SLEUTH - Blu-ray review

Put two gifted actors from two different generations in a two-character film, and it's like watching two bull elks battle for the herd.

James Plath's picture

In the 1972 version of "Sleuth," Michael Caine played the unsuspecting Milo Tindle, a man invited to the estate of mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Sir Laurence Olivier) for a reason he couldn't imagine. It turned out that Wyke, a theater buff and avid gamer, wanted to meet the man who was sleeping with his wife, as well as engage in a big of theatrics and gamesmanship. He was willing to give up his wife, he declared, only if she'll stay gone and not bounce back to him like a bad check. And because this woman was used to living the high life and the nervous fellow standing before him was a man of little means, Wyke posed a little solution: why doesn't he steal the Wyke jewels and pawn them? It's a win-win situation, Wyke argued, because Tindle would be able to support the former Mrs. W. and he, meanwhile, could collect the insurance money. Despite appearances, he's having a bit of a cash-flow problem. Let the game--or should I say head games--begin.

What made this little film a gem in its own right were the performances--particularly Olivier's. No one can convey a sense of the sinister with a touch of silliness or eccentricity like Sir Laurence. He's so erratic and unpredictable and watching him is so compelling that the viewer feels drawn into his games as well. In other words, he's a tough act to follow.

How strange it must have seemed to Caine to switch roles. With Jude Law handling the part of Tindle and Caine playing crime novelist Wyke in this 2007 version, the film's success or failure largely rested on the performance of Sir Michael (he was knighted in 2000). Though Caine's charcter seems more sincere than sinister and far less eccentric, a strong script by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter still has him playing a wide range of moods and emotions, and stylish cinematography enhances the competition between the cuckold and the cheater. And as this version plays out, it feels very much like an alpha male battle. Interestingly enough, it also feels a bit like an "act-off" between two talents representing their generations. Who wins? That's a tough call, because both men turn in some amazing performances. Put them together in this essentially two-person film (there's really just one other character who appears, an inspector) and you get the sense that each man fed off of the other, trying to out-do each other in every imaginable way.

In the 2007 version, all of the musty props from the old British estate have been replaced by high-tech gadgets and an ultra-modern interior we're told was designed by Mrs. W. In reality, it was Tim Harvey, whose set functions well as an arena for this cold and calculating battle of wits between two men, one of whom has been wronged, and the other who may be wronged. The camera work by Haris Zambarloukos is equally stylish and supportive of the slightly surreal atmosphere that begins when we first see someone watching surveillance cameras from an aerial viewpoint and then an arm reaching out past the front doorway to welcome the visitor.

Pinter wastes no time giving us tension amid politeness.

When Wyke learns that Tindle is an actor, and not the hair-dresser he thought, he says, "Why have I never heard of you?"
"You will before long."
"In spaces."
"That sounds threatening."
"Does it?"
"Doesn't it?"

Then, moments later, Wyke blurts, "I understand you're fucking my wife."
"Yes, I am."
When Wyke remarks that he's surprised the young man has admitted it and says, "There, we've gotten that out of the way," you know you're in for a different experience than with the original Anthony Shaffer play/screenplay. The 2007 version of "Sleuth" is almost a brand-new game, with twists that will surprise even those familiar with the Olivier/Caine film.

Is it as strong? No, and it's partly because there was a dangerous unpredictability to the eccentric and erratic Wyke as played by Olivier that we don't see in Caine-though it's not his fault. This is the direction that Pinter and director Kenneth Branagh ("Mary Shelley's Frankenstein") decided to go. Is it as intense? Almost. What Branagh loses with the Wyke character he gains by filming entirely in sequence, so the actors truly build upon each scene and the tension (and various emotions) mount. Branagh also opts to use music sparingly, so that a silence unfamiliar to moviegoers these days also contributes to the tension. Same with symbolic shots, as when we see the two men riding an open (but enclosed) elevator to the second level, or shot behind blinds suggestive of prison bars as they strike their deal.

To say more is to give away too much, especially for those who haven't seen the 1972 version, but suffice it to say that "Sleuth" is as much a two-character exercise for the actors as "Interview" was for Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller. The difference, as I said, is the alpha male factor. Put two gifted actors from two different generations in a two-character film, and it's like watching two bull elks battle for the herd.

This ultra-modern setting seems cavernous at times, with difficult shots including one that shows a gas-lit fireplace and the two men reflected so that we see multiple receding images. The scene takes place in a low-light situation, and yet this 1080p Blu-ray really pulls out the detail. Shadows pose no problem. Textures--even in this almost industrial-looking setting, with all the implied coldness that comes with it--are exceptionally detailed and 3-dimensional. Two-shots especially are vividly detailed. Colors look natural, too, with "Sleuth" presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The featured audio is an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, with additional options in Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. It's on the same level as the video--crisp, clean, and richly textured, though it's mostly just two voices talking. The TrueHD (48kHz/16-bit) would seem like overkill for an all-dialogue film, but it's really not. It provides a tonal richness that you immediately notice.

ALL bonus features from the DVD are included here, and they look as great as the film because they're all in HD. As for the quality, that's another story. There are two commentaries, one with Branagh and Caine and another with Law alone. Apparently the alpha male battle extended? Branagh and Caine talk about differences between the '72 and '07 films, and seem surprisingly convinced that the most recent version is superior. More comparisons on the track with Law, whose comments overlap and really could (should?) have been combined with the first commentary. It's not as if he's saying anything so inflammatory that you couldn't put these actors on the same track together.

Aside from the two commentary tracks, the only feature besides a trailer and a two-to-three minute make-up "secrets revealed," the only true bonus feature is "A Game of Cat and Mouse," which is a pretty standard making-of feature that runs under 20 minutes and covers more of the same ground: how the characters change from version to version, etc.

Bottom Line:
When two actors try to outdo each other as much as their characters do, you know you're in for an interesting 89 minutes of cinema. If you've seen the 1972 version of "Sleuth" this one may not surprise you as much, but you'll find the differences fascinating. Is it as good as the first? No. But it's nowhere near as bad as other critics would have you believe.


Film Value