Rian Johnson has made no secret of his love for Sleuth and its influence on Knives Out, one of my favorite films from last year. But it’s unfortunately quite difficult to watch these days through legal means. Some people have fond memories of catching it on TV or VHS as kids, but for some reason, it’s not even available on DVD in the United States, let alone streaming services. A movie directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, written by Anthony Shaffer, and starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine! It’s a shame a film of such pedigree has become so inaccessible a mere 48 years after its release because it’s well worth watching if you can get your hands on it. It’s built entirely on games, and I’m going to give the game away a bit here, but unlike Knives Out, Sleuth does not have any earth-shattering surprises. The fun comes in how skillfully everyone involved makes sure that even if you think you know the game, you continually doubt yourself.
The game begins with the opening credits, which play over images of a diorama of scenes from the stage play. The final image of a mansion framed by curtains dissolves into the actual mansion of the film, immediately imbuing the entire movie with an air of artifice. But the true game is in the cast list. Sleuth has the distinction of being the first film where every single actor appearing in the film was nominated for an Academy Award. This is not surprising when you consider that Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine both give incredible performances here…and they are the only actors appearing in the film. The opening credits, however, list four other actors, including “Alec Cawthorne as Inspector Doppler,” a particularly cheeky move as that is the only other “character” who appears onscreen. I remembered seeing several other actors in the credits, but even long after I realized this must be a two-hander, I still expected other actors to appear. Credits can’t lie, right?!
Joseph L. Mankiewicz, having set the stage, allows Laurence Olivier’s Andrew Wyke to begin playing the first game, which he plays on Michael Caine’s Milo Tindle but also on the audience. A casual conversation that begins in a hedge maze and continues into a series of rooms inside a lavish mansion lays out the basic setup, which is that Milo has been having an affair with Andrew’s wife, and Andrew, purportedly, is happy to let Milo marry her. From the get-go, the two men are in a place where one might want to kill the other, and I initially thought Milo was planning to kill Andrew so that his wife would get all the money before Milo married her, but I had it all wrong! Andrew had indeed lulled me into a false sense of security with his apparent complacence, walking Milo through the staging of a burglary that turns out to be a ruse to kill him. But I couldn’t believe that the movie would actually kill off Michael Caine so early!
So when the second game begins with the ringing of a doorbell, I knew immediately that “Inspector Doppler” had to be Milo. The hair and makeup was good, to be sure, and it was very hard to see the barest hint of Michael Caine beneath it all, but he did not look like any human being would actually look. And yet…I did start to doubt myself eventually as this new ruse continued for so long—Sleuth is a very long movie, folks, but it mostly earns its length by sustaining tension for nearly its entire runtime—and wondered whether I were insulting an actual actor who had the misfortune to look like a man wearing quite a bit of latex and spirit-gummed hair. S-sorry, Alec Cawthorne?? Andrew has proven himself to be quite an ass, so whoever is playing Inspector Doppler, it’s fun to see him make Andrew think he’ll be taken away for Milo’s murder, especially since we still aren’t sure whether we can believe Andrew’s account that he fired a blank (I certainly didn’t because if you fire an actual blank cartridge into someone’s head point-blank, you will kill them). Is Milo dead? Is Milo alive? Is Milo Inspector Doppler? The answer to two of those questions is yes, as Milo finally does reveal himself in spectacular fashion.
But Milo has a new game for Andrew, and a particularly cruel one that, again, I questioned but could not entirely dismiss. Milo claims he has killed Andrew’s mistress, which I found hard to believe since we were supposed to sympathize with him. Andrew is not watching a movie, however, so he takes the claim at face value. It’s an incredibly elaborate ruse, and Caine has a ball delivering a series of complex riddles to force his adversary to find clues around the mansion. The torment is quite ridiculous, and it reaches a fever pitch when Milo threatens to bring the cops in—here is where I legitimately expected cops to come in because I had seen other actors in the cast list. But, of course, there are no cops. Yet again.
The final game finds them both playing each other, as Milo decides to actually kill Andrew this time, but Andrew claims he has told the cops everything, so Milo would be taken away for an actual murder. Unfortunately, Andrew has been fooled too many times, and, honestly, I don’t blame him for not believing Milo the third time he claims that the cops are coming. I couldn’t be sure myself! So Andrew shoots Milo. Milo loses but actually wins because the cops do, in fact, arrive, and in victorious triumph he activates all of Andrew’s automata, the instruments of artifice that call to attention the fact that it’s all been a bloody game.
As I read through all I’ve written, what I find so fascinating is that I know that if I watched the movie again, even now knowing for a fact the truth of what is happening, I would still in my very bones doubt that certainty. While the whole film is a game between two characters, it’s the game the film plays on the audience that makes it a real treat.