Sleuth was released in 1972 and stars the great Laurence Olivier as Andrew Wyke, an aging, wealthy, mystery writer who invites a young Milo Tindle, played by Michael Caine, to his home. It is quickly revealed that Tindle is the current lover of Wyke’s wife, Marguerite, and is presented with a proposition of which Tindle would be the ultimate benefactor. He is to steal Marguerite’s jewels in a seemingly perfect crime concocted by Wyke himself, sell them on the black market, take the cash and use it to give Marguerite the perfect life, one away from Wyke and from messy emotional/financial entanglements that would arise through a normal separation.
The film was based upon the Tony award winning play written by Anthony Shaffer and was the last of a long line of successful films for prolific director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Cleopatra, Guys and Dolls). The film was critically successful seeing both actors nominated for Oscars with a total of 4 Academy Award nominations and spawned a remake in 2007 starring Jude Law as the young Tindle and a much older Caine playing the role of Wyke.
Having seen more than my share of Olivier films due to my twin sister’s fascination with the actor, this film ranks among the top in performance due to his ability to jump from stern cynic to playful camp with convincing ease. Wyke is obsessed with games, strategy, and has an obsession for vintage automatons which feed into that playful nature. This frees up Olivier to play Wyke with bounding laughter and a childish glee rarely seen in his performances. While in the hands of a lesser actor, this would stray too far into a campy neverland, however within Oliver’s grasp, it is a pleasure to watch.
Caine is confident and mostly convincing as Tindle, except for one instance, which becomes an issue with a very important plot point the audience could see coming literally twenty minutes before its supposed reveal. This is not to place the blame solely upon Caine for the fail, but upon the costume/make-up effects used for the complicated and time-consuming ruse that does not in any way translate to an audience that called the game the second it appeared on screen.
But, the issues at the core of Sleuth resonate far beyond the thriller genre and engage the viewer within a social dialogue concerning deep-rooted beliefs of class and age in Great Britain. With Olivier, you have the well-established writer, a man of prestige and wealth who is losing his wife to a younger, more stylish man who may not be as well-established, but represents a youth long dull in Olivier’s aged frame. That said, Caine is not fully immune to the pressures of the class system and is at his core insecure about his ability to provide a life for his lover’s cultured tastes. Olivier represents the old-school and Caine, swinging London with its vibrancy and flippant attitudes. This is the heart of Sleuth and where these worlds and wits collide is where the plot thickens.
Sleuth is a taut thriller, with twists a plenty. While some of the twists became tedious because of their transparency, the film itself is a solid work carried upon the shoulders of two titans of British cinema and shares the peculiar title of being one of three where the entire cast was nominated for Academy Awards. There is a fun little fact that since there were only two actors in the entirety of the film and this fact was central to certain plot twists, a cast of fictional actors were billed and used in all of the marketing materials and is even listed on IMDB as we speak.
Sleuth is long out of print and is available as an expensive DVD release that can be purchased through third-party sellers on Ebay and Amazon. The VHS can be cheaper and is available in a sketchy print released by Video Treasures and a better version part of the Independent Classics Collection. If you can find it, it is definitely worth a viewing and might be worth shelling out the extra cash for the DVD version since there is no word of a release at this time.