Sunday, January 20, 2008

Repeat Viewings: Sleuth (1972)

I'm sure everyone has them; films which he or she can watch over and over again, to the point where if you come across one of them on television while channel-surfing you will happily immerse yourself, no matter what stage the movie has got to. You simply can't resist. This can, of course, only happen with films you've seen so often that you find you know large chunks of dialogue off by heart; and much of the pleasure comes from this complete familiarity, allowing you to watch the corners of the screen, as it were, and revel in myriad details that will most likely escape the notice of anyone watching the film for the first time. Herewith the first in an irregular series discussing a few of my own repeat pleasures, in no particular order.

The first time I saw Sleuth (1972) it was on television, and I came in just before the halfway point. It didn't take me long to figure out that it's not a film that lends itself to this type of viewing, the first time you watch it; you need to be in your seat, paying attention, from the moment the lights go down. It manages to be several things at once: a clever murder mystery; a pastiche of a clever murder mystery; a 'twist' movie that has an endless supply of twists up its sleeve, none of which seem forced or contrived; and, underneath it all, a fairly serious look at the English class system, marriage, and the games we all play from day to day. No mean feat; and all credit to Anthony Shaffer, whose Edgar Award-winning play serves as the basis for the film (for which Shaffer wrote the screenplay). Indeed, Shaffer's Edgar Award managed to get itself cast in the film; you'll see it sitting on the mantelpiece in the stately home belonging to Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), a writer of mystery novels featuring the detective St. John Lord Merridew, and who won the Edgar for a novel called The Jack Sprat Murders ('Ironically, for one who could eat no fat, he was murdered by an injection of concentrated cholesterol'.)

These words are spoken to Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a much younger man who has been invited to Wyke's manor house deep in the Wiltshire countryside for reasons which are, at first, unclear, both to Tindle and the audience. Wyke is in the centre of a maze in the garden, dictating the denouement of his latest novel, Death by Double Fault, and it's with some difficulty that Tindle makes his way to the centre to join him: a taste of the games-playing which is to come. The pair make rather uneasy conversation, with the tweed-clad, avuncular, aristocratic Wyke clearly at an advantage over the rough around the edges Tindle, who appears nervous. The reason for this becomes clear when they enter the house, and Wyke says casually, 'I understand you wish to marry my wife.'

As conversation openers go, this one is hard to beat. Andrew's wife, Marguerite, has been having an affair with Milo; but it soon becomes clear that Wyke, far from being angry, appears rather relieved by this turn of events. Marguerite, it turns out, is an expensive woman to maintain, and Andrew has another iron in the fire ('Yes, Téa, the Finnish bird who runs the sauna in Salisbury,' says Milo, revealing that Andrew isn't the only one who's been keeping tabs). Andrew wants to be rid of Marguerite, but he needs to ensure that Milo—who runs two hairdressing shops—can afford to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed, so that she doesn't come running back to Andrew after a few months. To that end, Andrew proposes a plan, beautiful in its simplicity even if it is criminal in nature ('Of course it's criminal,' he tells Milo, 'all good money-making schemes in England have to be these days'). He and Milo will stage a break in at Andrew's house, during the course of which Milo will 'steal' jewellery worth several hundred thousand pounds, along with their receipts, and sell them to a fence whom Andrew knows. Andrew, in the meantime, will file a claim with his insurance company and receive compensation for the 'theft'; so everyone will live happily ever after.

The 'theft' is duly staged and carried out, and then . . . well, at this point things take an unexpected turn, the first of many such twists throughout the rest of the film, which it would be unfair to reveal to anyone who hasn't seen the movie. Suffice it to say that what started out as a rather jovial caper becomes something much darker and nastier, with Shaffer—ably abetted by his cast—ratcheting up the stakes, and the tension, to almost unbearable levels, culminating in a final scene that is as shocking as it is perfectly fitting ('Be sure . . . and tell them . . . it was just . . . a bloody game').

This spirit of game-playing pervades the whole film. The men play verbal games—guarded at first, more openly as the film goes on—and Andrew's mansion is filled with games and puzzles of all types, from complicated ancient Egyptian board games to a half-finished jigsaw puzzle consisting entirely of white pieces. The house is also filled with automata of all types, and these figures act as a sort of chorus to the action. Benign, even playful, at first, their faces look increasingly sinister and judgmental as the film goes on, none more so than the life-size Jovial Jack Tar, the sailor, who claps his hands together and laughs at the press of a button. 'We have a wonderful relationship,' says Andrew; 'I make the jokes, and he laughs at them.' 'Even when they're not funny?' enquires Milo. 'Especially then,' replies Andrew.

For most of its running length Sleuth is essentially a two-hander, which means there's nowhere for the actors playing Andrew and Milo to hide: if either one isn't up to snuff, it will be glaringly obvious, particularly given Shaffer's dialogue, which often says one thing on the surface but means something else underneath. A seemingly friendly series of questions from Andrew about Milo's background, for instance, reveals deep-seated issues of class and racism in Andrew: subtly, as when Milo reveals that his father was an Italian who changed his last name from Tindolini, and who wanted to become English, to which Andrew murmurs in disbelief mixed with contempt, subtle emphasis on the first word, 'Become English'; overtly, as when Andrew snarls at Milo, 'You're just a jumped-up pantry boy who doesn't know his place!' Elsewhere we get the following exchanges:

Milo (bristling): You were being rude about the woman I'm in love with.

Andrew (smoothly): On the contrary, I was reminiscing about my wife.

Milo: It amounts to the same thing.

Andrew: Things mostly do, you know.


Mile: I thought marriage was the game.

Andrew: No, sex is the game; marriage the penalty. Round and round we jog to each futile anniversary. Pass 'Go'; collect 200 rows, 200 silences, 200 scars in the deep places.


Andrew: It's a good thing I'm pretty much an Olympic sexual athlete.

Milo: I suppose these days you're concentrating more on the sprints than the long distance stuff.

Andrew: Not so, dear boy! I could copulate for England at any distance.

Milo: Well, as they say in the Olympics, it's not the winning, it's the taking part that counts.

In 1972 Laurence Olivier was one of the Grand Old Men of film and theatre, and appears to have been born to play Andrew, smoothness itself on the outside but with a deep well of hatred and sadism inside. Michael Caine was, at the time, still establishing himself as a serious actor, and there appear to have been fears that he wouldn't be able to match up to Olivier. The fears proved groundless; Caine proved himself more than able to hold his own against the older man, particularly in the early scenes, where Milo spends a good deal of time reacting to Andrew before coming into his own in the second half. For an idea of some of the verbal sparring, here's a link to the original trailer from the film.

One of the dangers of transferring a play from stage to screen is the temptation to 'open up' the action and sets, travelling well beyond the constraints of what can be achieved in a theatre in order to give viewers lots to look at. In the case of Sleuth the filmmakers wisely chose to retain, for the most part, a single set; apart from the opening scene and two short later ones, all the action takes place inside Andrew's house, although whereas the stage play makes use of one room, the movie allows us to venture further into the house. The bulk of the action, however, takes place in the great room of Andrew's manor, and production designer Ken Adam and set designer John Jarvis ensure there is always something interesting to look at, either directly or out of the corner of the eye, and Oswald Morris's cinematography does full justice to their work. John Addison's Oscar-nominated score is a perfect accompaniment to the film, light and witty at the start, but becoming increasingly dark as the movie proceeds.

In 2007 the film was remade, with an all-star pedigree: screenplay by Harold Pinter, direction by Kenneth Branagh, Jude Law as Milo, and Michael Caine as Andrew. Pinter apparently did not see the film version, choosing to work from the stage play instead, from which he apparently retained only one line ('It's just a game') ; he also chose to play up the homosexual angle Shaffer brings up towards the end of the play, where Andrew begs Milo to forget Marguerite and come live with him instead, so they can continue playing games (Shaffer dropped this line from the film). I haven't seen the remake, which received reviews that could politely be called 'mixed' at best; but the original remains one of my favourite films, and one that can be watched time and again without ever becoming tiring.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Andrew Wyke says, ” No, sex is the game; marriage the penalty. Round and round we jog to each futile anniversary. Pass 'Go'; collect 200 rows, 200 silences, 200 scars in the deep places.”

Mr. Wyke is here obviously alluding to the board game of “Monopoly”. The phrase “Pass ‘Go’”, the word “collect” and the numbers “200”, all implies that. 200 being the
amount of cash in dollars or pounds you receive each time you pass the ‘Go’ square of the board.

His reference to “200 silences” could be understood as the kind of silence spouses employ to punish or hurt each other at times. Likewise, the “200 scars in the deep places”, as acts and utterances meant to be insulting or deeply humiliating.

But the “200 rows” seems to fit badly. In “Monopoly” there exist no rows. The fields holding the names of streets, railway stations, etc. are referred to as squares or spaces.

What does Mr. Wyke think of when he says, “…collect 200 rows”?

Could you please give me a clue to this part of the game?

Kind regards,
Egil Edborg

Barbara Roden said...

Hello Egil,

Thanks for your comment. You're right, Andrew is alluding to the game Monopoly in this passage, and of course it's fitting that he should reference a game. However, when he says 'rows' he is not referring to straight lines; rather he is using the word (which in this instance rhymes with 'bow') in the sense of a row being an argument or heated, angry exchange: 'They had a big row and then he stormed out of the house.' It's more common to hear the word in this sense in England than it is in Canada or the United States.

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