperate to see the great Laurence Olivier and a young Michael Caine match wits, and you're willing to cough up the cash, used copies are on sale on Amazon.com starting at $65 (a few new ones begin at $169.99). Beware old VHS copies, though, which might be in poor condition.

To tide you over, here are some facts about the original film, including a few interesting Olivier connections to the new film:

  • Sleuth is one of two films whose entire cast was OSCAR-nominated. The other: 1975's Give 'em Hell, Harry with James Whitmore as Harry S. Truman. Sleuth also was up for direction and music.
  • Eve Channing is credited as playing Andrew Wyke's wife, who is seen only in a portrait. The name is a combo of the two lead female characters in Sleuth director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve from 1950.
  • Olivier provided the laugh for the sailor dummy Jolly Jack Tar.
  • Caine says much fuss was made in class-conscious England of the fact that a lowly working-class cockney was facing off with Sir Laurence. To put him at ease, Olivier sent him a letter, which said he should call him Larry from the moment they meet. "He got me off the hook," Caine says. "I can just imagine saying, 'Lord Olivier, Sir Laurence, can you get off my foot?' "
  • Kenneth Branagh, director of the new Sleuth, both starred in and directed films of Hamlet and Henry V. So did Olivier.
  • Jude Law, who co-stars in the new Sleuth, has appeared in a movie with Olivier, who died in 1989. Archival footage of the late actor enhanced by CGI is used as the villain in 2004's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. When the holographic image of his character is unplugged, Law asks, "Is it safe?" -- Olivier's catchphrase from 1976's Marathon Man.

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