"In Olden Days/ a Glimpse of Stocking/ Was Looked On as Something Shocking/ now I suppose/Anything Goes"
"Sleuth" started out as a hit 1970 play by Anthony Shaffer. It was inevitable that a movie would be made of it, and in 1972, a spit-and-polished version of "Sleuth" hit the screen. Shaffer wrote the screen-play, and it was directed with a rich panache by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who knew a thing or three about theatricality) and the cast could not be improved upon; top-lined by Sir Laurence Olivier as fictionally-famed mystery writer Andrew Wyke, and Michael Caine as the London hair-dresser Milo Tindle, currently having an affair with Wyke's wife. Shaffer's play already has a lot of pedigree and heft to it, while all in malicious fun, but to see these two thespians tear into the material is delicious maliciousness.
Mankiewicz's film of it is devilish fun, a clash between The Old World and The Terminally Hip (which is why Olivier and Caine, two different generations of actors—and acting styles—are perfect for it) with the battleground being Wyke's gadget and gee-gaw filled Manor House (designed by Ken Adam). Frost it with John Addison's frothy harpsichord score and however dark the film becomes (and Mankiewicz gives it a creepily saw-toothed edge), it is never less than fun to watch, especially seeing Olivier energetically dashing through each scene, precisely mimicking accents and dialects—a brilliant murderous man-child forever playing games and Caine keeping up, trotting warily, like a besotted dog, behind.
At the time, that theatricality and staging made everything seem a trifle--a little bon-bon for the rinse-set. But over time, one can't help admiring the energy brought to the fore by Mank and Olivier, defying age and frailty to knock another one out of the park. And Shaffer's play is filled with all sorts of opportunity to...play. It stands as definitive...a champion documentation of the play.
Sleuth (Kenneth Branagh, 2007)
Good Authors, too/Who Once Knew Better Words,/Now Only Use Four Letter Words/Writing Prose/Anything Goes.
It just must have seemed too tempting an idea to resist and such a good idea to re-do it. With Michael Caine now old enough to play the Wyke role, and with (who else?) but Jude Law as Tindle, this updated, revised and shellacked Sleuth is more like "The Battle of the Alfies" (and if you think this is coincidence, a couple of lines makes it obvious that it was uppermost in the film-makers' minds).
Then, to adapt (at one point Wyke says, cheekily, "You know what the word 'adapt' means, don't you?"), the great Harold Pinter, and to direct, Kenneth Branagh, both men who can mine rich veins out of depleted quarry. With so much talent, how could it possibly go wrong? And the result?
Well, "Sleuth" is still there in skeletal form—it's still Wyke vs. Tindle, but only one line of the original still remains*—but it's been completely stripped. The fussy old-school mysteries the original Wyke wrote are gone, replaced by the "crime novels" that regularly turn up on British telly, exemplified by sweating policemen grilling suspects. Milo's now an actor, who does hair on the side, and does the occasional chauffeur job. As a thespian, he plays "killers...sex-maniacs, perverts mostly." That might be a little too convenient, and certainly the original didn't mention it...or need to. That was kind of the fun of it.
But, not only is the dialog stripped down to essentials (and in nice....short little...bursts), so is the attitude. Any veneer of civility (even false civility) from the play has been scraped away, starting in the first moments with the chilly pause before a hand-shake when the two men first meet. No, they start off scrapping and spitting at each other right from "Hello" using all manner of Anglo-Saxon terms for each other, mutual contempt hurled in both directions.
Which tends to throw the rest of the play (what's left of it) on shaky ground. I suppose the makers didn't think Caine could pull off a stuffy, fusty Brit, and made it two working-class "toipes" throwing knives between their two sets of blue eyes. It takes the class warfare sub-text completely out of the center of the thing, leaving it all to ring just a bit hollow. The play pretty much runs its course, but the Second Act is considerably shortened, and the Third Act, if you will, is dragged on and on (despite all this, new-Sleuth lasts a mere 86 minutes—the first was 2 hr, 18 m—but seems longer) All this is staged in a hi-tech sterile interior (Wyke had nothing to do with it, he claims which seems...odd). And although there's a lot of bantering and word-play, sometimes annoyingly non-sequitir, it's just NO fun at all. Not a jot.
At the end of the original, there is the satisfying finish with two simultaneous wails, along with mocking laughter. Then a curtain comes down. Here, nothing. Silence.
Not even the impulse to applaud.
* "The shortest way to a man's heart is humiliation."