Sleuth (1972)

It Was Only a Bloody Game

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I believe the title of Sleuth may be misleading. When I first approached it I wasn’t aware of the stage play it was based on and thought the film was going to be a standard “whodunit?” and thus wasn’t expecting much from it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Watching it I soon discovered it to be a different film entirely, a giant mind game, a battle of wits and a tale of revenge. I’ve never seen a film quite like Sleuth before. The exploits between Michael Caine and Laurence Oliver trying to outwit each other with the plot’s many twists, surprises and under the direction of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ (a master at handling dialogue) makes for a film that’s hard to forget.

Watching this film I quickly came to realize that Caine and Olivier may be the only two cast members throughout, which had me thinking if they could carry the film to the very end by themselves it will be nothing short of an acting marvel, so I was disappointed when the movie introduced what appeared to be a third cast member, Alec Cawthrone as Inspector Doppler; I felt the movie was making a mistake by doing so. That was until it turned out that Inspector Doppler was Michael Caine in disguise the whole time, yes, there’s no such actor as Alec Cawthrone, he was simply created for the film’s credits. I’m not sure how many people will be as perceptible as I was but the movie successfully fooled this viewer. On second viewing I can clearly see Caine through the disguise but I’ll always have the memory to cherish of being spellbound the first time round from seeing Caine taking off all that makeup, which itself makes up appreciate the art form. Sleuth actually has a fake cast list in the opening credits in an attempt to fool the audience; this includes three other nonexistent actors, one of which is named after the character Eve Channing from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ earlier film All About Eve. Up until the film’s very last scene in which police sirens and knocking on the door can be heard, I was on the edge of my seat hoping the movie would not introduce another cast member.

I’ve always liked Michael Caine but Sleuth greatly increased my respect for him, while also making me a fan Laurence Olivier; their ability to carry this film is nothing short of phenomenal. Milo Tindle is one of Caine’s more effeminate roles, a hairdresser who even takes joy in wearing a piece of women’s clothing at one point. Olivier, on the other hand, is the given the opportunity to have tons of fun with his role of Andrew Wyke, doing impressions and playing dress up with another grown man and with all those gadgets, gizmos and games everywhere, it’s always a pleasure to look into the background of Andrew Wyke’s manor. Likewise, the humor that comes from seeing a man being convinced that dressing as a clown is the way to go when doing a staged crime, has me laughing nonstop through the entire charade.

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Heathcliff and Cathy’s Other Film

The Divorce of Lady X stands out from other screwball comedies for several reasons. Firstly it’s one of the few screwball comedies filmed in Technicolor which is complemented by the complimented by the luscious set design and brightly coloured ladies costume design. I do love that night club with its dreamlike painted backdrops as well as the miniature work of Trafalgar Square for the film’s opening shots (even if there are a bunch of empty buses driving). Second, it’s the only British screwball comedy I’ve come across to date, putting a British spin on this distinctly American genre. It’s fun watching typical screwball situations with an entirely British cast, set in Britain and with very British lines of dialogue (“You got marmalade all over your newspaper”).

Third and by far most importantly in what has to rank as one of the most bizarre of pre-stardom roles, it stars Laurence Oliver. Yes, the master of Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps the most respected and dignified actor of the 20th century as a stuffy gent who at first is delightedly full of himself but soon gets into all sorts of crazy shenanigans at the mercy of a screwy dame.  Merle Oberon plays one of the most ruthlessly manipulative characters I’ve seen in any film as she is able to weasel her way to get anything out of this man – the type of dame who destroys civilisations. Thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that Oliver goes head over heels for her despite all the anguish she causes him, likewise her previously having four husbands doesn’t help matters (also, that improvised cape made from a bedsheet she wears is such a brilliant touch). The chemistry between the performers works seamlessly and is aided by the sexual tension and undertones.

The first act of The Divorce of Lady X is one big farcical sequence centered around the sexual politics of the time; the fact that an unmarried man and woman sleeping in the same room was considered scandalous, even if there are two separate beds. This ties in nicely with how film critic Andrew Sarris defines the screwball comedy genre, “a sex comedy without the sex”.