powered by AFI
Sleuth (1972) is such an intricately plotted mystery, full of twists and turns and tricks on both the audience and the characters, it would be unfair to reveal even the slightest details of the story beyond saying it concerns a cat-and-mouse confrontation between a snobbish upper-crust novelist and the working class owner of a hair salon who is having an affair with the writer's wife. To say anything else would spoil it. But even those who have seen it before and know the outcome find it a grand entertainment, wonderfully played by two great actors. And even if you know the plot surprises, it can be fun to pick out the numerous in-jokes and cross-references put into it by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and writer Anthony Shaffer, who adapted his own hit play to the big screen. Nevertheless, the following account, sketchy as it may be, is still liable to give away a few things, so if you want to come to this movie completely unaware, it would probably be best to read no further.
Sleuth was the last feature film from Mankiewicz, the writer-producer-director responsible for such classics as A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All About Eve (1950), Julius Caesar (1953), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). His career took a serious downturn after the debacle of Cleopatra (1963), and he made only two more features before Sleuth restored him to familiar terrain, getting bravura performances in a script loaded with verbal wit. Mankiewicz couldn't resist paying himself a sly tribute in the opening and closing credits, which list actresses by the names of Margo Channing (Bette Davis's character in All About Eve) and Eve Channing, a conflation of Davis' character with the title role.
There is another "Eve" reference of sorts in the movie, albeit unconnected to the earlier Mankiewicz movie. The portrait of Andrew's wife that hangs on the wall was modeled after actress Joanne Woodward, who won an Academy Award in the title role of The Three Faces of Eve (1957).
The Edgar Allan Poe Award (for mystery writing) proudly displayed by Andrew in the film was actually the one presented to Shaffer for the stage version of Sleuth. Mankiewicz also received an Edgar for his film 5 Fingers (1952).
Although Laurence Olivier was a given in the role of the haughty author Andrew Wyke, Michael Caine was not the first choice to play the Cockney upstart Milo Tindle. Albert Finney was originally considered for the part but was rejected, some accounts say, because he was overweight. Alan Bates was also offered the job but turned it down. Caine was at first intimidated by the thought of working with the generally acknowledged World's Greatest Actor. Olivier was the only member of his profession to have been elevated to Lord status, and Caine was not even sure how to address him. But the amiable older actor insisted they should refer to each other as Michael and Larry and become friends, and that they did, working very well together.
Caine was surprised, however, by Olivier's initial difficulty with the role. Stumbling through their first rehearsals, he seemed to be having a hard time getting a handle on the character until it occurred to him that he needed nothing more than a mustache. According to Caine, Olivier realized he couldn't act with his own face and always needed a disguise. The next day, however, even with the fake facial hair, Olivier seemed distracted, astonishingly unable to remember his lines. It was only later that Caine and Mankiewicz learned that the acclaimed British actor was taking some sort of sedative that interfered with his focus. He needed the pharmaceutical calm because shortly before production began, he learned that he was being unceremoniously fired from his position as head of London's National Theater Company at the moment of its official opening, after years of tireless work to get the company started and its theater complex built. Caine and Mankiewicz worked around the difficulty with patience and understanding, and eventually Olivier's mood lightened and he was back in form. In addition to his own role, Olivier also provided the laughter coming from the Jolly Jack Tar dummy owned by his character.
One other reference to watch for: Fans of the British musical group The Smiths may recognize a line heard in the film. Their 1982 song "This Charming Man" contains the lyrics "you're just a jumped-up pantry boy who doesn't know his place," a line uttered by Andrew in his contempt of Milo.
Sleuth was popular at the box office and critically lauded, garnering many awards and nominations, including another Edgar for Shaffer, an Evening Standard British Film Award for Caine, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Olivier. It also received four Academy Award nominations: Best Director, Best Original Dramatic Score (John Addison) and Best Actor nods for both Olivier and Caine. And here's the last and biggest spoiler alert: this is the only other picture besides James Whitmore's one-man performance in Give 'Em Hell, Harry! (1975) in which the entire cast was Oscar®-nominated.
A new version of the story is planned for release in 2008 under the direction of Kenneth Branagh. Caine will play the role originally done by Olivier, while Milo will be played by Jude Law, who played Caine's role in the 2004 remake of Alfie (1966).
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Producer: Edgar J. Scherick
Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer, based on his play
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Editing: Richard Marden
Art Direction: Peter Lamont
Original Music: John Addison
Cast: Laurence Olivier (Andrew Wyke), Michael Caine (Milo Tindle), Alec Cawthorne (Inspector Doppler), Eve Channing (Marguerite Wyke).
by Rob Nixon