There is a level of lengthy tension to be found within Sleuth. According to production notes, the new up-and-comer, working-class labourer Michael Caine and the established Lord Olivier did not hit the ground running. It does not show in Sleuth, which is a compelling bit of brilliance that utilises the two to their fullest, finest potential. But their initial impressions of one another, and the light flutters of animosity and rigid Britishness soon dissipate, and in its place, there is a finely crafted mystery thriller to be found, one that gives both characters a comeuppance. That is one of the many beauties of Sleuth, it adapts the issues off-screen and bleeds them into the story.
Take the class divide, for instance, between these two fine actors. Sleuth plays with this well. While the luscious grounds of Andrew Wyke’s (Olivier) mansion are grand and elaborate, they are picked apart by Milo Tindle (Caine). A mystery novelist meets the man who has been philandering with his wife, taking him through the grounds of his mansion as the pair uncover the biting tensions and hidden passageways. For much of this, then, Wyke is presented as manic. Olivier crafts intense insanity, one that Caine adapts to quickly and undercuts with reasonable behaviour in the face of a madman. He is pulled into playing Wyke’s games and is powerless to stop this series of events. His only defence, then, is to mock and jab and ridicule this manic author for playing such games. Tindle is the ballast to Wyke’s parlour game tricks, which riff on the great mystery writers of old.
Part of the charm Sleuth has is its ability to put the surreal into the normal. There are hidden passages, elaborate costumes and a great handful of red herrings and double-crossings to be found throughout. Within, it feels there is either criticism or homage to the many works of Agatha Christie, whose writings never tickled my fancy but have had clear influence here. Are they honouring her ability to weave so many twists and turns into a narrative? Or are they mocking the bravado that comes from her in the form of Wyke and the optimistic drive he has throughout? Caine, as I said, is the ballast, and he feels as much to the narrative Wyke wishes to weave. He is the grounded response to events out of his control, and two supremely brilliant performances work tirelessly to adapt the stage play to the big screen.
When you rip influence from Christie and give it to The Smiths, the middle ground has to be the stuff of madness. Caine and Olivier deliver well, displaying the class divide with tenacity and venom, something very clear and well-engaged between the two men. A fine bit of direction from Joseph L. Mankiewicz is on display, but it is not the framing or camera angles we will remember Sleuth for, but the characters within them. Tremendous thrills and a back and forth between these two great actors offer kinetic energy like no other as they prance and pratfall around the set. Blissful brilliance, so good it scrubs away any memory of its remake decades later.