It’s interesting that, by way of coincidence, I would see the 1972 film Sleuth the day after I see the 1987 film Predator for the first time. I hadn’t seen either of these films prior to this weekend, and knew little about Sleuth other than its big-name stars. Despite a number of surface-level differences between the two films, they’re actually surprisingly similar in that both present a one-on-one battle to the death between two men (or a man and an alien), a battle of wits and ability and strength.
Sleuth, adapted from a 1970 play, depicts two men in a battle of wits. The elder, wealthy mystery novelist Andrew Wyke (Sir Laurence Olivier, simply breathtaking), is jealous and racist, believing the younger, Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), who is a hairdresser of Italian descent, to be unworthy of the love of his ex-wife. So begins a game of cat-and-mouse, a game where both players, and indeed, we the audience, are never aware of what is real and what is simply there for show.
The hows and whys of the game are enough of a spoiler that I will avoid detailing too much of the plot; that said, what is important is that the two players take on a series of roles and personas from all manner of crime literature in order to try and entrap the other in a compromising situation. Both actors are chameleons in their respective roles, taking on characters and voices over and over at twists and turns. The two men engage in layer upon layer of deception, leaving each-other and the audience constantly unsure what to believe.
It’s fascinating seeing a movie that was so obviously adapted from a play. It works well as a movie, but it’s also clear that legendary Hollywood director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (in his final film) doesn’t go out of his way to take full advantage of the medium of film. It’s an interesting decision – of course, with actors of this caliber and a story like this one, it works out just fine. In fact, in some ways the choices Mankiewicz makes serve to enhance the claustrophobia and paranoia of the story.
Andrew Wyke: So I understand you wish to marry my wife.