Wednesday, November 28, 2007

SLEUTH (1972) - Superlative British class satire

You're a jumped up pantry boy who doesn't know his place! The original 1972 version of SLEUTH is regarded by many as a cinematic masterpiece. It simply oozes quality. It's the last film of director Joseph L Mankiewicz, who also directed the undoubted pantheon flicks CLEOPATRA and ALL ABOUT EVE. It stars Laurence Olivier at the height of his game and the then upcoming actor Michael Caine - both of whom were nominated for Oscars, along with Mankiewicz for direction and John Addison for the score. The razor-sharp script was adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his own award-winning play. The set-up is simplicity itself. We are in a lush tudor country house crammed with tricksy toys and games and inhabited by a deeply prejudiced, arrogant old duffer called Andrew Wyke (Olivier.) He is meeting a young, handsome working-class-boy-made-good called Milo (Caine.) Wyke's wife is about to leave him for Milo and they are meeting to have a civilised discussion about the divorce. Wyke taunts Milo about his lower class origins and goads Milo into a robbery that will help finance Wyke's soon to be ex-wife's expensive lifestyle. As far as Wyke is concerned, Milo is another toy to play with and ultimately stitch up. The joy of Shaffer's play is watching the resilient working-class boy battle psychologically and intellectually with his self-appointed better. It's a wonderful indictment of class snobbery - a genuine tease and brilliantly acted and directed to boot.

I hesitate to call this a pantheon movie, though, because it always feels a little artificial. There is no attempt to soften the stagey-ness. The cast is small, the dialogue intense and artificial, and we are obviously on a set. I suppose in a way this could be seen a strength of this adaptation. Mankiewicz has the confidence to let the words and the actors do their job without too many forced visual whistles and bells. Indeed, the very crux of the plot twist relies upon the audience willingly suspending its disbelief and forgiving the production its inability to pull off a certain visual gag.

Despite this minor quibble, SLEUTH remains a social satire that is, to quote RED DWARF, Swiftian in its rapier-like subtlety. The battle of wits it embodies is thrilling to watch and has penetrated British culture to the extent that "you're a jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place" will be familiar to pop music fans who were born years after the flick was released. Definitely one to watch.

The original cinematic adaptation of SLEUTH was released in 1972 and is widely available on DVD.

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