Movies & TV / Columns

Nether Regions 03.16.10: Sleuth (1972)

March 16, 2010 | Posted by Chad Webb

Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.



Starring: Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, and Eve Channing
Directed By: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Written By: Anthony Shaffer
Running Time: 139 minutes
Theatrical Release Date: December 10, 1972
Missing Since: 2002
Existing Formats: OOP DVDs and VHS
Netflix Status: Not Available
Availability: Very Rare

Sleuth, a film based on the play by Anthony Shaffer, involves some audience manipulation. Generally, viewers want to be manipulated, but the word can have both positive and negative connotations. Normally, it is the bad forms of manipulation that receive the most publicity. What makes all the difference is how the audience perceives the manipulation by the time the conclusion rolls around. Does it benefit the moviegoer, or the director? Were the tactics clever or more underhanded? There are various forms, ranging from story manipulation to the kind that toy with our emotions. We find ourselves deciding whether or not it bothered us or was satisfying, but then again, did we notice it at all? Sleuth is a slick and entertaining type of manipulation. The characters like to play games, and as we watch them do this, we revel in the fact that they are being played on us just the same.

Milo Tindle and a
robot that loves to laugh.

Plenty of twists and turns arise in Sleuth, but most of them are not obvious or poorly executed, and we never feel cheated, as if what occurred did not coincide with the structure and flow that came before. It is a cat and mouse mystery that is absolutely mesmerizing, and also wonderfully theatrical. In the past two years or so of my movie watching, I’ve noticed that I have become a fan of stage play adaptations. I now quickly notice when fellow film buffs and writers have the same affinity. When one charms you, it is relatively easy to gravitate towards another and another. I suppose the trend stemmed from David Mamet with me, but Sleuth is definitely a superb entry into that genre. The dialogue is exaggerated, but that is never a problem because it is so wittily written. Sleuth succeeds on almost every level, and it is a crime that more people cannot experience it.

Writing an all-encompassing review of Sleuth is not an easy task. For starters, because it is out of print, and not available through most online rental chains, many will not have seen it, hence, revealing the plot and the surprises concerning certain credited cast members becomes rather tricky. For this reason I must warn you now that the following plot description will contain a few spoilers. Most of the twists will be kept secret, and like The Crying Game, it is a film that can still be enjoyable if you know specific plot points. However, if you do not wish to know, skip the next two paragraphs, and read on with the brief premise of “two guys who play games with one another” in mind.

As the opening credits, which include some nifty macabre paintings, come to a close, a recording of a mystery plot is overheard as Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) weaves his way through a maze located in a vast and luscious garden. Milo has been summoned by wealthy mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), and it is difficult to find Andrew in the labyrinthe because he is the only one who knows its secret. Eventually the pair do come face to face, and make their way inside for a larger assortment of alcoholic beverages. Wyke’s enormous Tudor country manor has just about everything a man of his eccentricities could want. It is filled with various sorts of games because Wyke himself plays them regularly. The eye-catching features in his house include performing dolls, a safe hidden by a dart board, laughing robots, complicated chess boards, and much more. In this situation, he plans to play a game with Milo.

The newest DVD cover.
Basically a close-up
of the poster image.

You see, Milo and Wyke’s wife, Marguerite (Eve Channing), have fallen in love, and want to marry. Wyke is happy to let go of his wife, but he wants Milo to have the funds to support her rich lifestyle, so he suggests an insurance scam. Milo will steal some jewels, pawn them to someone giving 2/3 the value, and Wyke will collect the insurance. The dilemma for Milo is he will never get his hands on the money from the jewels because Wyke has constructed an elaborate set-up to humiliate Milo beyond his wildest imaginations. After suffering this grueling embarrassment, Milo then returns to the house to proceed with his revenge, including a complex plan that could blow Wyke’s mind. With two sharp opponents jabbing back and forth, anyone could come out on top, but at what price?

With the exception of a small appearance from renowned thespian Alec Cawthorne, Sleuth is a hypnotizing two man show, and that is the primary reason the long running time whizzes by so rapidly. Watching Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine savor every second of their time on screen is delightfully engaging. Milo Tindle is everything that Andrew Wyke frowns upon in a gentleman. Milo is a lower-class hairdresser that is only half-British (and part Italian), talks with an accent Wyke detests, and wears clothing that he scoffs at. But Milo’s exchanges with Wyke will change him permanently. Andrew Wyke on the other hand, is the very definition of a pompous ass, a filthy rich writer whose unpredictable nature is hard to gauge. We are supposed to sympathize with Milo, but Wyke is a fully fleshed out character whose motives are understandable.

The legendary Laurence Olivier died in 1989 with so many iconic performances under his belt, but observing him having so much fun at his craft as Andrew Wyke is a pleasure indeed. The spark in his eye is quite clear. He has portrayed numerous Shakespeare characters, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Maxim de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Szell in Marathon Man, and the list goes on. Olivier has a flair for being wickedly memorable throughout his career, and he accomplishes that in Sleuth as well with wild gyrations, various accents, swift changes in demeanor, and oodles of quotable lines. His turn is brilliant for different reasons than what Caine’s is because he has the majority of the succulent dialogue, and has no trouble controlling the room.

Olivier’s Wyke dominates Caine’s Milo even though on the surface, Caine is a bit more intimidating in appearance and stature. Milo has worked hard and earned everything he has in life, and the insecurity beneath the assuredness of his exterior is evident in Caine’s superbly subtle depiction. Milo is polite, calm, and a bit anxious initially, which differs from Wyke. Caine gives a multifaceted internal performance, but the mastery of it is that Caine switches gears so effortlessly, and the effect is never jarring or cartoonish. Caine’s resume is undoubtedly spottier than Olivier’s, but he’s proven his abilities enough times that he could hold his own with his co-star. Zulu brought him international fame, and throughout the decades, he has managed to hide his low points with a number of classics that still hold up today. This is one of them.

Andrew Wyke tying
himself to a chair.

The two verbally spar back and forth like graceful professionals, constantly tagging each other like heavyweight boxers, and their chemistry is undeniable. Michael Caine was extremely excited to be working with Olivier, and was so nervous that he did not know how to address him. Eventually he just asked him, to which Olivier replied, “Well I am the Lord Olivier and you are Mr. Michael Caine. Of course that’s only for the first time you address me. After that I am Larry and you are Mike.” Originally, the role of Milo Tindle was offered to Alan Bates (The Fixer), but he turned it down after walking out of the play believing the part to be “unbecoming of an actor of his stature”. Later it was revealed that he walked out at intermission thinking his character’s contribution was finished after the first act.

Sleuth has all the attributes of a stage play. The story takes place within only a few rooms, the cast is small, and the focus is dialogue and the communication amongst characters. That being said, Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz opens the narrative and allows it stretch with dignity and ease. Wyke’s intricate and lively estate plays such a crucial role in what transpires, that the surroundings are basically another character. Mankiewicz meshes with Olivier and Caine adeptly so that the modifications in tone and mood are convincing. He also makes sure that the limited settings are neither claustrophobic nor stuffy, and that even though the screenplay is rather talky, it is never dry or monotonous. Mankiewicz is responsible for many notable titles, many of them overrated: All About Eve, The Quiet American, and Cleopatra just to name a few. Sleuth was his last hurrah as a filmmaker, and it might be his crowning achievement.

Anthony Shaffer adapts his own play, and his script is magnificent, saturated with tremendously amusing and thrilling dialogue, but a proper cast must present them, and one can’t go wrong with Laurence Olivier, an Oscar winner for Hamlet, not to mention two honorary statues, and Michael Caine, a two-time Oscar winner for The Cider House Rules and Hannah and Her Sisters. These two had to nail the parts for the film to be a triumph, and now it is hard to imagine Sleuth without them. Caine and Olivier were nominated in the same category in 1973, but lost to Marlon Brando for The Godfather. Who saw that coming? Mankiewicz was also nominated for Best Director. He had emerged victorious in that category twice previously with All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives.

With the quirky and charmingly elegant Oscar nominated score from John Addison, Sleuth is filled with unforgettable moments. One of my favorites has Milo dressing up in a clown outfit to execute the planned burglary. Sadly, Olivier unleashes 90% of the greatest lines. One of the best is: “I have nothing against lapsed Catholics. In fact, some of my best friends are lapsed Catholics.” As for flaws, there is one piece of deception, involving a detective, that I thought was obvious, despite the fact that the acting during that particular sequence is superlative and hilarious.

The game playing in Sleuth instantly reminded me of David Fincher’s vastly under appreciated The Game from 1997 starring Michael Douglas, which offers some more deliberate manipulation, but still has powerhouse performances, striking locations, and priceless twists. When compared, the differences are simple to see, but both offer endless contentment with repeated viewings. If you liked that, you should feel the same about Sleuth.

Sleuth was released on DVD for region 1, on two occasions as far as I can tell, but for reasons known only to the studio, it has been shelved. One possibility could be that they hoped the terrible 2007 remake would sell more copies, and re-releasing the original could have overshadowed that. Then again, it could be some complicated issue with the rights. That disaster was directed by Kenneth Brannagh, in which Michael Caine plays the Andrew Wyke role and Jude Law plays Milo Tindle. Caine does his best, but Jude Law embarrasses himself and the story is altered to astonishingly stupid results. Do yourself a favor and seek the 1972 version out. It would be worth every penny.

Final Rating = 9.0/10.0

The Heartbreak Kid – Still Out of Print
Homicide – Now Available
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV) – Still Out of Print
The Stepfather – Now Available
The Stepfather 2 – Now Available
The Stepfather 3 – Still Out of Print
Phantasm II – Now Available
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – Both Available on 3/30/10
America, America – Still Out of Print
Salem’s Lot – Still Out of Print
A Return to Salem’s Lot – Still Out of Print
Latin Lovers – Still Out of Print
State Fair (1933) – Still Out of Print
The African Queen – Available on 3/23/10
Wings – Still Out of Print
Cavalcade – Still Out of Print

Closing Thoughts

Well this weekend was pretty uneventful all in all. It was filled with lots of rain, branches being knocked down, pot holes resembling meteor craters, and flooding in certain areas of my town. Life goes on I guess. I have found myself still watching WWE and TNA, and probably will until Wrestle Mania and Destination X, but after that, I’m not sure how often I’ll be tuning in to the weekly programs. To alleviate my desire for quality wrestling, I bought the Kenta Kobashi 5 DVD set from Highspots, which I’m looking forward to cracking open.

I got the chance to see a few movies on DVD recently. One of which was The Damned United, which was much better than I anticipated. It avoids most sports movie clichés, and has some outstanding performances from Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall. I also caught David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, which I did not care for, and Terrence Malick’s debut Badlands, which I loved. As for music, I enjoyed Johnny Cash’s final album American VI: Ain’t No Grave thoroughly from start to finish, while the new Jimi Hendrix album, Valleys of Neptune, was average at best.

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“The plural of Chad is Chad?”
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Nether Regions, Chad Webb

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