Sleuth Remake a Bizarre Twist on Mystery Tradition

Fort Worth Business Press, 8 October 2007
By Michael H. Price

If the playwright Anthony Shaffer had meant to unseat Agatha Christie as a reigning voice in crime fiction, Shaffer's enigmatic "Sleuth" (filmed in 1972) proved little more than a distraction.

Both Shaffer (1926-2001) and Christie (1890-1976) remain influential authors, and both have remained of interest to the movie business in its compulsion to remake any number of yarns that had turned out OK the first time around. Some 15 Christie titles have provided TV or movie fodder during 2006-2007, and Shaffer's murder-cult melodrama "The Wicker Man" resurfaced last year as a star vehicle for Nicolas Cage.

Now comes Kenneth Branagh's remake of the 1972 "Sleuth", starring Michael Caine and Jude Law in an odd ritual of succession: Caine, the youthful upstart of the first version, inherits the role that Laurence Olivier had played, while Law assumes the Caine role. Odder yet is Law's seeming tendency to attempt roles that Caine has outgrown - witness the 2004 remake of Caine's modern-Don-Juan starrer of 1966, "Alfie". It helps to remember that Law was born in the year that Sleuth's original movie adaptation opened.

Screenwriter for director Branagh's refried "Sleuth", announced to open Oct. 12, is the Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, whom Shaffer had acknowledged as an influence. If Shaffer was attempting to put a fresh spin on Christie - an acknowledged master of the mannered drawing-room murder mystery - then Pinter has set out similarly to reinvent Shaffer. Pinter remarks in the new film's press kit that he was unfamiliar with "Sleuth", as play or movie, until hired to write the present screenplay.

The basic plot seems pure Christie: A successful old-school crime novelist named Andrew Wyke (Caine), lures a youthful rival, Milo Tindle (Law), into a tense game of cat-and-mouse. Shaffer's interest in Pinter gave the original play something of a Theatre of the Absurd edge, and now Pinter multiplies the absurdities into what often appears to be a caricature of his established style.

Wyke's mansion is an inviting setting, reflecting a fascination with gadgets, that turns gradually into an efficient place of entrapment. Production designer Tim Harvey and director of photography Haris Zambarloukos seem to have taken a cue, here, from Edgar G. Ulmer's masterfully designed 1934 thriller, "The Black Cat", which takes place in a severely modernistic house that becomes a chamber of torture and destruction.

Tindle's approach is cordial but selfishly interested: He wants Wyke's blessing to take off with Mrs. Wyke. Wyke proposes a criminal scam. If Tindle will burglarize the house and steal a fortune in jewelry, Wyke will agree to divorce his wife on Tindles behalf while benefiting from a bogus insurance claim.

The story from this point must remain a mystery - no plot-spoilers here - apart from the disclosures that Tindle may be smarter than he looks, and that Wyke may have overlooked a detail or two in setting up the treacherous gambit. The familiarity of the story cannot be taken for granted, for the 1972 "Sleuth" has fluctuated in and out of print as a video attraction.

Pinter overintellectualizes the slight source material, shifting the focus from a virile romantic conflict to a more troubling antagonism between the men. The two-player principal cast had seemed more of a triangular affair in Joseph L. Manckiewicz' 1972 film, and its distillation in the new version almost requires that the viewer be a fan of Caine, Law, Pinter or Branagh, or combinations thereof. The scrapping of much of Shaffer's droll humor suggests that Pinter might as well have started from scratch.

Caine's portrayal is a saving grace. In 1972, he had played Milo Tindle with a savvy combination of naivete and arrogance - confronting Lord Olivier's masterful show of overconfidence, as Andrew Wyke, with an irresistible temptation to underestimate the interloper. Now, as Wyke, Caine combines a respectful nod to Olivier with a thoroughly fresh reading.

Law exhibits less of a feel for the material. He appears convincing at first as an arrogant-but-naive troublemaker but loses touch gradually as Pinter and Branagh challenge him to prove Tindle, indeed, smarter than he looks. The terse efficiency of Pinter's dialogue seems lost on Law.

Branagh, of course, is more a Shakespearean director than a Pinter director. Where the story calls for the cavernous spaces and cul-de-sacs of the Wyke mansion to close in, figuratively speaking, on the antagonists, Branagh conveys no such claustrophobic quality. (To catch Branagh in his truer element, check out the 2006 "As You Like It" or the 2000 "Love's Labours Lost".

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