Sleuth, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, is an unapologetically theatrical excursion. It provides what used to be called “civilized entertainment,” in which moderately literate dialog, gamy plot mechanics, poshly appointed sets, and name actors distract and flatter middle brow audiences of the middle and upper classes. Since one of the themes of the story is how detective fiction writer Andrew Wyke (Olivier) is undone by his snobbery, that appeal is more than a touch ironic. That irony may even be deliberate, but the bottom line is that the film seems calculated to please the very kind of self-satisfied bourgeois Wyke represents.
If the results feel like something of an antique, that may work to the film’s advantage. (I have not seen the remake, with Caine in Olivier’s role opposite Jude Law. I suspect these mechanics, when updated, would exude a strong whiff of formaldehyde.) Wyke is ensconced in an exaggerated vision of an English country gentleman’s stuffy, yet cosy retreat, in keeping with the slightly retrograde qualities of the filmmaking. It’s an environment that could never have existed, but which helps to place both character and situation in a world of ornately smug comfort. Milo Tindall’s (Caine) presence is both intrusion and imposition, as if the two men are not jousting over possession of Wyke’s wife so much as a way of life that one values above all else and the other both envies and despises.
Wyke’s house is as much a character as the actors, a touch too deliberately so. Mankiewicz repeatedly cuts away from the actors to focus on his mechanical toys, as if they are witnesses to their owner’s antics. Camera angles are chosen to show off the whimsical clutter, and what little physical action there is, such as the explosive opening of a wall safe, is conceived in terms of the characters’ interaction with the space more than with each other. Otherwise, forward movement is through the self-consciously mean-spirited dialog.
The results have a bad-tempered appeal, and Sleuth is repeatedly enjoyable in a bitchy kind of way. The plot twists are entertaining in themselves the first time around and clever enough later that you can enjoy the skill with which they’re executed. At the same time, with actors this distinguished, the film is always a little disappointing. Smooth and unforced as only professional entertainment can be, it nonetheless fails to give either Caine or Olivier moments equal to their abilities. Olivier acts as if he’s having a good time, but there’s always a certain undefinable tension that seems to result from the actors trying to make more with the parts than they yield. Things are just a touch too ably calculated for them to be memorable. You can return to Sleuth repeatedly in the expectation of pleasure, but it evaporates afterward just as reliably. Perhaps that evanescence is the price—or indeed the goal—of such a “civilized” approach.