Anthony Shaffer, who died recently, worked only fitfully for the screen. His fame with most younger filmgoers probably rests on his screenplay collaboration on The Wicker Man but his reputation was won way back in 1972 with the screenplay for Hitchcock's Frenzy and the film of his hugely successful play Sleuth. Such a heavily wordy and generally "written" film was hardly likely to be a remarkable work of cinema, particularly not in the hands of a director like Joseph L.Mankiewicz who always preferred words to pictures, but the end result is that anomaly; a classic film which relies almost totally on the script and the performances for its classic status. As a visual experience, apart from some good editing and nice camera angles, it's nothing special. But it remains one of the most gripping films I've ever seen, with two actors at the height of their powers delighting in the sort of dialogue most performers can only dream about.
It's very hard to discuss a film like Sleuth without spoiling it for those who have never seen it. Although the pleasures of the film are many besides the plot, a first viewing should be in a state of near ignorance, so if you haven't seen the film you might want to keep your wits about you and dodge down to the review of the disc itself. I promise, however, not to reveal any more than I have to.
On a sunny afternoon in one of the more salubrious areas of Surrey, a young hairdresser called Milo Tindle (Caine) calls upon his new neighbour, a successful crime novelist called Andrew Wyke (Olivier). Wyke has asked him over for a friendly "get to know you" chat, inviting Milo into his rambling country house which is filled to overflowing with games, toys and mementos of his success. A certain tension between the two men is apparent from the beginning but Wyke, all loud jollity and bad jokes, tries to relax Milo before raising the stakes with an extraordinary suggestion - "I understand that you want to marry my wife". Milo's initial alarm turns to surprise when Wyke reveals that he is more than happy to give up his wife on the condition that Milo is able to keep her in "the manner to which she was not accustomed before she met me but now is". Milo's small hairdressing business is ticking over nicely but he does not have the funds to support his new love's extravagence. But Andrew, it seems, has the perfect solution and it only involves a change of clothes, some skill with explosives and a little civilised violence...
From this basic situation springs an extraordinarily clever series of plot twists, some of which work better than others but all of which are nicely worked into the overall structure. What begins as a clash between two men becomes a comment on the class system, a parody of the classic conventions of the mystery genre and a study of different notions of masculinity. It's also one of the wittiest ever character studies of an Englishman ever committed to film. Andrew Wyke is by far the more interesting character of the two leads, not only because he's played by Olivier, but because he's obviously a character type that Shaffer knows and understands. Wyke is highly intelligent, charming and witty but he's also a bully, a racist and an insufferable snob. His initial friendliness towards Milo soon becomes transparent, even before it is dropped completely, and it's clear that he hates Milo for his very difference as a man - at one point he says, "I hate you because you are a not-one-of-me" - and not simply because he is a "culling wop". Olivier relishes this aspect of the role and he is simply perfect in the part. I love the bravado of his opening monologue where he takes on several different voices and the physicality of the character he creates. Olivier's Wyke is rarely still until he becomes genuinely nasty, and then his cold stillness is deeply unnerving. Even more effective is the classic Olivier "edge" to the voice. This comes early when Wyke talks about his wife Margeurite - listen to the way he speaks the line "how generally bloody crafty she really is", allowing the growl to develop on the word 'crafty' into outright malice and ending with a bark on the last word. No other actor I have seen in the role has ever got this quite as right as Olivier and watching him is sheer joy. His casting brings immediate overtones to the role of his classical triumphs, but Wyke is never remotely sympathetic - even when he reminisces about how happy he used to be in the early days with his wife it comes over as morbid self-pity without any real poignancy. In a sense, it's a particularly deprecating self-portrait - Olivier evidently shared many of Wyke's characteristics, notably his casual cruelty, and it's hard not to associate Margeurite, Wyke's wife, with Vivien Leigh when it's Leigh's photo up there on the wall. The more you know about Olivier, the more revealing this performance is and for my money it's probably his last truly great work on screen. There are hints of this power in his later parts, notably in Dracula and the marvellous scene with the Nazi nurse in The Boys From Brazil, but this is his last fully achieved leading role on film.
Most actors wouldn't have a hope of competing with Olivier on this sort of form, but Michael Caine puts up more than a respectable showing. Much of his performance is underplayed in effective comparison to Olivier, but his occasional explosions are totally convincing - especially his exasperation with a pair of clown's boots - and when his character is required to come apart he does so in a genuinely surprising manner. You don't often see Caine at the end of his tether so the sight of him crying and pleading is riveting to watch. There is a less effective side to his performance, and if you've seen the film then I imagine you will know exactly what I mean, but that's not really Caine's fault. Why he allowed himself to get into that position is something of a mystery though since it's something he's done much more effectively in at least three other films. I'd be interested to hear what other people think of this because it's something that rather spoilt the film for me on first viewing and now just seems rather incongruous.
OK YOU CAN LOOK NOW
Technically, the film has some first rate contributions. Ken Adam's production design is a work of perverse genius, building on the stage set with marvellous imaginative facility. It's so richly textured that you rarely register that most of the action takes place on one large set. The editing is also razor sharp with some nicely timed cuts to apparently irrelevant details which turn out to be significant. It's worth mentioning John Addison's playful music score as well. On the debit side, the photography is a little flat, sometimes giving the film a static appearance that it doesn't need. Mankiewicz's direction is pretty typical of his career as a whole - a triumph when it comes to the performances, nothing very special otherwise - but he does keep the pace moving and he has enough cunning to stop the film looking like a stage play. There are also some moments of genuine menace especially at the beginning of the second "act" as it were. The supporting cast do all that is asked of them, although Alec Cawthorne's performance leaves something to be desired. It's Shaffer's script that deserves the plaudits though. The dialogue is constantly biting, funny and eminently quotable - Wyke really does call Tindle a "mendacious bollock of Satan" - and, most of all, it's full of character. At his best, Shaffer writes bitchy exchanges like no other writer, a facility exploited very well in his adaptation of Agatha Christie's Death on The Nile, and he manages to have his characters mouthing epigrams without making them seem absurdly self-possessed.
Admittedly, Sleuth is a very literary film, sometimes excessively so, and it's often dangerously close to cancelling itself out with too many plot twists. But when a film is this witty and this intelligent it's hard to complain. Michael Caine is fond of an anecdote in which John Wayne told him, "Talk low, talk slow and don't talk too much". As Caine says, "I then went and made Sleuth..." It may be a tad too theatrical but it's also richly entertaining enough to survive countless re-viewings even when you know all the plot twists.
The original release of Sleuth was an early DVD which was of notoriously poor quality. This new Anchor Bay release is a considerable improvement in every respect.
The film is presented here in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is as good as you could expect considering that no extensive restoration of the original materials has taken place. The main problem is the rather dull colour palate we are presented with, largely due to fading over 30 years of neglect. However, the image is detailed and sharp. There is some grain evident throughout but not too much artifacting and the contrast is fine. A full remastering of the materials would no doubt produce a more impressive result but this is fine to be going on with.
The soundtrack is in the original mono presentation. It's totally acceptable and the dialogue is always clear and natural. Nothing to write home about naturally, and I'm not convinced that the music score sounds as good as it should do, but no disgrace either. It's horrible to contemplate what some eager technician might have done with the dialogue in a stereo remix.
The main extra is a twenty minute featurette in which Anthony Shaffer talks about the play and the film. This is fascinating since Shaffer was always good value as an interviewee and he is clearly enjoying his restoration to success following the Wicker Man revival. We also get a TV spot and the original theatrical trailer, neither of which look very good, but at least the trailer is in anamorphic widescreen format. There are some brief biographies as well.
If you are a fan of the film, this is an essential purchase since you won't find a better presentation of it for home viewing. Considering the materials in hand, Anchor Bay have done a good job and for the low retail price, this DVD is ridiculously good value. Unreservedly recommended.