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Sleuth

Review: Sleuth

[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.

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Manners, Morals, and Murder: Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express. More than puzzles are to be teased out in these two jokey, backward-looking thrillers. Two ultra-British subjects are handled by two very American directors, and whodunit – or whodunwhat – is only one of many queries to be resolved. In essence, each is of a classic English pre-war mystery-thriller type: Sleuth sets us down in our old friend, The Remote Old Country House Where Things Are Not As They Seem, whilst Murder on the Orient Express is a glossy confined-space thriller where The Killer Has To Be One Of A Small Number (all played by famous stars, of course) And Cannot Get Away For A While; the detective, Hercule Poirot, he of the waxed moustaches and the little grey cells, has to trap said killer in the limited space of time before the snow-plough arrives to allow the Orient Express, marooned in snowdrift, to continue its Istanbul-to-Calais route.

Let those readers who haven’t seen the films quit reading now, if they haven’t already. I aim to be so unsporting as to blow the surprise endings, and most of the inner workings of the plot, on both films. Actually, simply what happens isn’t so all-important; if it were, who would want to see either film a second time? And though neither film seems to be realistic, grim reality keeps on creeping in, to the advantage of Sleuth and the detriment of Orient Express. Sidney Lumet, a stern social commentator, or so he would have us believe, in earlier films like The Pawnbroker, The Hill, A View from the Bridge, and, of course, Twelve Angry Men (which has the most bearing here), is revealed by a close examination of Orient Express to be a threadbare moralist indeed; whilst Joseph Mankiewicz, widely regarded as a witticism-churning butterfly too hooked on his own bons mots to be much concerned with Life, or even visual style, has come up with as acute a study of Britain’s steel-trap class system as any native director from the so-called good old days of the island’s filmic new wave.

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