Murder Mystery: Who Killed Sleuth?

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David Appleby / Sony

Sleuth, starring Michael Cain and Jude Law.

On consecutive weeks back in December 1972, the Palomar production company and 20th Century-Fox teamed to release two films: Sleuth and The Heartbreak Kid. Now, on consecutive weekends in October 2007, come remakes of those movies. As it happens, the original Sleuth and Heartbreak were smart and funny and took a fairly brutal view of their main characters. The remakes, though honoring the basic plots of their predecessors, are dumb, witless and humiliating to all parties.

I guess I could spin this coincidence into a mournful essay on the devolution of movie culture over the past 35 years: how moviemakers have jettisoned subtlety in their attempts to appeal to a teen audience, how shades of gray have been coarsened to simple blacks and whites, how everything then was better than anything now, etc. etc. That alterkocker argument might be made to apply to the Farrelly brothers' dumb-down of the Neil Simon-Elaine May Heartbreak Kid, which I was unkind to last week. But it doesn't work on Sleuth, an art-house effort with more modest box office aspirations, a much loftier collection of talent, on and off screen — and, you'd think, an unwreckable scenario .

In Anthony Shaffer's 1970 play, which he adapted for the 1972 film, Andrew Wylie is an aging writer of mystery novels, living well but not comfortably in a home whose gadgety furnishings reflect his obsession with game-playing. The reason for Andrew's discomfort: his young wife is having an affair with her hairdresser, Milo Tindale. Enter Milo into Andrew's lair. The older man has an attractive, illegal proposal for Milo that could make them both rich and happy. But that's just a teaser to Andrew's much darker scheme — one that will bring a policeman to inquire about a missing body.

In the original movie, directed by Hollywood veteran Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Andrew was played by Laurence Olivier, widely considered the century's greatest actor; and Michael Caine, who came to movie fame as the charming cad Alfie, was Milo. In a promising symmetry, this Sleuth has Caine playing the older man and Jude Law, who starred in a 2004 sequel to Alfie, as his young rival.

At the helm this time is Kenneth Branagh, the actor-director who in his youth was seen as the hope of English-speaking theater — "the new Olivier," critics said — and who had one-upped Olivier by directing and starring in an acclaimed film of Shakespeare's Henry V while still in his 20s. The new script for Sleuth is by Harold Pinter, the most demanding and honored playwright of the past half-century. Pinter, after all, did win the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature; and at 77, this imperious Brit is surely beyond the worry of writing scripts for 14-year-old American boys. So his criminal botch of the job can't be attributed to marketplace timidity.

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