Stephen Arnell

Ten thrillers with twists to rival Sleuth

Ten thrillers with twists to rival Sleuth
Knives Out (2019), Image: Shutterstock
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Joe Mankiewicz’s classic Olivier/Caine two-handed mystery thriller Sleuth will mark its 50th anniversary later this year, fortuitously in time for the release of Knives Out 2, which promises to be a similarly intriguing whodunnit – at least on the basis of 2019’s initial movie.

Based on Anthony Shaffer’s Tony award-winning play, Sleuth depicts a battle of wits between snobbish mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) and hairdressing salon owner Milo Tindle/Tindolini (Michael Caine).

Despite Wyke’s self-description as an ‘Olympic sexual athlete,’ his wife Marguerite has left him for the younger charms of Tindle, dubbed variously as 'a jumped-up pantry boy' and a 'snivelling, dago clown' by the cuckolded author, who is keen to restore his wounded pride by humiliating the upstart coiffeur.

There is indeed a reckoning between the two, but will Wyke’s machinations bear fruit?

I envy those (few?) Spectator readers who have yet to see Sleuth, which is currently free to watch on YouTube.

Netflix will be releasing Knives Out 2 around the same time of Sleuth’s anniversary this December.

As with the original picture, the second Knives Out boasts a strong cast, joining Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc will be Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, Ed Norton, and Ethan Hawke.

Filming locations for Knives Out 2 has included the Saronic Greek island of Spetses, a favourite holiday destination of mine for many years – and the setting for John Fowles’ The Magus, which was made into a poorly received 1968 film of the same name, which by serendipity starred Sleuth’s Michael Caine.

While we await its release, here are ten sinuous thrillers to watch:

Knives Out (2019) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

In a film chock-full of fine performances, it is easy to overlook that of Don Johnson as the sardonic Thrombey family in-law Richard Drysdale, the actor more than holding his own against his fellow cast members.

Johnson has enjoyed a career comeback over the last decade, delivering an enjoyably arch turns in movies including Django Unchained (2012), Cold in July (2014), Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) and Dragged Across Concrete (2018).

Don reteams with Knives Out’s Michael Shannon for the upcoming comedy Shriver, which also stars KO2’s Kate Hudson.

Sleuth (2007) Amazon Rent/Buy

An object lesson in how not to remake a film, as Kenneth Branagh’s pretentious direction and Harold Pinter’s humourless script rendered 2007’s Sleuth D.O.A.

Michael Caine swaps roles to play Wyke, with Jude Law as Tindle, now an actor rather than a crimper, although his artfully styled barnet is one of the few highlights (sic) of the picture.

Why Branagh felt the need to ditch Shaffer’s witty screenplay for Pinter’s leaden prose is beyond me.

Caine also returned to the scene of a former glory when he appeared in 2000's appalling remake of Get Carter; a shame he didn’t learn a lesson from that disaster and leave well enough alone when it came to Sleuth.

Gone Girl (2014) Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

For reasons that I cannot quite fathom, Gone Girl has the reputation of being a difficult watch if you are the male half of a heterosexual couple.

Perhaps this is due to the depiction of philandering teacher Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), suspected of offing his missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), which may hit home with certain chaps, as could the bleak ending of enforced ‘married bliss.’

Personally, I viewed Gone Girl through the lens of a pitch-black comedy, and, as a consequence, enjoyed it mightily.

Rosamund Pike went on to air a similarly icy role in J Blakeson’s (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) and the excellent I Care a Lot.

Intacto (2001)

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Spanish/English language thriller is an enjoyable palate cleanser from run of the mill Hollywood fare.

The film posits ‘luck’ as a commodity that can be acquired and taken away by touch. A similar conceit to that employed in William H. Macy’s The Cooler (2003).

Those blessed (or cursed) with the gift of good fortune compete in an underground circuit of games to accrue – or lose ever greater amounts of luck.

Samuel Berg (Max von Sydow), concentration camp survivor and casino owner, is challenged by former employee Federico (Eusebio Poncela) to face him in a round of Russian roulette.

The Ghost (2010) Amazon Rent/Buy

Roman Polanski delivered a superior late career entry into his body of work with The Ghost (The Ghost Writer for slow-on-the-uptake US audiences), based on Robert Harris’ thinly veiled satirical thriller featuring a power couple with more than a little similarity to former PM Tony Blair and wife Cheri.

Despite the depiction of ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang and spouse Ruth being unsparing in terms of character and motivation, it’s entirely possible to imagine that Tone and Cheri were considerably flattered that Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams played their fictional counterparts. Could have been a hell of lot worse.

Ripley's Game (2002) Amazon Rent/Buy

As yet the most enjoyable version of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley yet brought to the Big Screen, Liliana Cavani’s (The Night Porter) dark comedy-thriller sees John Malkovich as an eccentric Ripley, who drags earnest frame restorer Trevanny (an on-form Dougray Scott) into his murderous schemes when he overhears Scott deriding him at a party.

And wonder of wonders, an excellent performance as well from Ray Winstone as repellent gangster Reeves, bringing to three the number of times in a movie (along with Sexy Beast and Noah) the actor hasn’t either phoned it in or failed to rise to the occasion (The Departed etc).

For fellow fans of Highsmith’s ‘Ripliad’, Andrew ‘Hot Priest’ Scott will be taking on the role of the oddly sympathetic sociopathic grifter/thief/forger/murderer in Showtime’s upcoming Ripley series.

Side Effects (2013) Amazon Rent/Buy

Steven Soderbergh directs this experimental drug thriller with Hitchcockian verve, combining an intriguing premise with a very satisfying pay-off.

After prescribing his patient Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) new anti-depressant Ablixa psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law again) finds himself in the soup when she kills her husband (Channing Tatum) when under the effects of the drug.

Viewers will find themselves rooting for Banks to turn the table on those who have set him up for their own financial gain.

Femme Fatale (2002) – full movie free to watch on YouTube

Despite poor reviews and even worse box office, Brian De Palma’s (The Untouchables) diamond heist caper has since become a cult classic. Revisiting familiar themes, De Palma cooks up a decent twist on Film Noir, Blow Up (Antonioni) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Rebecca Romijn is the girl; Antonio Banderas the ‘mark.’

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) Netflix, Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

David Fincher’s superior big budget remake of 2009’s Swedish original is an exceptionally well-made motion picture, featuring fine acting and nail-biting moments.

Daniel Craig is especially strong as disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, hired to investigate the decades ago disappearance of his 16-year-old grandniece by wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, a far more affable tycoon than his John Paul Getty in All the Money in the World).

Plummer and Craig were to appear together again (although not face to face) in Knives Out.

The Gentlemen (2019) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Buoyed by his crowd pleasing turns in Paddington 2 (2017) and A Very English Scandal (2018), Hugh Grant attacks the role of seedy snooper Fletcher with evident relish in another one of Guy Ritchie’s violent crime comedies.

It is not difficult to see why Hacked Off campaigner Grant took the part, as he distils decades of dislike for sections of the British press into his portrayal of an archetypal tabloid chancer.

Fletcher gets more than he bargained for when he attempts to put the squeeze on society-connected purveyor of weed Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and his trusted right-hand man Raymond (a curiously accented Charlie Hunnam).

If you enjoy this kind of serpentine thriller, can I also recommend Deathtrap (1982, starring Michael Caine), Fracture (2007), Jagged Edge (1985), Zero Effect (1998), Malice (1993) and The Last of Sheila (1973) which written by Anthony Perkins and the late Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim’s esoterically decorated Manhattan Brownstone helped inspire Wyke’s gewgaw- stuffed manor in Sleuth; indeed, Shaffer’s working title for the play was ‘Who’s Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?’