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The film's opening credits are presented over dioramas that illustrate scenes from the mystery books written by "Andrew Wyke." Each diorama is on a little stage with a curtain, and the last, that of a beautiful mansion, comes to life as the camera zooms in and "Milo Tindle" drives up to the house. At the end of the film, the last shot of Andrew as he stands forlornly in the drawing room turns into a diorama, and a curtain comes down on the shot before the end credits appear. The cast credits for Alec Cawthorne, John Matthews, Eve Channing and Teddy Martin are fictitious, as Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine are the only actors appearing in the film.
As was done with the hit play on which the picture was based, more cast members were listed in the credits in order to mislead the audience. The name Eve Channing is a nod to the 1950 picture All About Eve, also directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, in which Bette Davis played the character "Margo Channing" and Anne Baxter played "Eve Harrington." Because the studio publicity for Sleuth listed the fake actress' name as Margo Channing instead of Eve Channing, the error was sometimes continued by contemporary reviews and modern sources. The name of actress Karen Minfort-Jones, who supposedly plays "Teya," was included in the December 1972 New York Times review, although she also is fictitious.
The oil portrait of "Marguerite," Andrew's wife, who is never seen in the film, was based on a photograph of actress Joanne Woodward, a close friend of Mankiewicz. As reported by studio publicity, many of the photographs of Andrew with various celebrities were from Olivier's personal collection of photographs of himself with friends taken throughout the years.
The very successful play Sleuth first opened in London on February 12, 1970 and began its long, Tony Award-winning run on Broadway on November 12, 1970. The play did not end its New York run until October 13, 1973 and was still on Broadway at the time of the film's release. Modern sources note that the play and film vary slightly, with the Milo of the play being an English travel agent of Jewish and Italian descent, while in the film, he is a lapsed Catholic hairdresser whose father immigrated from Italy. The film also places more emphasis on the class distinction between the two characters by having Milo be from more lower-class, Cockney origins, and by heightening Andrew's bigotry. The rights to the play were acquired by Palomar Productions International in late November 1970, according to a November 30, 1970 Hollywood Reporter news item. A January 1972 Hollywood Reporter article noted that the rights had been sold to Palomar "for a sliding scale of the Broadway gross plus a percentage of the picture."
On September 8, 1971, Daily Variety reported that Albert Finney was "all but signed" to star with Olivier in the film, but in December 1971, Caine was announced as Olivier's co-star. According to an undated, circa 1972 Los Angeles Times article, contained in the film's production file at the AMPAS Library, Olivier himself suggested Caine for the role. Modern sources report that while working on the screenplay, playwright Anthony Shaffer wanted Anthony Quayle, who originated the part of Andrew on stage, to play Andrew, and Alan Bates to play Milo. On September 22, 1971, Hollywood Reporter announced that Morton Gottlieb, one of the producers of the Broadway production, would make his directorial debut with the motion picture, but the item was likely in error, as the film version of Sleuth actually marked Gottlieb's debut as a feature film producer. According to a January 6, 1972 Hollywood Reporter news item, United Artists was originally set to distribute the picture.
Sleuth marked the first major starring role for Olivier since the 1966 United Artists release Khartoum, although he had continued to appear in a variety of smaller film roles over the years. Olivier devoted most of his time to the theater, especially the directorship of Great Britain's National Theatre. According to modern sources, Olivier, who was dismissed from the National Theatre just before filming on Sleuth began, was devastated by his dismissal and his depression contributed to brief problems he had remembering his lines during the early days of production. Sleuth also marked the last film directed by longtime writer-director Mankiewicz (1909-1993). According to modern sources, Mankiewicz experienced several physical problems during filming, one of which necessitating shutting down production for a week.
As noted in the onscreen credits, interiors for the film were shot at Pinewood Studios, Iver Heath, Bucks, England, with the exterior scenes of Andrew's mansion shot at Athelhampton House in Dorset, England. The credits thank the owner, Mr. Robert Cook, M.P., for his permission to film at the estate, the initial site of which was established in 1086 and added onto throughout the centuries. According to the Athelhampton website, the garden maze was constructed especially for the film, and the MG driven by Milo is kept there as a museum piece.
The December 6, 1972 Variety article noted that the New York run of the film, which was on a "special performance basis" of three showings daily, would feature a fifteen-minute intermission, which was unusual at that time. According to the article, the intermission was added because of the film's length, and the film "was reportedly trimmed five minutes with the cooperation of Mankiewicz." A modern source reports, however, that the intermission was proposed by executive producer Edgar J. Scherick, without the knowledge of the director. After cuts to the sequence in which Andrew prepares his dinner were made for the intermission, Mankiewicz protested and the eliminated footage was restored. New York reviews of the picture do not mention if it was shown with an intermission.
Sleuth received mostly enthusiastic reviews and was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Actor (both Olivier and Caine), Best Director and Best Original Dramatic Score. The nomination for score was received after Nino Rota's score for The Godfather, was disqualified and the Academy substituted another nominee. The nominations for Olivier and Caine marked the only time that the entire cast of a film has been nominated for Academy Awards. The picture also received several BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations, and Olivier was named Best Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle.
A new adaptation of Sleuth, directed by Kenneth Branagh with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, is scheduled to be released in October 2007. The 2007 film stars Caine as Andrew and Jude Law as Milo.