[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
The only thing really wrong with Sleuth is that it isn’t much much better than it already is and that, by its very nature, it can’t be. On the level of craftsmanship it is an unqualified joy. Anthony Shaffer’s lines are crisp, civilized, cozily cruel. As a sort of literary and sexual Colonel Blimp, Laurence Olivier tries on postures and accents up to and including that of a frontier sheriff and leaves one dumb with admiration of his technique. Michael Caine’s ineradicable cockneyness prevents his being quite acceptable as a semi-Italian hairdresser, but it is simply birth that stands in his way, not any shortage of passion, flair, nuance. The performances and performers are, as one would expect, worth the price of admission. In terms of inventiveness if not of expressiveness, Joseph Mankiewicz probably earned his Oscar nomination: in a play adaptation that takes place mostly in one room, he scarcely employs a single camera setup more than once, yet never succumbs to the surely constant temptation to visual grotesquerie or stroke-my-boom flamboyance as a means of stressing his directorial presence (cf. Peter Medak in parts of The Ruling Class and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg). Moreover, the redoubtable Oswald Morris, who finally won his Oscar for—of all things—Fiddler on the Roof, turns the several sets into unostentatious wonderlands of light, color, unexpected softnesses side-by-edge with unnervingly precise contours and corners.
But for all its professional virtues, Sleuth, it becomes increasingly apparent, is designed to trivialize one of the noblest conceits of the drama and now of the cinema: the elusive, invigorating, dangerous interpenetration of illusion and reality, game and life, only-kidding and Hieronymo’s-mad-againe. Olivier and Caine, as two sexual and socioeconomic sparrers alone for the weekend (and the film) in one of the stately homes of England, carve away at one another’s psyches through a series of upstagings, instantaneous rewrites, role changes and curtain calls in a theatrical neverneverland somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Agatha Christie. Unfortunately the rigorousness of Shaffer’s structure and strictures has more to do with the latter, and the piece is designed to crystallize ingeniously but in much too neat entirety to permit us to be disturbed. And in that uneasy, unconsciously breakable truce between reality and illusion, we do have a right to be disturbed.
Direction: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer, after his play. Cinematography: Oswald Morris. Music: John Addison.
The Players: Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine.
Copyright © 1973 Richard T. Jameson