Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of Ira Levin’s play, Deathtrap, is one of those stage-to-screen things that simply cannot transcend its stage origins. Oh, Lumet tries his darndest to make the material more cinematic — just look at that 360-degree panning shot early in the movie — but to no avail. It’s not so much that the movie is largely trapped in one room. It’s that everything about Deathtrap feels rehearsed and phony. Unlike the similarly — and similarly gimmick-driven — Sleuth (filmed in 1972 and 2007 — with Michael Caine in different roles in each), I never believe for a minute that the characters in Deathtrap are anything but actors on a set saying things that someone else had written for them. I could try to figure out exactly why — I think it’s largely that the film seems consciously gimmicky from the start — but it really doesn’t matter. The story of a once successful playwright (Michael Caine) deciding to murder a student of his (Christopher Reeve) in order to steal his play is fine, but it’s also so obviously a set-up to something else that you’re waiting for that something else. It also gives the film a dynamic opening act that the subsequent acts never get near. (I normally don’t like using theater terms with film, but here it seems fitting.) All this — and an irritating Johnny Mandel musical score — to one side, Deathtrap ends up being entertaining for offering the opportunity of seeing its four major players — Caine, Reeve, Dyan Cannon, Irene Worth — overact, mug and chew every piece of scenery in sight. I’m not entirely convinced that this — nor the film’s final thunder-and-lightning act overkill — is intentional, but it does keep things amusing. That alone, makes the film agreeably watchable.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Deathtrap Sunday, July 21, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.