Movie Information

In Brief: Deathtrap (1982) is kind of the poor cousin to Sleuth — another gimmick-driven stage thriller brought to the big screen, also starring Michael Caine (only here in the equivalent of Laurence Olivier's role in the 1972 Sleuth). While Deathtrap is very much the lesser film, it scores as a kind of muggers' delight for its cast, and its central idea of a burnt-out playwright opting to murder a student and steal his play makes for a solid premise. The biggest problem — apart from being unable to overcome its stage origins — is that it never manages to really top its opening.
Genre: Thriller
Director: Sidney Lumet (Murder on the Orient Express)
Starring: Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Dyan Cannon, Irene Worth, Henry Jones
Rated: PG

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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