Anthony Shaffer’s hugely popular play about a well-heeled mystery writer with a love of gamesmanship who confronts his wife’s young lover—with surprising results—will never be confused with art: it’s just a crafty work of theatrical artifice, which turns on one cunning casting stunt. But it’s a trick that really works best on stage, where the distance between performer and audience makes it less detectable. Even in the first screen adaptation—Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1972 version with Laurence Olivier as the writer and Michael Caine as his victim—“Sleuth” came across as more effortful than truly clever, especially in its latter stages, where the reversals and counter-reversals grew increasingly tiresome, the emphasis on class conflict more and more heavy-handed, and the performances nearly desperate. Even Ken Adams’ extravagant production design, showcasing a mansion filled with mechanical gadgets, loses its charm when we find ourselves forced to put up with its busyness for nearly two-and-a-half hours.
This new version, which sees Caine, some thirty-five years on, moving into the role of the snobbish writer Andrew Wyke originally played by Olivier and Jude Law (who’d already taken on another of Caine’s old parts in the remake of “Alfie”) stepping into his old shoes (though not, it should be noted, the clown clodhoppers featured in the original) as his seemingly hapless mark Milo Tindle. But the changes go far deeper than that: Harold Pinter has heavily revised the piece. The first act hews fairly closely to Shaffer’s original, at least in its general outline, but the second is quite radically altered, especially in terms of the sort of humiliation meted out in the end. And the dialogue has been rewritten in inescapably Pinteresque language—oblique, elliptical, and with an unmistakable note of suppressed menace. The setting is much changed, too: instead of Adams’ old-fashioned manor stuffed with ramshackle furniture and clattering toys, Tim Harvey’s design turns the place into something resembling the cold, metallic lobby of an ultra-modern hotel—a reflection, presumably, of the essential sterility of its owner’s existence.
But the biggest difference between the old and new versions of “Sleuth” is that while the 1972 film wanted simply to be campy fun (even if it didn’t entirely succeed), this one goes for a tone that’s much bleaker and nastier. That’s especially true of the final scenes, which add an erotic twist to the proceedings that’s certainly new but is also unwelcome.
The result is a film that gives a twist to an old chestnut, but one that shatters what was best about it in the first place. And the performances don’t convey the sense of enjoyment they should. Caine—until forced by Pinter’s inventions to undergo some unpleasant indignities—gets by on his talent for malicious underplaying, but Law works entirely too hard, never finding the right tone or tempo. Director Kenneth Branagh provides little help for either of them; together with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who favors glassily gray widescreen compositions, he opts for too many ostentatiously strange visual choices (like focusing on the men’s shoes—a ploy that Hitchcock used brilliantly in “Strangers on a Train” but is simply an affectation here) and gives way too often to extreme closeups that accentuate the overacting to which Law, in particular, seems inclined. As for Patrick Doyle’s score, one can understand his decision to complement the austere look of the picture, but that doesn’t make the music any more attractive.
“Sleuth” is nothing more than the dramatic equivalent of an elaborate magician’s trick, and as such it remains best suited to the boards. But if you want to see it on screen, the Mankiewicz version is by far the better bet. At 138 minutes, it goes on too long, but at least it preserves some of the empty fun Shaffer’s artificial contraption had to offer. This Pinterized remodeling is a sour alternative, and though it’s fifty minutes shorter, it drags even worse.