#753: “Which do you fancy: early Agatha Christie or vintage S.S. van Dine?” – A Three-Act Tragedy in Sleuth (1972) [Scr. Anthony Shaffer, Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz]

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.

Metaphor alert!

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.

WYKE:
I am pretty much of an Olympic sexual athlete

TINDLE:
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.

Wyke (Laurence Olivier) proposes…

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.

Tindle (Michael Caine) acts.

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.

An inspector (Alec Cawthorne) calls.

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.

Wyke reflects.

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.

The set designers probably had a field day, too.

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.

38 thoughts on “#753: “Which do you fancy: early Agatha Christie or vintage S.S. van Dine?” – A Three-Act Tragedy in Sleuth (1972) [Scr. Anthony Shaffer, Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz]

  1. I loved SLEUTH when I saw it many many years ago. I’m afraid to re-watch it since I have a feeling it may disappoint the second time around.

    Caine said that acting opposite Olivier in that movie made him feel like he was stepping into the ring with the world heavyweight boxing champion.

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    • Second time around, knowing what’s coming, it would be an odd, and possibly distracting, experience. There aren’t really clues as such, are there? It’s not like The Last of Sheila. So, apart from the second act — which is plainly going to unfold one way and one way only from the second the detective appears — you don’t get that joy of “Ah! I missed that first time around!”.

      So, yeah, I agree. Maybe give it a few more years…

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  2. I do regret not having seen this in the stage first. The explosive end of the first act and especially the arrival of the inspector in Act 2 would clearly work much better on the stage. But as you say, they have tried to compensate by opening it up and the opening section in the maze, with Wyke dictating the sokution to a mystery clearly based on John Dickson Carr makes for a delightful start. And a great score by John Addison, pre Murder She Wrote, and production design by the one and only Ken Adam. BTW, I think it’s “Eve Channing” you mean, not “Even”. She was a real Mankiewicz favourite of course. 😁

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  3. The Pinterised remake was disappointing.
    By the way, there is a classic book on these comedy thrillers: Deathtraps: The Postmodern Comedy Thriller by Marvin Carlson. Get hold of a copy! This book also introduced me to the best Sleuth inspiration : Accomplice by Rupert Holmes. Search this play out, and you won’t regret it. Deserves a full podcast in its own right. The original Broadway play had the guy who plays George in Seinfeld.

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    • The update doesn’t seem to have gone over especially well with…anyone. Given how long it took me to get round to this, there’s no risk of me getting to that any time soon.

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  4. “(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)”

    My favorite part of the movie–an inspired idea. I didn’t have as much of a problem with Caine. Though their ages weren’t far enough apart, there was a clear difference between Caine (who despite his age, had starred in the hip Alfie only six years prior) and Lord/Sir/God-knows-how-many-other-titles Olivier who was considered both Hollywood and BFI royalty. I think this makes Caine younger enough, especially since we never see him with the wife. And can we talk about Alec Cawthorne? Such a genius actor and such a pity this was his only film. All we have is this film and the legendary stories of his stage work.

    The Branagh/Pinter remake is not a proper mystery. It’s more like an exercise in claustrophobic set design — seriously, the house looks like it wants to kill you. Though it wasn’t great, I appreciated the attempt to do something different.

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    • I don’t see it so much about their relative ages as Caine’s alone — a younger man would be more credulous, and nothing in the character convinced me he’d be so quick and unquestioning in going ahead as freely as he did.

      Anyhoo, doesn’t matter. I echo others sentiments that it would have been wonderful to see this on the stage first. We may never get another Alec Cawthorne, but plenty of actors would have done their best in his shadow.

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  5. I’ve seen this in the theatre three times – the best version had Richard Todd as Wyke and Peter Byrne as Milo (older UK readers may remember him playing Andy Crawford in the long-running police drama “Dixon of Dock Green” – he was excellent in the play). The performance was at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne, which may have been the last theatre to have a live pianist playing in the interval.

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  6. It REALLY works on stage! I remember being gobsmacked at the end of Act One, which of course lulled me into thinking the rest would be like an episode of Columbo – and then you get Gobsmack #2!! I kind of agree with Byrnside: Caine may be too old in theory, but I think Olivier’s advanced age here evens things out. It makes me think of the age difference in Deathtrap, which has a lesser gobsmack to offer but still plays with that tension between older and younger men.

    And while it’s true that this was Alec Cawthorne’s only movie, he went on to a fantastic career doing voice work, playing Two-Face in the Batman animated series. He also appeared onstage in Las Vegas in the title role of Phantom of the Opera, although there was a huge scandal when it was discovered that his singing voice was dubbed by another actor.

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  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this and reminding me how I need to see this film! I agree with your sentiments about both actors – each is usually very watchable, even when I am less fond of the project itself.

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  8. Sharp intake of breath – review of Sleuth on one of my followed blogs. Must admit I read it and the comments with some degree of trepidation. Sleuth would be my “Desert island” film. This stems from seeing it on telly at a young age (probably too young) and being totally hoodwinked by all the “plot twists”, shall we say! Hence.. I want everyone to like it! And you did – in the main.
    It really is a rollercoaster. I try not to watch it too often now – a film for a rainy day. But its repeat value is huge. There’s always something to spot in those cluttered sets. I really do hope it gets a good scrub and a high quality Blu-ray reissue with loads of extras – one day maybe.
    Couple of points….
    On Caine, I actually think he holds his own against Olivier: they both knock it out of the park.
    The remake was indeed a huge disappointment. It should have been great – Caine as Wyke; Pinter on writing duties. But it wasn’t.
    Re Alec Cawthorne I agree that it’s a shame he was in so few films. My understanding is that he was mainly a stage actor. I have to say this doesn’t show: you would think he had acted in films all his career.
    Mmm – maybe it’s time for the annual rewatch?

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    • I thought there would be more in the way of a mystery — it’s really just three games, rather than a clued undertaking like The Last of Sheila — but it’s fun and difficult to take against too strongly.

      The remake was directed by Branagh, wasn’t it? That man has the oddest pedigree: everything from Shakespeare to cheap thrillers. I find him rather indistinct behind the camera most f the time — his version of Hamlet magisterial, but I’d rather he was only on acting duties on these Poirot films that will see him comfortably into retirement.

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      • Agree – it’s not really a mystery as such a la Last of Sheila. More like a tortuous and labyrinthine battle of wits and wills. I think of it as the film equivalent of the most comfortable pair of slippers on the planet.

        Last of Sheila is fantastic as well but a different beast as you say. Both of these films deserve higher kudos. I actually found it hard to lay my hands on a copy of Last of Sheila. Ridiculous really.

        I forgot Branagh directed the remake. My goodness was I looking forward to that – and what a let down.

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  9. I saw Sleuth at the New Theatre, Oxford around 1978 (?).
    This version starred Ronald Leigh-Hunt (Policeman on the phone at the Climax to League Of Gentlemen) and Sylvester Morand (the younger brother in War & Peace)

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  10. Anthony Shaffer in his autobiography says that Alan Bates was the first choice over Michael Caine for the film version.
    Unfortunately Bates blundered. He went to see the stage play, then left in the interval thinking that the part was insufficient!

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  11. Well….I kinda, you know, emmm….don’t like Sleuth. Yes, it’s a competent movie and Olivier is fantastic, no doubt about it, but as a GAD fanatic I’ve got to admit the film is pretty heretic in its GAD hating ways.
    The first time I tried to watch it, many, many moons ago, I was kinda pissed by the automatons and all the costume-wearing antics of the first part….and then Cawthorne appeared and I turned off the TV.
    Some years later I decided to give it another shot and see where this movie about generational conflict was heading towards.
    We have full-blown whodunits like The Last of Sheila or Knives Out, we have parodies like Murder by Death and Clue (this one’s my favorite of the bunch!) and then there’s Sleuth.
    When I was a kid I used to make monsters with dough, some weird pseudo-animals. Sleuth is one of those weird pseudo-animals. A hybrid thing, a deformed manticore…you see, I waited patiently, crouched and in silence for the film to end, savouring every obvious plot twist along the way. Will I leap towards the unholy beast with fiery determination? The ending will tell me everything I wanted to know about the movie (and the author’s perspective)! It’s a retrospective affair after all. The heretic beast can be redeemed! Sadly, this was not the case. Oh, well… now I wanna rewatch Clue for the twentieth time.

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    • Yeah, treating Sleuth as — or expecting it to be — a work of detection would lead to disappointment, and so I can understand where you’re coming from. I didn’t expect too much dwelling on details in that way purely because it had been a stage show and such things would be difficult to convey to an audience in a theatre (Cawthorne here being a case in point).

      I have never seen Murder by Death. I’m so bad at watching movies, I can believe it will be a number of years before I ever get to it, but I’ve heard good things about it. And Clue is, of course, charming, insane, and simply wonderful all round. Have you read Murder in Pastiche by Marion Mainwaring? The broad tone there isn’t a million miles away from Clue — though, again, don’t come to it for the detection.

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      • I have a pretty cool Murder by Death story:

        When I was at university at Berkeley, the theatre around the corner from my apartment presented a sneak preview of the film. I rallied a few friends to go because . . . murder mystery spoof featuring parodies of Poirot, Miss Marple, the Charles’ and so on? How could this movie not been made for me???

        I sat through that sneak preview and laughed exactly once, when Nancy Walker, as the deaf maid, found a body and started screaming . . . in mime. I don’t know what happened, whether it was me or the movie, but I just couldn’t stand it. And as the credits rolled, my friends and I stood up, and I said, “God, this was a lousy movie.” Then we turned around and walked up the aisle, but not before I noticed that the two men sitting behind me, no doubt to assess audience reaction, were Neil Simon and Peter Falk.

        And THAT is why I am not a big movie star.

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  12. I’m one who saw this when I was quite young and I was wholly taken in. I’ve seen it many times since and I still get a buzz from it, but not from the mystery aspect. In fact, I’m not even sure the mystery is really supposed to be the main element here. I mean it’s clearly a part of what’s going on and provides part of the enjoyment but it’s more about game playing, in my opinion.

    There were lots of things I didn’t pick up on my first viewing long ago – getting absorbed in the mystery would have occupied me much more at the time. Coming back to it later, and after multiple viewings, I saw the beautifully judged malice underpinning it all. Tindle and Wyke are or become consumed with personal malice and their mutual obsession with “playing the game” grows as as the antipathy deepens. For Wyke, it’s a kind of old school snobbery wrapped up in pride, while Tindle’s resentment and latent sense of inferiority drive him in the same direction almost in spite of himself.
    I had and have no big issue with the ages of the actors – one is older and the other younger and that gets across the romantic/sexual rivalry aspect effectively enough for me.

    Aside from the naked antagonism on show, I like the look of the whole thing, the terrific set design, the sound design, the score and vaguely fey atmosphere of it all. And topping it all off are the splendid performances.

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    • I seem to come to everything too late — if I’d seen this as a wee lad, much like The Three Investigators and The Last of Sheila, it would no doubt have cast upon me a spell of wonderment that would hold fast even now.

      It works well as a study in malice, you’re absolutely right — Olivier runs the gamut from preening at being adored all the way to seething over the slights aimed at his sexual performance (those really do seem to be the two ends of that character’s self-obsession, which is interesting in itself) and Caine, as I say, is always at least good though, for my money, has more to do in the comedy stylings of the first act than the later vinegar-laced conversations.

      But, yeah, it’s a delight all round, and I can believe that everyone working on it was thrilled to be able to put their unique stamp on some part. The Cole Porter music, I forgot to say above, is also an inspired inclusion.

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  13. I saw this on its first theatrical release, and yes it was a lot of fun. I saw it again decades ago and did like it the second time. But as Brad says, it actually works best on stage. Most of these things do. I saw Deathtrap in its initial Broadway run, and it worked far, far, far better than the movie.

    I have seen Last of Sheila twice too. The first time on late night TV in the 70s. I liked it better the second time, maybe because that was on DVD with no ads!

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    • I like to think I’d get a chance to see it at the theatre in due course. Who knows?Would be great to see it with someone who did not know the developments that occur.

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  14. True story:

    I first saw Sleuth in a fair-sized plex theater in a Chicago suburb during the initial release.
    This was a Saturday afternoon matinee (that’s the only time I was able to go back then – young, employed full-time, didn’t drive, other personal considerations).
    Well, I liked it enough to see it a second time a few weeks later, to inspect the construction (and to enjoy the dialog and performances).
    So we’re in the final act, with the twists coming thick and fast, and the first-timers in the audience suitably wowed by it all –
    – and suddenly the screen goes dark, and the lights go up; after a brief break, the lights go down and the movie resumes –
    – and about ten minutes later, same thing: blackout, lights up, pause, lights down, and the audience is taken out of things (and doesn’t care for this at all).
    As an experienced moviegoer, I caught on to what happened at once: the projectionist (probably a kid working part-time, non-union) was seeing the movie for the first time, and got so wrapped up in the show that he kept forgetting to set up the next reel for the changeover.
    I daresay that the people seeing Sleuth for the first time that Saturday afternoon might not be as impressed with it as I was when I saw a clean showing a few weeks before.
    I have to add that this was a rare occurrence, even in those pre-digital days; still, a picture like Sleuth would obviously be compromised by such an occurrence.
    All these years later, I guess we’ll never know …

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  15. The biggest problem with the Branagh/Pinter remake of Sleuth (besides its deliberate effort not to be “fun”) is that they entirely missed the point of what the original play was about. Unlike, say, And Then There Were None, which is at its core a whodunit lightly laced with thematic considerations (universal guilt, nihilism, fatalism— though I think all of these are vastly overstated by modern analysis of this novel; the death of 11 British citizens among a population of several million hardly constitutes armageddon, and Christie hardly if ever addresses these themes directly), Sleuth is primarily about its themes, with some of the plot devices of Golden Age detective fiction added in to reflect upon those themes (and of course, upon Wykes occupation and pre-occupations). In this sense, it’s a bit like my one-act, though I certainly wouldn’t try to compare them in any other way.

    Which is why it’s a fatal mistake to update Sleuth. Unlike And Then There Were None, which theoretically could be updated well (it never has, IMO, but I see no reason why it couldn’t be), it makes no sense to update Sleuth, because it is primarily ABOUT the 20th century. Pinter and Branagh tried to make it about the struggle of two men (one older, one younger) over one woman, with a dash of deliberately uncomfortable homoeroticism added in (to add time, from all I could tell), but the complete absence of Mrs. Wyke from Shaffer’s play indicate how little he felt it was about all that. Rather, Sleuth is primarily about the societal change in Britain from before WWII, when the class system prohibited social mobility, to the post WWII world when it no longer (theoretically) had the same hold. Wyke resents Tindles presumption that he can be “one of them” far more than he fears losing his wife… though a wife is just one more thing of which the impudent working class immigrant is depriving him. Andrew Wyke and GAD represent the pre-WWII Britain, Milo Tindle and “bubble car” TV detectives represent the post-war.

    But there was no monumental change in the class system in the 40 years prior to the 2007 Sleuth, nor a complete change in the traditions of detective fiction during that time. Shaffer put it clearly in his memoir, regarding the title of his play:

    ‘What is this play about?‘ I asked the company. ‘Surely it is concerned with the difference between pre-war and post-war Britain, as exemplified by the attitudes of the fictional amateur detectives who are always superior to the blundering professional police. Now, what was that figure called? Surely it was known as a “Sleuth”.’

    I think even Shaffer lost some of his thematic focus in the writing of the 1972 film. The play’s first act ends with Wyke’s triumphant “Game and set, I believe,” and the last act ends with the dying Tindle choking out “Game, set, and match!”— losing in the real world, but accepting a victory in Wyke’s world of games, while Wyke must face reality.

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    • I shall not rush out to see the update, but I’m interested on account of what you say here. If not to account for some sort of societal conflict or change, one wonders what the motivation behind making it was. Branagh’s directorial career, when we come to look back at it overall, is going to be one of the oddest curate’s eggs ever cooked, I feel.

      But there was no monumental change in the class system in the 40 years prior to the 2007 Sleuth,

      I dunno — the class system in England ended up largely abolished in the way that it had previously divided people. Having money no longer meant you came from money, coming from money no longer guaranteed you an education or the automatic respect of your peers. Changes came in, and pretty hefty ones at that, but not the sort of thing that this type of film would be geared to explore, I feel.

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