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PopGap #24: Sleuth (1972)

PopGap #24: Sleuth (1972)

Written by dorrk
16 January 2017

I'm in peak condition; I could copulate for England at any distance.

Twists in mysteries and thrillers are so run-of-the-mill on TV and in movies nowadays that I often resent them, as within those genres story seems to have been wholly replaced by gimmickry; themes and characters have been tossed aside in favor of mechanical narrative sleight-of-hand. One of the effects of today's overreliance on zig-zags is that many older mysteries suffer, partly from the swarm of copycats devouring their methods for inspiration and partly from an audience jaded by expectations: we know that there's going to be a twist (rather, four twists), making us question every identity, loyalty and death from the outset, and when the twists come, we have often, through years of training, spotted them much, much earlier. the 1972 movie Sleuth, from Anthony Shaffer's play, is considered a classic of its form, and deservedly so. How it manages to maintain a few elements of surprise 45 years later may be its greatest mystery.

Sir Laurence Olivier stars as an aristocratic writer of detective stories in the vein of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. He invites his wife's well-to-do-but-working-class lover (Michael Caine) over to his mansion for a game of... well, that's what it's all about. Sleuth takes its time, with nearly an hour until the first big moment, and almost 105 minutes (of its 135-minute running time) until it really steps into surprising territory, but everything before that is kept engaging by the glory of watching Olivier and Caine match the wits with which Shaffer endowed them. By today's police-procedural-overload standards, there are times when the characters clearly aren't as clever as they think they are, and there's one short ruse so obvious that I'm not sure if the audience was ever intended to fall for it. the key to Shaffer's surmounting these weaknesses is that he constructs his puzzles from the characters up, using their artfully revealed tensions over love, class, age and intellect as the timber, string and glue holding everything together.

Sleuth's patient start may be an obstacle for some, but if it managed to entertain and delight an avowed mystery-agnostic like me, fans of game-like whowonits will surely want to give this influential and intimate chamber thriller a look. The direction by Joseph L. Mankiewicz does well to burn through the sometimes too-thick dialog, but he mostly just keeps the cameras rolling with Olivier and Caine providing the spark. Caine switched roles in 2007 for a remake co-starring Jude Law. Shaffer wrote another two of the 1970s best movie mysteries, The Wicker Man and Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy.

Sleuth was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Hannah Keefer, who can be found on Flickchart and Letterboxd under the username purplecow17. Sleuth is Hannah's 9th favorite movie mystery, out of 142, ranking at #140 (95%) out of the 2560 total movies on her Flickchart. It's been added to my Flickchart at #1014 (73%) and is my 52nd favorite mystery out of 225 total.

PopGap #24: Sleuth (1972)

Trailer for Sleuth (1972)