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  • Benjamin May

Sleuth (1972) Review

One man is a famed mystery novelist, Andrew Wyke, the other is a braggadocios young businessman named Milo Tindle. One day, they meet in the writer's automaton and game filled manor house (that assuredly directly inspired the mansion in 'Knives Out'). They have nothing in common- except for the writer's wife, that is. Tindle is her lover, and both men want her for themselves. The writer has a cunning plan as Machiavellian as some of his plots to ensure the businessman winds up with nothing before the day is out. Tindle, though, has a plan of his own; and a fiendish battle of wits and wills ensues.

Based on Anthony Schaffer's Tony-winning play that originally starred Anthony Quayle and Keith Baxter as novelist and businessman respectively, this adaptation features Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in their places, and is a highlight in the careers of both men. Schaffer's screenplay is full of vicious verbal barbs as Wyke and Tindle have a sparring match full of twists, turns and double-crosses. Their battle of wits becomes a battle of class, and the story is as unpredictable as it is clever.

Olivier's mixed feelings towards his place in cinema is well documented, and often his on-screen performances seem very mannered and actorly- over the top even. As the pompous, old- fashioned Wyke, however, the overly theatrical streak doesn't seem out of place. He is a classist, racist good ol' boy of the English aristocracy, and Olivier plays him brilliantly. In the latter half of his career, he took film roles for the money and was quite open about it. Here, however, you can see he relishes playing Wyke and is having a ball speaking Schaffer's fantastic lines.

Caine- one of history's most natural screen actors- is terrific as the cocky businessman Tindle. His performance is one of much depth, he plays Tindle like a working-class tinderbox ready to ignite the moment anyone mentions his accent. His disrespect for Wyke clouds his judgement, and he can't see when he's being played by the old man. Whereas Olivier is formal and exact, Caine is like a jazz musician, going this way and that with the rhythm; and his is arguably the better performance.

As an aside, in 2007, Caine starred as Wyke in Kenneth Branagh's remake, written by Harold Pinter. While the film isn't as good, it's interesting to see him play both characters; and in both he overshadows his screen partner.

This could very well be one of- if not the- best adaptations of a play ever put to film. It is beautifully photographed by Oswald Morris, who also served as cinematographer for the screen versions of 'Oliver' and 'Fiddler on the Roof'- he clearly understood how to adapt theatre for the screen.

The stirring, John Addison score signifies mystery and intrigue like few others have done before or since, and the set design is remarkably detailed and rich. Wyke's manor is so full of memorabilia, knick knacks and automata it makes the Thrombey mansion from the overrated 'Knives Out' look positively sparse.

Terrific performances from two fine actors, crisp cinematography, tight direction from Joseph L Mankiewicz, incredible set design and a brilliant, complex Anthony Schaffer screenplay- what more could you ask for? This two-hander whodunnit is fiendishly good.


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