Sleuth is undeniably one of my favourite films, but in many ways it isn’t a film at all. The mixture of intense, character-driven drama and puzzling riddles make it more like a cross between a two-man play and the Observer cryptic crossword (2 down: In olden days a glimpse of stocking (8,4)). Its stage roots are clearly on display here and traditionally this does not always translate well to screen, but the intensity of the two central performances – both justly nominated for the Best Actor Oscar – prevents the action from feeling constrained and claustrophobic.
The two central performances are perfect, monumental, even competitive in their brilliance. It’s as if two generations had each entered their champion into an acting battle and, pleasingly, the result is a gripping draw. (Caine would go on to wipe the floor with the youthful competitor in the remake, though I’m not sure Jude Law is anybody’s champion.) Neither is an easy role to perform. At various points, the characters have to be sympathetic victims or ruthless murderers, and even that is an oversimplification. Yet, while neither character is someone with whom you might wish to spend a great deal of time, they are both ultimately plausible and understandable.
The play pivots around the moment that Tindle appears to be shot. It’s an incredible piece of acting by Caine – perhaps one of the most convincing portrayals of a man knowing with complete certainty that he is going to die. Until this point the pair seems, in some strange way, to be cooperating. From this point on, however, the point scoring commences and neither will ever be able to escape from the game.
It’s curious to compare this scene of Milo being shot with a blank to the one in which he’s genuinely shot at the very end of the film. His utter fear and terror, mixed with pleading, is replaced by laughter and victory as it’s revealed police are on the way. It’s not death that is feared here – it’s a lack of control. Winning the game is now more important than living. Like sacrificing a queen to gain an advantageous position in chess, the only thing that matters to him is toppling the king.
It is also after Milo’s first apparent murder that the film REALLY begins to confuse the viewer. The Doppler scene is a wonderful piece of writing, in which the audience believes something to be true that every character involved knows to be false. Wyke knows he didn’t kill Tindle, and even relates, step by step, everything that happened on that night, but we don’t believe him because the lie Tindle (as Doppler) is telling sounds more like what we would expect, given what we have seen. It’s only after Tindle is revealed as Doppler do we realise the truth, so we can see that the disguise was as much for our benefit as Wyke’s. The disguise is even in the titles, where the actor Alec Cawthorne is credited as playing the part, leading to an extra layer of confusion for the audience.
It’s often the case that films of stage productions go one of two ways. Either the film is shot blandly, leaving the whole thing looking like a video of a nativity play, or else gratuitous outdoor scenes are introduced adding nothing to the film but to say “I AM A FILM.” This version does have a scene in an outdoor maze, but overall Mankiewicz chooses to keep the action inside and maintain a claustrophobic atmosphere throughout. The close-ups of the toys, for instance, feel quite filmic, even though they aren’t exactly panoramic, and do nothing but add to the tension and mystery.
Overall the film is a gripping thriller: intriguing, fascinating, perplexing and haunting. The two central performances are fantastic, the sets wonderful and the tone perfect. Perhaps, given the terrible execution of the remake, the film deserves even more praise than that.