Tell me, what hope is there left in the world when Harold Pinter, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh — and maybe Jude Law, should you wish to count him in — can come together and make a film as sterile, mindless, pointless and wearisome as this? I’d like to bang their heads together. I’d like to know just what they were thinking of. I suppose it looked good on paper, but even so. Once I’d gone beyond gasping at how anything could be this fatally amateurish, even my boredom got bored. Boredom, some say, is the greatest critic of all, although I wouldn’t go that far. Kenneth Tynan was very good, and Pauline Kael.
The original Sleuth (1972) was a classy thriller about a deadly cat-and-mouse game played between an extremely wealthy crime novelist, Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), and a young, charming English–Italian hairdresser, Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), both of whom are in love with Wyke’s wife. It was written by Anthony Shaffer (who adapted his stageplay for the screen), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and I remember it still, even though I haven’t seen it for probably 30 years. I remember being spellbound by all the twists and turns and the ‘shock’ dénouement, and I remember an amazing scene that had something to do with a lot of mechanical toys all going off at once. Good cinema never leaves you, I guess. Bad cinema leaves pretty promptly, at least, for which we must all be grateful.
I bet it did look really, really good on paper. Pinter would rework the script, Branagh would direct and Caine would re-visit the film, although this time in the role of the older, vindictive novelist. That was a smart move. I certainly thought, when I heard about it: yes, I would like to see that. But while Caine is, without any doubt, absolutely the best thing in this Sleuth, as the film is entirely without purpose, so is his performance. Why didn’t someone, anyone, bang all their heads together or, if not, at least talk them out of the following:
The setting: a high-tech country house with a cold, sleek, ultra-modern concrete interior of the kind that might have been designed by Darth Vader. Why? I couldn’t tell you; know only that it always looks and feels like a set and is an irritating distraction. There is a gadget for everything — including a lift to take Wyke up to his bedroom, for Chrissakes — plus Wyke plays with his remote-control lighting system continually for no particular reason. Annoying. Very. Get rid.
The script: Pinter may be a Nobel Laureate, and I may be no judge, but I’m still going to say it: he has criminally botched this. Although this film retains the basic set-up of the original, the script is entirely new and what a soulless thing it is. It’s as cold and stark as the décor.
A typical exchange might be: ‘You’re in love?’ ‘Love?’ ‘Yes, love.’ ‘That’s right.’ There is no fun in it, no warmth, and without any warmth how are we to believe in either character, much less care about them and their elaborate games? The fact is, we don’t. They can both go to hell in a handcart, for all we care. And you have to ask why we’re bored?
The direction: it’s mad, loopy. What, especially, was Branagh thinking of? The camera loops the loop, goes up, down, over heads, this way, that way, round the side and through blinds before ultimately settling on a close-up that may be of a whole face, but then again may miss out an eye. This must be the filmiest film of all time. Crazy. Pretentiously cinematic. Just put the camera in one place and shoot, my boy. You’re driving me nuts.
Jude: ah, Jude. Poor Jude. Actually, I’ve got nothing against Jude and thought he was even surprisingly good in Road to Perdition. As such, I did feel sorry for him when Tindle (who is not a hairdresser this time out) reveals he’s an actor and Wyke gasps, ‘Good God, no. Really?’ At this, everyone in the audience at the press screening laughed. That said, he just doesn’t cut it in this and is particularly appalling in the middle act. Watch out for the accent that is sometimes Yorkshire and sometimes Somerset and never the twain shall meet. Hey, Jude, you took a bad film and made it even worse? Come on, that’s so mean. But, OK then.
Actually, now I look at it, if they’d been talked out of all of the above, there’d have been no film, and that would have been awful. No, on second thoughts, it wouldn’t have been. That would have been good. Very.