It’s a little ironic that Joseph L. Mankiewicz—a filmmaker as much prized for his writing as his directing skills—should end his career with a fairly straightforward adaptation of someone else’s work, Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth. The 1972 film was—and is—a slightly opened-up, but essentially faithful reproduction of the play. It’s one of those works built around a gimmick—a gimmick that in fact requires a little cheating on the part of the filmmakers in order to succeed. But it’s a good gimmick, and one that I’ll continue to play along with in case there’s anyone left who doesn’t know what it is. (Hint: There’s a built-in clue that might tip-off staunch admirers of Mankiewicz’s work, and another in the name of one of the characters.)
The film is essentially a cat-and-mouse game between disgustingly rich classical mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) and his wife’s love, Milo Tindle (Michael Caine). Ostensibly, Wyke has invited Milo to his palatial estate in order to find a way to set the younger man up financially, so that he will be able to support Mrs. Wyke in the style to which she’s become accustomed. But is Wyke’s motive quite so altruistic? Is all this really what it seems, or is there some darker purpose? That’s the first question. It will not be the last. The joy of the film lies in Mankiewicz’s ability to keep it all moving in such a way that it seems theatrical without feeling stagey—and in the high-powered performances of Olivier and Caine, who are perfectly matched in their abilities to hold the screen for long stretches of time. It’s all clever, sophisticated entertainment—and it’s worth catching now before the new version directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Caine (now in the Olivier role) and Jude Law comes out this fall.