Sleuth (1972): Whimsically British psychological warfare

Anthony Shaffer is a name of quintessence when it comes to good, old-fashioned British mystery fare. Outside of John Hurt’s Antarctic adventures in Mr Forbush and the Penguins, Hitchcock’s lurid fight-for-justice thriller Frenzy and the devastating romantic period drama Sommersby, Shaffer’s plays, novels and screenplays are very much predicated on the ‘Dunnit?’ template, mostly who? but with singular and memorable emphasis on what?, where? and why? as well. Famously rendering several adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, he demonstrated similar talent for tantalising head-scratchers with the daunting and beguiling mysteries at the heart of folk-horror classic The Wicker Man and the creepy and downbeat Absolution (one of the great Richard Burton’s lesser spoken-of roles).

My personal favourite of Shaffer’s works, and the one that I consider to be the strongest, is his big-screen adaptation of his very own Tony Award-winning play, Sleuth, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Diverging from anonymous killers and cloudy disappearances, Sleuth is an open character study that focuses on an altogether different strand of mystery, that of motivations for dominance, psychological terrorism and one-upmanship, and the respective aptitude therein. A tale marked by a vein of cynical comedy running through its dark heart and superficially ludicrous trappings, it is a film that stands the test of time as a bitter indictment of class-based entitlement and pathological narcissism.

Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) is a garishly opulent and pompous author of best-selling detective novels living in a grand manor house in the English Home Counties. Self-obsessed, passive-aggressive and mean-spirited, Andrew believes his birth into the gentry and lauded writing talent should result in natural obsequiousness from those around him, possessing an affinity for asserting his superiority with cruel and elaborate mind games designed to remind the people in his life of their place. Unsurprisingly, his marriage has dissolved and he spends many a night alone in his abode, although his monumental arrogance provides a barrier to any brooding.

Enter Milo Tindle (Michael Caine). A young Anglo-Italian hairdresser of working-class stock, Milo endeavoured to circumvent the racist pigeonholing that plagued his migrant father via the altering of his birth name ‘Tindolini’, hoping that sharp suits and the entrepreneurial zest in building his own salon would look favourable in the eyes of the English well-to-do. He’s also the new beau of Andrew’s estranged wife Marguerite, and has been invited to the elder man’s estate for some well-intentioned introductions and the discussion of a plan that could prove beneficial to all concerned parties.

The plan in question is one of the same faintly ridiculous calibre as those that adorn Andrew’s quaint and insular mystery novels. Amid snide barbs regarding Milo’s heritage, Andrew relays a scheme in which Milo shall pose as a burglar, breaking into the home to steal an insanely expensive cache of jewellery. Andrew has clocked that Milo’s hairdressing business is in dire financial straits and proposes the strange plot as a means of ridding himself of Marguerite (and her subsistence on his money) for good, Milo making a tasty profit from fencing the jewellery and Andrew recouping the loss via insurance fraud.

Incensed by Andrew’s loathsome snobbery yet unable to deny his money worries, Milo reluctantly capitulates to the idea and the duo commence a rehearsal of the mischievous heist. Convoluted and essentially farcical, Andrew’s plan involves Milo disguising himself as a pantomime clown armed with a cartoonish ‘SWAG’ bag and escape ladder, the idiocy of proceedings antagonising the younger man to breaking point until Andrew reveals that it has all been a ruse. With Milo dressed up and rummaging around the home of a stranger, Andrew has grounds to shoot him dead and claim self-defence in combatting an intruder, because nobody takes anything (or anyone) belonging to Andrew Wyke and gets away with it.

This is all quite preliminary in terms of exposition, but it’s safe to say that nothing is as it seems. A deceptive, wryly amusing and strange illustration of toxicity, Sleuth offers a hoodwinking head-trip in which the playful veneer of puzzles and make-believe are peeled back to reveal festering layers of prejudice and malignant insecurity. Scenarios that could otherwise make for eccentric fun among friends become spiteful tests of endurance and intellectual prowess, and one of the film’s many deftly approached targets is the presupposition of class-based intelligence and human worth.

Olivier has never been better as Wyke. His appalling class bigotry and ivory-tower narcissism are supplemented by a sly and caustic wit that, perhaps shamefully, makes him easy to laugh along with even though one should reasonably detest him outright. Vainglorious with a pocket-full of backhanded compliments and sharp xenophobic quips, Andrew’s superciliousness and gruelling interpersonal style betray a deep-seated bitterness and childish insecurity. He refuses to believe that Marguerite left him due to personal failings on his part, and so resolves to vicariously punish her stupidity through his torment of poor Milo. Olivier’s switch-ups between Andrew’s pretentious demeanour and pathetic hidden self don’t miss a beat.

Caine is on fine form as Milo, even if his blonde hair and blue eyes cast a somewhat spurious light on the character’s Mediterranean origins. Dapper and personable with a measured South London twang, Milo isn’t so much ashamed of his roots as he is residually disheartened that his family had to wade through grime and hatred. His philosophy of personal conduct elevates him above Andrew by some distance, Milo favouring candour and genuine propriety in contrast to Andrew’s bitchy and deluded contempt. He possesses a transcendent dignity and nous that obliterates Wyke’s notion that anybody beneath on him the social strata is obviously a thick little oik.

Retaining the sensibilities of its stage genesis, Mankiewicz keeps the two-hander within the confines of Wyke’s stately home, occasionally contrasting the labyrinthine interior with shots of the awe-inspiring grounds. Oswald Morris’ wonderful cinematography captures the compound in a manner that emanates the character of location, Andrew & Milo almost seeming like a couple of young tearaways jaunting around a thoroughly ominous and eldritch Tudor-period abyss that has virtually supernatural omniscience of their scrapes. John Addison’s score perfectly underpins the juxtaposition of madcap British hijinks and the disturbing truth behind everything we see.

Replicated to lesser effect in a 2007 remake by Kenneth Branagh (where Michael Caine takes on the role of Andrew Wyke, no less), Sleuth is a funny, clever and unsettling exploration of class differences, jealousy, mind games and masculine pride. With excellent imagery and top-notch performances from Olivier & Caine, it effortlessly gets under your skin and keeps you on the edge of your seat. A veritable British classic that should always have a place on the tip of every film fan’s tongue.

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