I’ve been a film lover since I was first terrified by the wicked witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) and a film professional for around 12 years, so, like choosing your football team late (which I also did – West Ham Utd, for those who care), it’s a relief to know that I can finally answer the ‘What’s Your Favourite Film?’ question that normally follows whenever I tell people about what I do.
It’s Sleuth (1972), by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. My first viewing of this sublime two- (or is that three?) hander was sometime in the early eighties – my mum and dad were now allowing me and my younger sister, Sarah, to babysit for our youngest sister, Rachel, and the old man, knowing that I was already heavily into movies, gave me a recommendation for the night’s viewing. This, of course, was back in the day when a movie from 1972 could still be shown as BBC’s primetime Saturday night flick – ‘Think you might like that, James – watch it with your sister, and I bet neither of you can guess what’s going to happen.’
Begrudgingly agreeing, myself and sis dutifully tuned in at the appointed hour and, by slow degrees, were engrossed, amused, thrilled and transfixed. Funnily enough, it wasn’t to be the last time that I watched the film – at present count, my viewing tally must be in the hundreds.
Now, I am going to have to tread carefully here, because Anthony Schaffer’s original play (he also wrote the screenplay) is all about games and games-playing. My apologies, therefore, to those Picturenose readers who have seen the film, for the few games of my own that I play with this review, but it is all in keeping with the spirit of both play and film.
Young, reasonably successful hairdresser Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) (of Italian stock) arrives at Cloak Manor at the invitation of world-renowned detective novelist Andrew Wyke (Sir Laurence Olivier), the creator of the fabulously popular amateur sleuth St John Lord Merridew, and a frightful snob who believes all police to be incompetent and that only the best detectives are those with titles. He’s also a games-player par excellence, as his mansion’s decor makes more than clear.
Ostensibly, Wyke wants to ‘have a chat’ with Tindle concerning his affair with his wife Marguerite (Eve Channing) and the hairdresser’s intentions of marrying her and, apparently, undertake a little skullduggery together in order to provide Tindle with enough funds to take Wyke’s unfaithful wife off his hands for good, not just a ‘two week touch-up’. Initially reluctant, Tindle nevertheless enters into the spirit of the caper, until Wyke reveals his true intentions – to be able to justifiably shoot the cuckolder, which he indeed does. Wyke appears to have got away with the perfect murder – until the dowdy, dilligent Inspector Doppler (Alec Cawthorne) comes knocking at his door, investigating Tindle’s disappearance…
What makes this such a joy, I believe, is the way that Mankiewicz manages to transcend the two-dimensional aspects of the original stage play, both with edgy, unnerving cinematography that makes superb use of the various automata in Wyke’s house and with three lead performances that are simply spellbinding. A relative newcomer at the time, Caine’s discomfort at the prospect of being upstaged by Olivier fitted perfectly into the role of Tindle, a man apparently out of his depth with lord-of-the-manor Wyke – ‘You’re a jumped-up pantry-boy who doesn’t know his place!’ But, as Caine’s increasingly enraged turn goes on to prove, Wyke is far from being the only one with a penchant for very nasty games…
Cawthorne, who never acted again, is also wonderful as ‘the sharp-eyed copper who knows his job down to the last detail’, and the whole is simply a delightful, near-flawless combination of mood, mystery, humour and, ultimately, horror.
‘Andrew…be sure and tell them, won’t you? Tell them, it was all just…a bloody game.’