The classically-styled mystery on film got a shot in the arm recently from Knives Out (2019), but my understanding is that two films above all others seem to earn knowing nods of approval from mystery mavens: The Last of Sheila (1973) and Sleuth (1972).
Reviewing such a solution-focussed form as the mystery is a pain at the best of times, but Sleuth presents even more of a challenge of account of its deceptive simplicity. As much as can be safely discussed about the plot is this: young hairdresser Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) is invited to the home of ageing mystery author Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) as Tindle is having an affair with, and apparently wishes to marry, Wyke’s wife Marguerite (played in a variety of photographs by Eve Channing). As Tindle is a relatively unwealthy man, and as Marguerite has expensive tastes, Wyke has a proposal to enable Tindle to acquire enough money to keep Marguerite happy and ensure she does not sack him off and return to her erstwhile husband after she has bankrupted the youngster: Tindle will steal jewels in Wyke’s home that are insured to the value of £250,000 and sell them via a pre-arranged fence, keeping perhaps two-thirds of their value. Wyke will claim their value back on the insurance, and everyone leaves happy.
Thus runs the first half of the movie, with the tone veering sometimes jarringly from broad, almost slapstick comedy (Caine cavorting around the automata-filled mansions in a clown’s outfit goes on for really rather too long) to moments of sudden menace and, most pleasingly, a steadily-growing frankness between the two men revealed by, among other things, an unabashed discussion of their sexual mores.
I am pretty much of an Olympic sexual athlete
Yes, I suppose these days you are concentrating more on the sprints than on the long distance stuff.
Caine, pushing 40 at the time of filming, is perhaps not entirely believable as the callow young man the script requires, but you have to feel a little sorry for him given that he’s on screen with the legend that is Laurence Olivier going full tilt. Seemingly unmoored from the restraint of his more ‘prestige’ work, Olivier’s Wyke is a delight of untold proportions: giddy, playful, peevish, boastful, malicious, vainglorious (his wounded pride when Tindle claims not to recognise the name of detective character who has featured in the novels of Wyke’s long and illustrious career is simply magnificent)…Olivier spins the wheel of fortune and comes up a winner every time. His Oscar nomination comes as no surprise at all, and Anthony Shaffer’s script — from his own play — paints his careening from one state to another with a lightness that Olivier is the perfect vessel to realise.
The first half, then, is a sort of study in cinematic pugilism. Caine is good, Caine is always at the very least good in everything, but I didn’t find him convincing. The downtrodden backstory of his immigrant watchmaker father doesn’t seem to really affect him — and, given the beautiful meta elements of Cockney-done-good Maurice Micklewhite sparring with acting royalty here, I felt like it really should — but, then, he has to carry the physical comedy (perhaps heightened so as to make what is essentially a series of conversations in different rooms seem less stagey) and his sudden flitting from put upon to agonised stand out, perhaps, against the broader material with which he was served. A modicum more sympathy for him wouldn’t have hurt — it’s made clear that Wyke is hardly a model of moral rectitude, so Tindle beeing the cuckoo in the nest is by no means the moral dilemma you might suspect — but the way the plot unfolds to the halfway point is pleasing if, it must be said, not entirely unexpected.
The second act sees Inspector Doppler (Alec Cawthorne) descend upon Wyke’s home in pursuit of crime, and this act of the drama is both the most pleasing and the least successful. We shall avoid spoilers, but those of you who have seen this will be aware of the difficulty presented at Doppler’s first appearance: for all the surprise the first act held, this second one will clearly play out in one way and one way only. Still, it’s never less than entertaining, with the Columbo-alike Doppler (“It tastes like fish eggs” he declares, having helped himself to Wyke’s evening snack of caviar; “Fancy,” Wyke returns dryly) teasing out details that the audience is in ignorance of and so painting the opening hour in a new light. There’s fun to be had in the various props and background details of Wyke’s house here (a picture of Agatha Christie, an Edgar award, etc.) but Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s camera also has that disconcerting 1970s habit of dwelling on blank space in a Meaningful Way that gets annoying, and the sound design here — again, no doubt deliberately — is a cacophony of simply unbearable noise at times. Technical elements (and one key era limitation) aside this part is easily the most fun.
Of the final stretch, I can say very little except: well, that did you expect? The game-playing cranks up another notch, the tussle becomes a little more even, and the final sting would have stood out a mile if the 1970s had been a little kinder to the puzzle pot. As it is, I can believe this might have been a revelation and a delight to audiences at the time, and I commend the way Shaffer and Mankiewicz keep the action grounded and propulsive. The film as a whole could do with thirty of its 132 minutes trimmed, but the impression it leaves is invigorating and fun. More films need to be fun, y’know? Given the lack of fun we’re all having at the moment, this was a lovely tonic.
From the perspective of the mystery fan, there’s also quite a lot going on here. Wyke briefly holds forth on the Golden Age of detective fiction at the start, and is clearly a carry-over from that more puzzle-oriented style of the older school, where Tindle’s response is based very much in the attitudes and impressions of the younger, more modern set (which, again, is why Caine isn’t quite right here — yes, I know he, too, was Oscar-nominated, but he’s too goddamned old, I say!). Late on, Wyke is reprimanded for the lack of racial diversity in his books, a signifier of how the more socially-representative milieu of crime fiction had come to rule over the upper-class frippery of the classic detective plot, and I don’t know how ironic that is supposed to be given the classically-styled puzzle that Wyke is trying to solve at the time. The final castigation of murder being used as the basis for a game is both a fair reflection of the time and a sharp commentary on the nature of what has gone before, but also rather hollow given the imbrications that have brought us to that point.
However, as an opportunity to watch one of the finest actors who ever lived put in what must surely be one of his most audacious performances, Sleuth cannot be topped. Olivier, like Peter O’Toole, was always magnificent value and elevated everything he was in; that you cannot keep your eyes off him for a moment is the film’s greatest strength, and one it plays to wisely.