“Isn’t it a bit old-hat?”

Kenneth Branagh usually comes up with some interesting directorial strategies. The trouble is, they usually don’t work, and neither do the films. He’s inventive, ambitious, and courageous, but I somehow never feel he’s a natural film-maker.

Nevertheless, some critics were perhaps too nasty about SLEUTH. The film unites an interesting bunch of people, looks very handsome, and is easy enough to watch. There are good bits. Harold Pinter’s reworking of Anthony Shaffer’s play is often amusing.

JL: “Maggie never told me you were… such a manipulator. She told me you were no good in bed, but she never told me you were such a manipulator.”
MC: “She told you I was no good in bed?”
JL: “Oh, yes.”
MC: “She was joking. I’m wonderful in bed.”
JL: “I must tell her.”

As in the original, a successful thriller writer confronts the much younger man who has made off with his wife, and a variety of vicious mind-games are played. Pinter dispenses with Shaffer’s critique of the English mystery novel tradition, leaving the piece as simply another Pinter power-play of pauses. Even the title becomes irrelevant.

One can’t escape the fact that the gimmick casting — Michael Caine returns from the original Joe Mankiewicz version, but playing the other part, Jude Law, who’s already played a Caine role in the ALFIE remake, plays Caine’s part from the original —  is a titillating concept, but not necessarily the best way to fill the parts. Olivier, in the original film, stood boldly for the English establishment, and Caine was the working-class upstart — it was almost too perfect. With cockney Caine as the rich author and the vaguely classless Law as his romantic rival, the distinction is lost. But more important is what Branagh can get out of these actors in the way of acting.

Caine starts off like he’s trying for poshness, perhaps imitating Alan Bates (a fine interpreter of Pinter), which is a bit queasy. The it starts to feel like he doesn’t know his lines well enough — little hesitations and bodging of the difficult bits are either methody additions or genuine screw-ups, and either way they’re harmful to Pinter’s rhythms. But gradually Caine’s undiminished charm and inexplicable authority work their spell, and he becomes enjoyable.

Law is fine when he underplays, and rather embarassing when he tries too hard. He’s a star when he just holds the camera’s gaze. Some insecurity forces him to spoil it by doing stuff, and the effort shows. He’s probably most useful when he’s being tormented by Caine, since some evil part of this viewer derives some pleasure from seeing Law having a hard time. Later, he will do foolish things with a loaded pistol, much like the detective in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Nobody would call this prime Pinter. Although the Great Man has written screen thrillers successfully in the past (THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, under-valued) here there are odd, damaging implausibilities. Why does Caine have an automated rope ladder in his stately home? Why does Law take his gun from his holster for no reason, lay it on the bed for no reason, thus allowing Caine to grab it at the climax? That’s quite bad playwriting, or direction.

What makes the film watchable? The set, designed by Branagh’s regular collaborator Tim Harvey, is very nice, all shiny surfaces and disco lighting, and the photography of Haris Zambarloukos serves up innumerable great widescreen close-ups. But the James Bond lair doesn’t make much sense, and is part of the overall watering-down of Shaffer’s original concept, the conflict between tradition and progress. The Bond vibe is both apt and ironic, since original Bond designer Ken Adam created the look of the original SLEUTH,

The stylised environment is doubtless meant to provide a comfortable setting for the stylised talk, but Pinter’s verbal gymnastics are defiantly archaic, and sound more so amid these glossy surfaces and pointless hi-tech appurtenances. I’m reminded of the grand staircase in FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’S KENNETH BRANAGH’S MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (I think that’s the full title), which has no bannister and makes you nervous to look at it. It’s quite an interesting effect, but you can’t help wonder WHY would anybody have a stair like that in their house?

This next is a bit spoilerific — if you’ve read the above and still plan on seeing SLEUTH, skip this last stuff.

Full disclosure — Stephen Murphy, prosthetic makeup artist for Jude Law, did the make-up on my clown film and is a good friend. He’s been working on HARRY POTTERS and stuff, turning ex-porn dwarfs into goblins, working his way up, and this is is his biggest job yet. Oddly, the transformation reminds me of another make-up creation, even though Stephen didn’t design the Law job.

It’s the Ringo Starr/Mexican bandit look Stephen created for Alice Bicknell in my film CLARIMONDE using mainly liquid latex and wet tissue paper. I’m also reminded of another makeup creation, Reece Shearsmith as Geoff Tipps in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN:

I am a man

Even the voice is the same! The transformation works OK until Law starts overdoing it again, which makes him more recognisable. Stephen reports that Law was a very nice chap to work with, which is about what I’d expect, actually. Hitting the odd paparazzo doesn’t make him a bad guy, in fact I give him points for it, even though I’m anti-violence.

In the original SLEUTH, make-up artist Tom Smith, required to transform Michael Caine completely, executed a self-portrait, changing Caine into a Smith clone. I asked Stephen if he’d been tempted to do the same, but alas, he hadn’t known. What might have been REALLY interesting would have been if the remake’s make-up DESIGNER, Eileen Kastner-Delago, had given Law a sex change and made him over in her own image.

Made Up

Sexual ambiguity does enter the picture in the last act, with both Caine and Law suggesting bisexual sides, a motif borrowed from Sidney Lumet and Ira levin’s DEATHTRAP, the low-rent version of SLEUTH — Caine, having kissed Christopher “Superman” Reeve, now kisses “Sky Captain”. But this additional twist leads to no new dramatic suspense, and certainly doesn’t carry the mild shock value it did in 1982 (“But it’s so juicy,” Lumet pleaded, when Reeve objected to the kiss). As with the despised DIABOLIQUE, the re-makers try to preserve the twist surprise by adding a further wrinkle to the already-creased story, but it does nothing but drag the film long past its emotional climax… which is about half an hour in.

For all that, the film is diverting, short, and at least it has a different set of flaws from the ones we’re used to seeing all the time. Any bets on what the next Michael Caine remake will be?

9 Responses to ““Isn’t it a bit old-hat?””

  1. I saw it recently and… I really, really wanted to like it. I love “theater style” in film. I want to see it used more and more. But with some notable exceptions (GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, PROOF) it tends to fall flat on its face. It’s a pity, really.

  2. Well I greatly enjoyed it and was rather annoyed at the way it was dismissed over here. IMO Pinter is clearly the auteur> First of all he’s “getting his own back” as the original is a clear steal of a Pinter power-play set-up. Plus, unlike Shaffer, he cuts to the chase. Instead of the musty “I understand you’ve been having anaffair with my wife” we get “I hear you’ve been fucking my wife!”

    The sets are quite funny in that they ape the Ken Adame we’re familair woth from the Bond films rather than the Ken who did the Mankiewicz and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

    As for the sexuality I wouldn’t call it “ambiguous” at all. The entire set-up hinges on the all-important question “Who will make the first pass?” Pinter is far wiser than any of us when it comes to sexuality in all it’s multifarious wonder. Be sure to get ahold of the video of the magnificent TV remake (it was a TV play to begin with) of The Collection, directed by Michael Apted and starring Alan Bates, Laurence Olivier, Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren. (Shot sometime in the 70’s I think.) It has far and away my favorite Olivier performance. I particularly love the relish with which he delivers the speech in which he explains to Bates how he met McDowell: “He’s a slum boy you see. That’s how I met him. I happened to be in a slum one day and. . .there he was!”

  3. You’re right, ambiguity is the wrong word.

    I love The Collection, which is where I formed the impression that Alan Bates is the perfect Pinter actor. But Larrio is great in it, and everyone else too. My favourite Lar perf is in Bunny Lake is Missing, but his Pinter ranks high too.

    I ought to get myself a copy of Pinter’s Proust script, written for Losey. I love his Victory, written for Lester.

  4. colinr Says:

    I’m ambivalent on Branagh, I quite like his Shakespeare stuff and recently rewatched Dead Again which is a big guilty pleasure and the over the top stuff (HUGE close ups of scissors screaming ‘dangerously sharp and pointy’ at the camera!) works wonderfully with what seems to be a giallo inspired plot.

    However it was just too uch for “Mary Shelley’s” Frankenstein (she should have sued!), the film that puts ‘bomb’ in bombastic!

    I quite like the original Sleuth but have so far steered away from the remake because everything about it seems a little off the mark from the performances to the sets, which suggests that there wasn’t much understanding of what made the original dated but special as a twisty time capsule set in a house full of bric a brac that made it seem like the costume changes and play acting was inevitable from the amount of stuff lying around for the characters to play with! I’m sure I’ll catch up with the remake soon though to see what it turns out like.

    The next Michael Caine remake? – My money’s on Zulu with Caine as the african chief!

  5. Pinter’s Proust script for Losey is OK, but Suzo Checche D’amico’s for Visconti is better.

    However it was Ruiz who stepped in and cleaned evryone’s clock when it came to Marcel Proust

  6. Glad you mentioned The Quiller Memorandum which contains one of my favorite Pinter dialogue exchanges. George Segal has just escaped from the clutches of Max Von Sydow and met up with his boss Alec Guinesss.

    Segal: And then they told me they were going to kill me.

    Guiness: Oh. And did they succeed?

  7. Guinness was a superb interpreter of Pinter too. I sometimes think HP has a tendency to self-parody, but then sometimes I think that’s when he’s at his absolute best. I do prefer him when he’s funny. Sleuth is pretty funny in places, but I remember laughing more at the original.

    A Zulu remake would be quite likely, Colin, but not unless they can find a way to make the ending more, y’know, UPBEAT.

    Branagh has a tendency to try to solve problems by putting a lot of ENERGY up on screen — this is at it’s worst in his Frankenstein, where the burly camera moves get irksome within minutes. I was kind of on Dead Again’s side until the slo-mo climax. And Ken was a terrible detective hero. Em wasn’t really suited to either of her roles. The idea of the same actors appearing in the flashbacks was a bit of a cheat — and it came from Ken.

    i do hope Ruiz gets to make his Scottish Jekyll & Hyde — but that shonky-but-popular recent TV version may stand in his path.

  8. my favourite thing about the quiller memorandum is the way alec guinness always arranges his appointments at odd times. i don’t know if this appears in the novel but i reckon it is a pinter touch because it fits in with the way his characters tussle for superiority by making things awkward for one another

    the next michael caine remake will be the man who would be king. bryan brown is playing michael caine, michael caine is playing sean connery, and sean connery is playing golf

  9. I was just agreeing with you that The Man Who… would be a likely remake, then I realised they’d already sort-of done it with The Road to Eldorado. Not that that will stop them. What might stop them is the fact that it’s basically about a doomed western attempt to conquer Alfghanistan.

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