In some ways, criticizing the offbeat mystery film Sleuth is a pointless exercise—the picture asks viewers to accept so many contrivances that it’s as if Sleuth exists in its own alternate universe. Adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his Tony-winning play and featuring only two actors, both of whom were nominated for Oscars, Sleuth presents clever performances in the service of outlandish writing, making such considerations as believability and substance secondary. Viewers turned off by the prospect of watching two actors speaking almost nonstop for 138 minutes needn’t expose themselves to a single frame of Sleuth, whereas fans of the leading actors—Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier—will find so much to delight them that the movie’s weaker elements won’t impede enjoyment. In other words, anyone who willingly commits to watching Sleuth is likely to be rewarded in some way, even though the movie is pure fluff.
The set-up is deceptively simple. Handsome young English-Italian hairdresser Milo Tindle (Caine) arrives at the sprawling country estate of rich mystery-novel writer Andrew Wyke (Olivier), per Andrew’s invitation. In short order, it’s revealed that Milo is the secret lover of Andrew’s estranged wife, and that Andrew has summoned Milo to make a bizarre proposition. Claiming he’s eager to be rid of his wife—because Andrew himself has a lover with whom he’d like to set up housekeeping—Andrew suggests that Milo stage a break-in at the estate’s mansion and steal valuable jewels. Then, Andrew says, Milo can fence the jewels while Andrew reclaims their cash value from his insurance company. In essence, Andrew will pay Milo to take the missus off his hands.
If you find that premise hard to accept, then brace yourself for dozens of other equally far-fetched contrivances, because Sleuth comprises an elaborate game that the two characters play with each other. Andrew runs a scheme on Milo, who outwits his opponent, so Andrew conjures another scheme, and so on. Every element of Sleuth is overwrought, right down to production designer Ken Adam’s sets, which are stuffed to the brim with eccentric tchotchkes. And while the biggest lark in Sleuth won’t be spoiled here, suffice to say that the second half of the story is predicated on a “secret” that is not sufficiently withheld from the audience. By the end of the movie, Sleuth has become so silly that the whole enterprise borders on camp.
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz—no stranger to dialogue-heavy dramaturgy after making classics including All About Eve (1950)—presents Shaffer’s talky tale in as dynamic a fashion as possible, sending cameras probing and prowling through confined spaces in order to find unexpectedly dramatic compositions. (The less said of the way the movie periodically cuts to inanimate objects in order to wriggle free of editing traps, the better.) As for the film’s two performances, they’re royally entertaining. Olivier provides technically meticulous artifice—happily flying way over the top at regular intervals—while Caine grounds the movie with more realistic textures of amusement, fear, and greed. Both actors have done better work elsewhere, but Sleuth may contain the most acting either performer ever did in a single film. And since the whole movie’s a confection anyway, why not overindulge?