Murder Mystery: Who Killed Sleuth?

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Appleby / Sony

Sleuth, starring Michael Cain and Jude Law.

(2 of 2)

Indeed, Sleuth (which Pinter has said he never saw performed) is a project that seems perfect for him. He made his esteemed rep with creepy, enigmatic studies of human menace — works like The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Old Times, No Man's Land. He'd put two people in a room (that is, on the stage) and not let them out till the bitterness erupted and the blood flowed. Such was Pinter's craft and nerve that the audience felt as caged as the characters. It just made sense to let him loose on Shaffer's one-room play about two devious men playing killer tricks on each other.

There are some blunt objects on display, and a gun does go off, but the play is basically two men talking, firing elaborate insults at each other, scheming to find the perfect humiliation for slights received, the most elegant revenge. All this was catnip for the original film's director. Mankiewicz (whose older brother Herman wrote Citizen Kane) had been in movies since the early days of talking pictures, and "talkies" is a good description of his very voluble films. His Oscar-winning scripts for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve were filled, stocked, clogged with clever badinage. Nearly 60 years later, those films are still among the pearliest repositories for Hollywood's verbal chic.

To Mankiewicz and the urban sophisticates he wrote about, words were swords in the duel of wits. He thought of himself as a screen playwright, and Hollywood as Broadway West: films were theater in closeup. (Academy voters apparently agreed with Mankiewicz: they named him best director as well as best writer for Three Wives and Eve.) No question, he loved the sound of his own authorial voice; it had an overripe eloquence that could beguile any viewer-listener. And when he turned plays into films — producing Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story or directing Shakespeare's Julius Caesar — he could fall in love with other voices, too.

Shaffer was a kindred spirit to Mankiewicz: a cunning wordsmith with a playwright brother; his identical twin, Peter, wrote Equus and Amadeus. Like Mankiewicz (and Pinter, for that matter), Shaffer was fascinated by the ability of language to reveal, conceal and distort the workings of a person's mind and desires. In Sleuth he created a Chinese-box plot that on the surface was a very theatrical mystery, but at heart was a parable of sexual envy and English class hatred. Again, right up Pinter's dark alley.

Yet Pinter, in adapting the play, betrayed a carelessness bordering on contempt. The original is a two-act story that takes more than two hours; the new one synopsizes all that plot into the first hour, then adds a third act that diminishes, demeans, defames both the material and the actors. To slam home the theme of sexual aggression, Pinter forces one of the characters to dress in drag. Which makes Sleuth fit into the year's dominant trend, of movies from 300 to Blades of Glory, from Chuck and Larry to Superbad: guys channel their attraction or hatred for each other into games of teasing and fighting.

The reason that the first film version (available on an Anchor Bay DVD, and showing on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel this Sunday at 8pm Eastern) worked is that Mankiewicz filmed what Shaffer wrote. It's a play about role-playing, an unapologetic display of actors doing their tricks, putting on masks, throwing their voices — all the delicious stunts that say the theater is a game. Was it not cinematic? Mankiewicz didn't care. And most viewers were too appreciative of the sleight-of-hand to care either.

What's clear from the opening shot of Branagh's version is that he desperately wants this Sleuth to be not the record of a play but a real, filmy film. Unfortunately, his notion of film is a combination of bizarre camera angles and an alternation of baffling long shots and punishing closeups. Once upon a time, Branagh directed some agreeable movies: the burly Henry V, the inventive Much Ado About Nothing. So I can't say his visual choices here are made from ignorance. They have to be called willfully stupid. The mise-en-scene becomes so aggressive that in its last third the picture is almost literally unwatchable.

I won't reveal what happens, except to say that by the end both stars are utterly humiliated, and that the final victim is...the viewer. I wouldn't necessarily put this film in the atrocity category of a lower-I.Q. torture exercise like Captivity. But if you consider what the exalted quartet of Branagh, Pinter, Caine and Law might have done with the project, and what they did to it, Sleuth has to be the worst prestige movie of the year.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next