1972 / Best Director

Film #587: Sleuth (1972)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz is a director whose relationship with Oscar goes all the way back to 1931 as he co-wrote the screenplay for Best Picture nominee Skippy. Starting his career as a screenwriter, it wasn’t until the mid-1940s until Mankiewicz started directing but Oscar success came quite quickly. Mankiewicz won back-to-back Oscars for both screenwriting and directing for A Letter to Three Wives in 1949 and the classic All About Eve in 1950. Furthermore he directed Best Picture nominees Julius Caesar in 1953 and Cleopatra in 1963 but he did helm two non-Best Picture nominees which saw him earn a Best Director nod. In this post we look at the last film that earned Mankiewicz a Best Director nomination which was actually his final movie that being an adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s famous stage play Sleuth.

Those of you who’ve read the blog for a while now know that I’ve got a real issue with plays being adapted for the big screen as they often just turn out to be filmed versions of the original theatrical production. For example it was clear that A Woman Under the Influence was originally intended to be a play but there were enough exterior shots and physical action for it to feel cinematic. Sleuth is an entirely different beast altogether, although it’s opening is visually compelling as Michael Caine’s hairdresser Milo Tindle attempts to get through the maze that is on the grounds of the house belonging to Laurence Olivier’s crime novelist Andrew Wyke. However once they get in Andrew’s house, Sleuth starts to get very wordy and the action itself can be broken down into three quite distinct acts. The first sees Andrew convince Milo to steal jewels from his house in an attempt to finance Milo’s relationship with Andrew’s wife and elope with her once and for all. However, Andrew reveals this to be an elaborate ruse in order to justify the murder of Milo by pretending he foiled his attempts to rob his house. The second act sees the police investigate Milo’s disappearance only for the inspector who called at Andrew’s door reveal himself to be a heavily-made up Milo. The third and final act has Milo admit that he’s murdered Andrew’s mistress and sets him off to find the four clues that point the finger of suspicion in his direction. To me each act must be judged individually as they differed in quality thanks in part to Shaffer’s own screenplay and Mankiewicz’s direction.

The first hour or so of Sleuth was quite pleasing stuff as the dialogue was breezy enough and the action all made sense as we learnt more about the characters. The ending of act one also was quite suspenseful as we the audience had no idea whether or not Andrew had killed his wife’s lover. However I personally soon got my answer as I realised straight away that it was Caine who was disguised as the police officer and therefore I found myself waiting around until the ruse was revealed. I’m not sure if I’d have been watching in 1972 if I’d had the same reaction but obviously the make-up that Milo had put on to make himself look older basically gave him the appearance of a 2017 Caine. Additionally Caine has such a recognisable accent that it would be hard for any audience member to believe him as a member of the Wiltshire constabulary however maybe people were more willing to accept what they saw on screen forty-five years ago. Personally I thought the third act was an improvement, thanks to Milo finally gaining the upper hand and toying with Andrew in the same way he’d done with him an hour prior. However I did find that Andrew’s hunt for the incriminating evidence dragged on too long that I was just waiting for the denouement. I believe that Shaffer should’ve edited down some elements of his stage play for this screen version as at two and quarter hours I felt it was a little too long. Consequently by the time the final shot was fired I’d lost interest in the game between Andrew and Milo which is a shame as there was a lot to like about Sleuth.

Top of that list are the performances of Olivier and Caine both of whom are completely convincing in the roles of Andrew and Milo. Olivier captivates the screen early on with Caine almost playing something of a simpleton however I feel they give their better turns in the film’s final act. I found that Olivier gave a better performance when Andrew was on the back foot whilst Caine was more impressive playing the dominant force mocking his love rival for his lack of competency in the bedroom. Both Caine and Olivier were rightfully nominated for their roles in the film whilst Sleuth’s fourth and final nomination came for John Addison’s lively dramatic score. I honestly felt that Sleuth deserved more nominations most notably for Ken Adam’s brilliant production design in recreating Andrew’s majestic house for the big screen. Additionally the costumes, make-up and hairstyles in Sleuth all added something to the overall plot and I felt the teams behind these elements should also have been nominated. If Sleuth had been nominated for Best Picture it would’ve replaced Sounder; which is a film that I have very little recollection of and is one of the more forgettable 1970s nominees. Despite it’s poorly paced script, I feel that Sleuth would’ve sat better alongside classics such as The Godfather and Cabaret than Sounder and it would’ve been a nice tribute to Mankiewicz’s relationship with the academy that had spanned almost forty years.

Next time we go back twenty years to look at the film Mankiewicz directed after the success of All About Eve.

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