This is less a review of two movies and more a brief analysis of a particular sub-genre for no reason better than that it amuses me to do so, such is the luxury of running your own website. The genre in question is a certain type of thriller, the kind adapted for the big screen from the stage and therefore retaining a certain stagey quality.
Many would find them dull, even unwatchable for precisely that reason, and maybe the plodding plot lines – though given my background in amateur dramatics you will not be remotely surprised to learn that I have a soft spot for movies that look barely reconstructed from their origins under the proscenium arch, as if a camera crew has lost its way between studios 3 and 4, then found itself on the stage at the Old Vic. The sort of movie I’m talking about is barely opened out at all, in fact there may be painted backdrops in evidence – see Hitchcock‘s Dial M for Murder and you’ll see what I mean.
And to illustrate my theme, here are two prime examples: Sleuth (1972) and Deathtrap (1982). Different authors (Anthony Schaffer and Ira Levin) and directors (Samuel L Mankiewicz and Sidney Lumet), but otherwise so much in common. For example: both deliberately and deliciously old-fashioned in their approach; they are both set in well-heeled semi-rural locations (Wiltshire and Long Island respectively), feature successful writers of detective fiction, rely heavily on the playing of tortuous and humiliating games and role plays, feature for long swathes of time just one set and two characters in lengthy and involved dialogues, require very traditional acting skills, depend on frequent twists before reaching their respective gripping climaxes.
Also worth adding that both owe a massive debt to the history of detective fiction over the previous century, preceding their addition to the genre. Notably, they owe a debt to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and many more who honed the concept of the amateur sleuth finding obscure solutions to premeditated murders or mysteries, such as the sub-genre, the locked room mystery. In this case both tales originated as stage plays so retain the playwright’s knack of a regular mini-crescendo to keep the audience awake to the interval, then again to the final curtain.
Oh, and both feature Michael Caine, as indeed does the hugely inferior remake of Sleuth (2007), in which Caine played the role occupied originally by our very own leaping lord, Laurence Olivier. Alas, in the process he helped to demonstrate why any halfway decent drama should never be remade, even when you also have the talents of Harold Pinter, Kenneth Branagh and Jude Law to hand.
But I digress. I first saw Sleuth, then given a AA certificate but now worthy of a PG or at most 12, in about 1973. At the time I loved visiting The Rex in Wilmslow for both its rep stage productions and its movies, and went whenever I could. Maybe the films were not so great but I drank in every detail and was so fascinated by the whole process of creating this artifice, this frothy confection for the purposes of entertainment. I was mesmerised, so it was little surprised I joined the youth wing of the Green Room Theatre Company soon after. It is with pleasure I can inform you that the Green Room is still there and doing its business to this day.
At the time I was into detective fiction of almost any kind I could lay my hands on, and having a mother who worked in the local library meant I could get shelf loads of the stuff, British and American. I much preferred the former despite its snobbish class-ridden bias. So you can easily imagine that I was carried away by the original Sleuth, never having seen anything quite like a two-hander with frequent twists and turns. And being the epitome of theatricality in production design, use of language and photography was a major attraction to me.
Despite the opening shots outside the country estate of crime writer Andrew Wyke, whose wife has run off with johnny-come-lately hairdresser Milo Tindle, it remains for the most part appropriately claustrophobic as the two play out a convoluted series of games of revenge on one another. Part of the plot, courtesy of Wikipedia, but no big spoilers:
Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a moderately prosperous, flashy, self-made London hairdresser, the son of an Italian immigrant and an English farm girl, arrives at a stately home in the Wiltshire countryside belonging to Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), a pompous, highly eccentric, quite wealthy crime fiction author. A member of the upper class with a great concern for tradition, Wyke is popular worldwide for his aristocratic detective, St. John Lord Meridew.
Andrew acknowledges that he knows Milo is having an affair with his wife, Marguerite. Milo, in return, reveals that he knows Andrew is having an affair with a Finnish prostitute called Thea, and that Andrew’s wife will raise a divorce action based on this.
Andrew suggests that Milo steal his wife’s jewels and has arranged for him to fence the jewels for £170,000, enabling him to maintain Marguerite’s expensive tastes, while Andrew will be able to claim the insurance money. To make the burglary seem convincing, Andrew suggests that Milo actually burgle his house. When the time comes for Milo and Andrew to stage a fight, Andrew pulls his gun and creates some bullet holes. Milo is then supposed to tie up Andrew, but instead, Andrew turns the gun on Milo. He says that he will not accept another man stealing his wife and he set up the burglary so that he can kill Milo and plead self-defence. Milo begs for his life. Andrew expresses his contempt for working-class, non-English people like Milo, points the gun at Milo’s head, and fires.
Cuts are slow and deliberate, allowing Olivier and Caine the time and space to explore the dynamics, use props (notably the delightfully sinister clockwork toys with which Wyke peppers his living space), to develop their characters and motivations with the subtlety denied almost every character actor in a major motion feature.
Small wonder that they ring a good deal more true than many stage mystery stories, which for the most part rely on ingenuity and plotting than the craft in building the characters, the point being that if a murder or other mishap occurs the entire cast will generally be looking shifty and finding ways to blame other people while disguising the skeletons in their own particular closets.
Not difficult to see why Pinter was keen to write the remake, in fact, since Sleuth has an almost Pinteresque form of power struggle written into its subtext, a territorial pissing-on-the-wall battle of egos in which Wyke humiliates Tindle but also underestimates his opponent badly, to his own cost as the intensity of the games rachet up several notches.
At times, the language is almost of secondary importance to the underlying psychology and turf war, yet the torrent of words contain clues and red herrings in equal measure. There is not just a theatricality to the back-and-forth speeches, but a knowing artifice. The action is in a contemporary 1972 English setting, but the stylised speeches might almost at times belong in the 20s or 30s. So it goes, but the egos clash right up to the final curtain, and in the Rex there was indeed a velvet curtain that dropped at the end.
Deathtrap was a contrast to Sleuth, if only because while I was attracted to the story by virtue of the ingenuity of plotting of both, only one of the two retained my interest over an extended period. Compared to its predecessor Deathtrap remained in the world of guessing the next twist – though in many ways the plot basics are essentially the same: crime writing, marital disharmony, money and murder. There are a few differences, but far be it from me to spoil those for you. The point is that the plot twists continue right to the very end and as an audience you are left guessing. Here’s the plot of the first half at least:
Famed playwright Sidney Bruhl debuts the latest in a series of Broadway flops and returns to his opulent Long Island home and his sympathetic but sick wife, Myra. Although their financial situation is not dire, Sidney is hungry for a hit. They are starting to feel the limit of his wife’s fortune, so he shares with her a plan. He has received a manuscript written by one of his students that he considers near perfection. Clifford Anderson recently attended one of Sidney’s writing workshops and now asks for his input on his play Deathtrap. Myra’s weak heart is not improved when her husband does not rule out eliminating Clifford and producing the play as his own. He invites Clifford to their secluded Long Island home to discuss it.
Clifford arrives by train. Myra tries desperately over the course of an evening to convince Sidney to work with Clifford as equal partners, but to no avail. Sidney attacks Clifford, strangling him with a chain.
Sidney removes the body but still has to convince Myra to conspire with him. She reveals nothing when they receive an unexpected visit from the psychic Helga Ten Dorp, a minor celebrity who is staying with the Bruhls’ neighbors. But Helga senses pain and death in the house; before she leaves she warns Sidney about a man in boots who will attack him.
As she prepares for bed, Myra is managing to come to terms with Sidney’s diabolical deed. All is calm until Clifford bursts through the bedroom window and beats Sidney with a log. Clifford chases Myra through the house until her heart gives out; she collapses and dies. Sidney calmly descends the stairs, uninjured, and sidles unperturbed to Clifford’s side. They exchange a few words about what to do with Myra’s body, then exchange a passionate kiss….
There’s a lot more double-crossing going on, but unlike Sleuth, in which the journey from A to B is compelling and worthy of watching at least once more, Deathtrap does not hold any greater fascination beyond the initial viewing. That is not to say it’s a bad story or played badly, but by design it lacks the wherewithal to transcend its genre and become a study of human emotions and behaviours, and once you’ve learned the secrets, like an average holiday destination you will remember it but never choose to go there again. The cast is predestined to act in ways determined by the writer for motivations stated at regular intervals, real or designed to convince other characters and, especially, the audience, for the duration, the period during which disbelief can viably be suspended.
In short, Deathtrap is the opposite end of the stagey spectrum from Sleuth. Mysteries will always attract a good audience in the same way that magic shows always entice an audience longing to be mystified and thrilled in equal measure. In some ways stage has always had an advantage in this particular equation by virtue of spontaneity and a disadvantage by being relatively static and depending more on words than actions, though for me that is no bad thing. It’s always been my belief that savouring the words, expressions and behaviours of characters helps audience to interpret hidden motives, which is in the final degree way more satisfying than following plot twists designed specifically to fox you. In many ways, that’s why Sleuth works – it’s a game played by characters who are playing to the death, but they are trying more to outwit the other, not cheat the audience.
Just one more thing to add. Even if you do not make a habit of watching your mysteries on the stage, do give it a try. If you can support your local am dram group in the process, so much the better. I always loved playing thrillers, especially The Unexpected Guest (for which I won an acting award) and Murder By The Book, in which I played the devious and flamboyant Selwyn Piper, who did indeed have to come back apparently from the dead, among the very many twists and turns of that particular play. My, how I loved the gasps of surprise from the audience when I resurrected myself from behind the sofa! What a fine movie that might make, in the style of Deathtrap…