Talking Movies

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Sleuth

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

On his sprawling country estate, an aging writer (Caine) matches wits with the struggling actor (Law) who has stolen his wife’s heart.

If you don’t know who Harold Pinter is then avoid this film like the plague. If you do know who Harold Pinter is, Nobel Laureate and Attendant Lord of British Theatre from the 1950s onwards, then you will find this film quite rewarding but not entirely dramatically satisfying. There’s a Pinter pause in the very first piece of dialogue that will unnerve the hell out of cinemagoers that have just wandered in by chance to a Jude Law film and will alert theatregoers to the fact that this is really Harold Pinter’s latest play. This is the real deal; a comedy of menace as two men fight each other with veiled verbal threats in a confined space, trying to assert control over each other, and over the woman they both want to possess, who is absent for most of the film. Sleuth features one of the most riveting opening sequences of the year as Branagh ditches his customary extremely mobile camera for fixed set-ups and long-shots, it is a full 12 minutes before the first close-up, on Michael Caine for “I understand you’re f***ing my wife”.

Law is there to discuss a divorce for Caine’s wife but Caine has a different sort of proposition for Law and the mind-games between the two escalate quickly. The original Anthony Shaffer play was filmed by legendary All About Eve director Joseph L Mankiewiecz in 1972 as his swansong. One of the best films of the 1970s it was twisted, funny and Laurence Olivier and Caine faced off against each other in a clash of RADA and cockney accents that mirrored the class divide between their characters. That tension has been replaced by a homoerotic undertone highly reminiscent of Pinter’s play No Man’s Land that doesn’t really work. Olivier’s dangerous eccentric lived in a house cluttered with useless bric-a-brac, Michael Caine’s modernist open-plan house is made to appear equally sinister thru Branagh’s clever use of lighting.

Sleuth is so strongly dependent on its plot-twists that it’s almost impossible to write about it without ruining it. Instead let us mock Jude Law. One of the twists in Sleuth depends entirely on acting ability. That twist is of regretful necessity thrown away here because while Law may be under the impression that he can do more than stand in front of the lights and look pretty, Pinter is not. His version from that point onwards departs radically from the original’s plot points becoming a depiction of malevolent psychological cruelty rather than a joyously frantic game of cat and also-cat, but Law’s acting cannot sustain such intensity, so after 86 minutes we simply end with a whimper. Sleuth must therefore be ranked as one of the most interesting failures of 2007. But I’d rather have this intelligent attempt, even with Jude Law, than the polished mediocrities that clog up the multiplexes, any day.

2/5

July 6, 2011

Top 5 Michael Caine Movies

I wouldn’t like to give the impression that I was mean-spiritedly making fun either of Michael Caine or of cockney accents in last week’s sketch, so as a gesture of atonement here’s a Top 5 of my favourite Michael Caine movies. I’ve picked only ones in which he’s the lead.

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(5) Get Carter
“You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape”, “She was only thirteen”… A movie plundered both by Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan to sharpen their Caine impressions in The Trip, and arguably by Martin Campbell and Daniel Craig to make the last image of Casino Royale iconic. This gritty thriller, which is still director Mike Hodges’ calling card, sees Caine’s implacable London hard-man Jack Carter head north to avenge his brother’s death with a shotgun. Shot in stylish long-takes with a distancing aesthetic this is an imposing British crime movie that loomed over all that followed.

(4) Educating Rita
“There is more insight in the telephone directory…and probably more wit”. Caine’s jaded English professor helps Julie Walter’s discontented housewife better herself thru an adult education course in a sparkling adaptation of Willy Russell’s play, itself almost a spin on Pygmalion. But this Henry Higgins is on a serious downward spiral; drowning in drink and self-pity in equal measures, cheated on by his wife and despising his own volumes of poetry. Caine’s showy role encompasses glorious high verbal comedy and drunken slapstick, as well as the quiet drama of alcoholic misery. This finally won him a BAFTA.

(3) The Quiet American
“Oh, shit” .Caine’s dead-pan delivery of that line is emblematic of his quiet, measured and ultimately devastating performance in Philip Noyce’s 2002 film. This subtle work is arguably the finest adaptation of Graham Greene’s work since the 1940s. Caine plays the archetypal Greene character. His foreign correspondent boasts of simply observing the chaos of 1950s Vietnam and offering no point of view, no political allegiance. An unwelcome romantic rival (Brendan Fraser’s titular do-gooder) and pressure from London to break a story sparks a belated moral engagement with the ethics of American interference, and opposition to it…

(2) Sleuth
“Be sure and tell them it was all just a bloody game!” Joseph L Mankiewicz’s riveting adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play sees a rich aged writer invite his young wife’s lover, a cockney hairdresser, to his rural mansion for some vindictive head-games. Caine’s regional accent and film acting technique go head to head with Olivier’s RADA accent and stage acting style in a contest Caine was easily winning till a desperate Olivier produced a moustache… If you want to empirically measure Caine’s acting ability note how Sleuth’s entire structure disintegrates in the remake because Jude Law can’t act.

(1) The Italian Job
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” A truly flawless film; from Quincy Jones’ impossibly catchy original soundtrack and the glorious turn by Noel Coward as the imprisoned crime-lord masterminding proceedings, to the implausible gang apparently composed solely of gay aristocrats and cockney wide-boys and the deranged Carry On antics of Benny Hill, and on to the wonderfully staged Austin Mini car-chase and the definitive cinematic cliff-hanger, it’s impossible not to sit back with a smile pasted on your face throughout as Caine motors the whole film along with a performance of winning charm.

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