Sleuth (1972) – A labyrinthine thriller featuring two British cinema legends

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Sleuth is the kind of intelligent, twisty, low-budget thriller Christopher Nolan would’ve made if he were starting out as a filmmaker in 1970s London. I  wonder if it served as an inspiration when he set out to make his feature-length debut, Following. I also wonder if the maze-like garden in Laurence Olivier’s manor, featured in the opening sequence of the film compelled Nolan to use a similar design for his production company’s logo. Anyway, the comparisons end there.

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Sleuth opens with Milo Tindle (played by Michael Caine) arriving at Andrew Wyke’s (played by Laurence Olivier) manor, upon his invitation. After getting lost in the aforementioned maze, he is able to meet Andrew, who is in the process of developing a story for his next detective novel. Andrew is an eccentric crime-fiction writer and a lover of games. The conversation between them initially appears to be cordial but soon gives way to a different tone as Milo realizes why Andrew has invited him here. Milo is having an affair with Andrew’s wife. He asks Milo all sorts of probing questions and proves that he is a first-class snob as well as a narcissist. Social and class issues are brought up. Andrew displays an unavowed prejudice when Milo tells him that he is not of pure English blood. He boasts about his wealth and sexual prowess and attempts to intimidate Milo constantly. He asks if he can afford to take her off his hands and if he is financially capable of providing for her every need. Milo finds himself in an awkward predicament when Andrew finally reveals to him a diabolical plan of his – a game – which he expects Milo to take part in. To go further with the rest of the story would be spoiling it so I am going to stop right here.

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Sleuth was adapted from British playwright Anthony Shaffer’s Tony Award winning play of the same name. The structure of the film too resembles a play. Olivier and Caine have our complete attention with their well-realized and distinct characterizations. Olivier walks around as if he is inside a play and his performance sometimes verges on the theatrical, and I don’t mean this in a bad way. He comes up with so many amusing accents. If there is one person who can go full theatrical in a feature film and not bore us to death, it’s Olivier. Caine delivers a confident performance as well, despite being cast opposite the legendary thespian.

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The interiors of his manor are populated with an assorted collection of mechanical dolls, games, costumes and other artefacts and at times, the overall atmosphere gives you a sense of the macabre. The dolls are like unsuspecting spectators, observing this deadly game of cat-and-mouse these two have involved themselves in. Even though the film is confined to a single setting and three characters, I didn’t find it boring at all, not even for a moment. The credit, perhaps, should go to director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Julius Caesar) for delivering a tightly-constructed film. Ignore the inferior 2007 remake.

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