Anchor Bay video, which has been reissuing remarkably restored versions of old horror titles (one can now see Lucio Fulci’s gore classic, Zombie, letterboxed on VHS ) has, with no fanfare, restored Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ wonderful 1972 film of Anthony Sahffer’s Tony award-winning play Sleuth. With the film’s previous incarnation on video looking like a bad television broadcast, this digitized and widescreened edition is much appreciated.
Laurence Olivier plays wealthy mystery writer Andrew Wyke, a man obsessed by games as well as nostalgia for the thirties mysteries of Agatha Christie and S.S. Van Dine. A man who believes detective stories to be the “normal recreation for noble minds,” Wyke invites Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a cockney hairdresser, and his wife’s lover, over to his mansion to discuss a plan Tindle calls “a gritty little plot to defraud the insurance company.” He asks Tindle to steal some valuable (and insured) jewels in order that he can give his wife the expensive life she’s become accustomed to . Tindle agrees, but no sooner have the two staged a break-in than Wyke turns ugly, revealing exactly what his motives are. And that, as Wyke tells Tindle, is where “the plot thickens”.
To give any more of the plot would be to rob those who haven’t seen this film of a great deal of pleasure, not the least of which is the pairing of Olivier and Caine, who both give remarkable performances. Olivier’s Andrew Wyke is fascinating, a snobbish man who uses his upper class breeding as a club with which to verbally beat Milo, whose father, on the other hand, was an Italian watchmaker and whose tough upbringing is worlds away from Wyke’s.
In his mansion surrounded by games and antique automata, Wyke is the last of a dying breed, a man whose fondest memories are from a time when every cabinet minister had a thriller by his bedside and all detectives were titled. The screenplay by Shaffer has so many wonderful twists that by the end it’s impossible to guess who will get the last (in this case, quite literally) laugh. The direction by the great Hollywood pro Mankiewicz is not too surprisingly cinematic and fluid, but the real draw here is the writing, Shaffer’s script is a marvel, with the kind of brilliant, acerbic dialogue that simply doesn’t exist in film anymore. Ironically, Sleuth may seem old fashioned to a 90’s audience, and like a mystery by Vera Caspary or a record of Cole Porter, the film may seem sadly like the stuff of nostalgia.
A shame â€“ this is a great one.