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Sleuth

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Sleuth

Joseph L. Mankiewicz I 1972 I UK / USA



WARNING: This review contains major spoilers which reveal pivotal information about the film. Read no further if you have not seen it.

Monstrously funny and delightfully intriguing, Sleuth was based upon a mystery stage play by Anthony Shaffer and was also director Joseph L Mankiewicz's last film. Sleuth is one of the finest cat-and-mouse thrillers I have ever seen; proving to be both entertaining and incredibly suspenseful, it manages not to just have a twist ending, but a twist beginning and middle, too. It tells the story of Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) a half-Italian owner of a hair salon chain in London who pays a visit to Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) a best-selling author of detective fiction who lives in a grand 16th century mansion. It is soon revealed that Andrew knows about Milo's affair with his ever-distancing wife, Marguerite, yet instead of being vengeful he declares, to Milo's surprise, that he's glad of getting rid of her. "So I understand you wish to marry my wife," Andrew says, in one of the screenplay's many memorable lines. He then states that he's already crafted a strategy, which apparently will be helpful for the two of them. However, both men have different prospects, and not everything will go according to the plan.

Sleuth takes the familiar phrase "Nothing is what it seems" and completely turns it upside down. Sleuth is a film that fools, deliberately and elegantly at the same time, disorienting and manipulating the audience, as though misguiding us through a labyrinth. It is not easy to know what really is going on in the minds of the two central characters; we don't often know whether what they're saying or doing is true or false. Tables are turned and roles are reversed -  in the end, the result is nothing short of stunning. A charade of great moments, impressive inventions, games within games, rotten lies and half-truths, Sleuth tricks and bamboozles with admirable finesse.

Located solely in one setting (the mansion and its surroundings) and with just two actors (Inspector Doppler was in fact played by Michael Caine with heavy make-up on - Alec Cawthorne is a fictitious actor whom the director invented in order to fool audiences), Sleuth may at first glance seem to have a rather big amount of limitations, yet they're somehow turned into the main and most imperative virtues of the picture. One would've thought that they could have seriously harmed the film - instead, they don't just benefit it, they improve it and act as its foundations. To be honest, not any director could have easily overcome the film's restraints with such gusto and skill, but Mankiewicz does it all, and wonderfully, at that. The two lead actors, Olivier and Caine, are simply mesmerising. It was Olivier who at that time had much more experience in acting, having been in countless plays and numerous films before, but rather startlingly, they're both as good. Olivier is fascinating in the role of Andrew Wyke: extravagant, nicely-spoken, pompous and wildly satirical, he portrays him with a distinctive theatrical touch that manages to impress to a very large extent. Michael Caine, on the other hand, is a rather na´ve, mild-mannered young man whose shortcomings often make him to be humiliated, but despite that, he always keeps his composure and behaves finely. He doesn't trust Andrew as much as he should do, and this is all very well shown by Caine, who has seldom been better. It is that perfect sense of balance between the two giants of British acting, that sense of understanding and knowing that's always floating around them, which makes the movie so much more interesting. Caine and Olivier are not trying to outshine each other, they're not competing - they're simply doing their jobs, and with equal amount of expertise. I mean, who wouldve thought that Caine could hold his own against the so-labelled greatest actor of all time? While watching it, I constantly got the feeling that the director was aware of what he was doing, and that he was able to comfortably control all the actors and scenarios. John Addison's musical score and Ken Adam's imposing set designs, not excluding Oswald Morris's thoughtful cinematography, are also other well-polished components that add more to the film.

The screenplay of Sleuth, written by Anthony Shaffer himself, is one of the best in cinema history. Intricate, carefully structured and layered with a profound criticism pointing at the upper class, the screenplay contains some of the richest and most elaborate dialogue that I have ever come to witness. The dialogue sparkles with dark humour and subtle irony, keeping our interest high while revealing key plot points that will prove to be crucial later on. The language used is so graceful and stylish, so very English, that, when spoken (and mainly by Laurence Olivier, who dominates it flawlessly) one can't avoid but be fascinated by the splendour of it all. The copious conversations between the two actors are full of meaning and shimmer with utter charm, and the sheep rapist line is memorable

 

Who is playing a trick on whom? At the end of the day, it turns out that they were both playing a trick on each other. Andrew fooled Milo and Milo fooled Andrew while fooling themselves simultaneously. They cheated on each other for their own advantage and in order to get revenge, for different reasons, yet in the end no-one really wins. They both lose, and the director clearly highlights this by telling us that they both are succumbed to the powers of lust and avarice, and this makes them lose. Andrew at first seems to have really overpowered Milo, but it is then him who pays vengeance by pretending to be Inspector Doppler who is searching for Milo's corpse. Roles are reversed -  Andrew loses his power and now Milo stands on top, triumphant. Yet at the very end, after one of the most nail-biting climaxes in film history, Milo gets shot and Andrew is arrested. "He who laughs last laughs best" is the final message of the film. How very true. Nominated for four Academy Awards in 1972, Sleuth remains one of the most tautly-paced, finely acted and majestically directed films ever made. It was only a bloody game.
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Reviewed by Pablo Hernandez, 2003