Revisiting the 1970s films of Michael Caine: Sleuth

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Our exploration of Michael Caine’s work in the 1970s arrives at one of his most famous films: Sleuth, where he co-starred with Sir Laurence Olivier.

The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.

Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…

Spoilers for Sleuth lie ahead…



Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra)

Tagline: Think of the perfect crime…then go one step further.

Other Featured Geezers: Just Laurence Olivier as Andrew Wyke.

What’s it all about, Alfie?: With a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on his own award winning play, Sleuth is the twisty-turny tale of a young working class hairdresser, Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), who gets embroiled in the elaborate mind games of the snobbish and impish mystery fiction writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) after Milo is invited by Wyke to his bric-a-brac stuffed country mansion to discuss the fact that Milo has been having an affair with Wyke’s wife. Wyke has his own mistress and is, seemingly, not too concerned to be losing his wife and so he has an enticing proposition for Milo… but is all what it seems?

Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp

Caine-ness: Caine is perfectly cast as the charming young working-class ladies’ man Milo Tindle (But perhaps not as perfectly cast as an Italian…but he is admittedly more believable than Jared Leto in House of Gucci).

We first see Caine arriving on screen in a snazzy sports car, with a confident self-assured manner, and looking very dapper in his suit. This is in contrast to his slightly schlubbier turn in his previous film Pulp, so perhaps he felt that he needed to pull out his “A” game in front of Sir Olivier. Although, however youthful and cool Caine looks (and is), he still can’t sell the delivery of calling something “groovy” without coming across as a doddery Grandad trying to get down with the kids.

The spectre of class, a recurring theme of the cockney Caine’s UK filmography, rears its head here again. The snobbish Wyke constantly makes digs directed at Milo’s humbler origins. Caine’s Milo is evidently trying to appear a bit posher in front of Wyke than he actually is, but accidentally slips in the occasional bit of slang and then corrects himself (such as when he calls women “birds”). Wyke never fails to notice this and needles at it, more and more venomously, as the film goes on.

Caine plays Milo with an air of politely restrained tension from the off. He’s trying to be as pleasant as possible in the face of an increasingly frustrating eccentric but his civil façade does occasionally drop. He eventually loses his patience and shouts for the first time (it’s not a Caine performance if he doesn’t get in a bit of shouting) after Wyke starts faffing about for ages dressed like a monk.

Caine has always been a pretty good onscreen crier and here his face is at its soggiest when he’s breaking down in terror for his life, convinced that Wyke is about to kill him. He has a tear hanging off his nose for what I imagine could be a record-breaking time (Guinness, get on that!). He likely did receive some outside assistance, as there is a hell of a lot of water on his mush, but if not then it’s incredibly impressive how much moisture he squeezed out of his peepers for this one scene.

You get two Michael Caines for the price of one in Sleuth. There may be an “Introducing Alec Cawthorne as Inspector Doppler” credit during the opening titles but Cawthorne is actually none other than Michael Caine yet again!

I can’t remember whether I was fooled by the makeup on my first viewing of Sleuth, about 10 years ago, but with hindsight it does seem pretty clear that it’s Caine playing Doppler. Because I’m familiar with Caine after watching so many of his movies, it’s easy to pick up on his mannerisms and vocal inflections. He has, very well done, ageing makeup to make him look like he’s in his late 60s, a moustache, contact lenses to change his eye colour and is balding. It’s certainly not a bad getup, he doesn’t look unnatural and you wouldn’t do a double take if you passed him in a Tesco Express, and occasionally he is believable as a totally different person. His balding hairline is excellent as, placed side by side with Olivier’s actual thinning follicles, you can’t spot the difference. Curiously, this ageing makeup doesn’t actually look like Michael Caine now that he is an old man. He’s also doing some sort of accent, West Country maybe? As established, accents aren’t Caine’s forte, so he may have been going for Jamaican and so it’s best not to question it.

Caine-nections*: Although this is their first time on-screen together, Laurence Olivier did the introductions for the ITV anthology play series Male of the Species (Caine starred in one episode) and he was also in Battle of Britain.

Production designer Ken Adam (perhaps most famous for his work on the Bond series and Dr Strangelove) also worked on the first two Harry Palmer films (The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin).

Sadly, Sleuth ends the two-film run that Caine was previously on where he’s featured in shots where his face is covered in shaving foam. In Sleuth we do see him put aftershave on though, even though he doesn’t actually shave (it’s like he’s deliberately teasing us!!!)

Continuing a trend of Caine wearing unflattering nightwear, in Sleuth he has a very ugly matching blue tank top and boxers. I hope by the time I get to Harry Brown the wardrobe team are putting in a bit more effort for him (he deserves the comfort).

*I’m only counting connections starting from Caine’s first leading role in Zulu, up to this movie

Best Non-Caine Actor: Unless you count Jolly Jack Tar the Jovial Sailor, Wyke’s life-size animatronic sailor that laughs and claps (and also gets a bit too handsy at one point, groping Wyke when he’s looking for potential hidden evidence, #canceljollyjack) the only other actor to feature is Sir Laurence Olivier (and both he and Caine were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances…nothing for Jolly Jack sadly).

Following a tradition set by the stage play, and in order to make the story’s progression the more surprising for audiences, the opening credits feature a fake cast list including John Matthews as Detective Sergeant Tarrant, Eve Channing as Marguerite Wyke (nicely mirroring Wyke’s predilection for game-playing, this name is taken from the characters Eve Harrington and Margo Channing from director Mankiewicz’s 1950 film All About Eve) and Teddy Martin as Police Constable Higgs.

Laurence Olivier’s Andrew Wyke, the very theatrical and very tricksy writer of a series of successful crime novels about an upper-class detective called St John Lord Merridew, is a fantastic character and Olivier seems to be having a ball playing him. He’s a consummate games player, an ace pool shark, completes all white jigsaw puzzles for fun and even has a wall length crossword puzzle next to his loo.

We are first introduced to him dictating his latest novel in the middle of an elaborate hedge maze, strutting about enacting the story. Olivier’s performance is charmingly camp and pantomime-esque, he likes slipping into caricatured accents; Irish, American…ahem…briefly Chinese (the less said about that the better), and he loves a rummage in his dress up box. It’s a very broad, scene stealing performance but this doesn’t take you out of the film, or feel unrealistic, as it fits the character that we are first introduced to, someone who loves a bit of drama and whose life resolves around play.

Although, initially, simply appearing quirky yet harmless, there’s a real meanness and spite to Wyke that’s revealed as the film goes on. He’s an unapologetic snob. He justifies the sadistic ordeal that he puts Milo through with; “He came here aping the gentry…but he had to be taught…there’s such a thing as breeding, it can’t be acquired…he failed his test”.

A Few Notes on the 2007 Remake:

Sleuth was remade in 2007, with the ageing Caine now in the senior Andrew Wyke role and Jude Law as Milo Tindle, directed by Kenneth Branagh and with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Yet, in spite of these promising credentials, it’s absolutely abysmal.

Caine and Law (who I actually usually quite like) give arguably the worst performances of their respective careers with Caine seeming mentally checked out and Law hamming it up to the high heavens.

It’s stripped of 30 minutes (but feels about 50 minutes longer) and is also stripped of any humour and charm. Gone is the quirky mansion set filled with traps and games and it’s replaced by a minimalist post-modern nightmare of a house. All blank walls and flat surfaces. So, when you inevitably end up bored stiff by the script and performances you don’t even get the respite of an interesting set to ogle!

Sleuth fans might feel curious to see a role reversal for Caine but it’s honestly not worth it, you’ll only end up disappointed.

1982’s Deathtrap, which I haven’t yet seen, is also meant to be similar in plot and tone but was significantly more critically well received than the Sleuth remake, and so I have higher hopes for that when I eventually get around to it.

My Bleedin’ Thoughts: Sleuth (1972) is great fun!

It’s unsurprising that this is based on a stage play, with it being set in one location and only featuring two actors, and there is a very clear mid-point act break with a clean division between the two halves. The sequence in the middle of the film with all the various animatronics moving and the music playing seems like a natural interval. When watching at home, you can pop out at this point and go get a tiny overpriced ice-cream to fully replicate the theatre experience.

There’s a knowing staginess built into the film throughout such as the opening credits, which are a series of model tableaus of upcoming scenes, and a curtain even comes down before the end credits.

However, Sleuth does make the most of its transition to film and it never feels like you are simply watching a filmed stage play. Part of this is down to the fantastic sets (Wyke’s mansion is arguably the honouree third character). Production designer Ken Adam did a truly excellent job. It feels like a lived-in home and the choice of set decoration, all the little animatronics and weird knick-knacks (my favourite is the little bear that pours itself a drink and then lifts the cup up to its mouth. It gets a very well deserved close up during the finale), perfectly reflect Wyke’s character.

Sleuth is a tremendous showcase for our two leads who both hold their own and have a sparking and palpable chemistry. Each character gets a half of the film where they are on the back foot, and then a half where they have the upper hand, and it’s great to see Caine and Olivier play these role reversals of predator becoming prey and vice versa

Trivia: Morrissey, inspired by the film, uses a version of Wyke’s line to Milo; “You’re just a jumped-up pantry boy who doesn’t know his place” in his lyrics to The Smiths’ This Charming Man. Unfortunately, Sleuth doesn’t feature a vicar in a tutu though, Morrissey obviously got inspiration for that elsewhere.

The Edgar Allan Poe award on Wyke’s mantel is actually the one belonging to writer Anthony Shaffer for the original play version of Sleuth (what a show-off)

Overall Thoughts: I had a fantastic time with Sleuth, it’s arguably somewhat of a forgotten classic nowadays. I last watched it about a decade ago and, although I remembered the big twists, there were lots of little elements that I had forgotten and which subsequently surprised me and kept me on my toes rewatching it this time. Also, although it’s not set at a specific time of the year, this is a great little cosy film to pop on over Christmas if you’re looking to plan ahead (only after you’ve watched Caine’s finest film The Muppet Christmas Carol first of course). The classic style mystery, the mansion set, and the lightly camp tone all make for perfect festive entertainment. It’s a must watch for Caine fans!

Rating: 5/5 Jovial Sailors

Where You Can Watch This: Unfortunately, this is a right pain to currently track down. It’s not available to stream and the region 2 DVD is out of print. Apparently, this is because the rights are owned by a pharmaceutical company, Bristol-Myers Squibb, who have since dissolved their entertainment division leaving the movie’s distribution rights in limbo. This also has affected the original Stepford Wives and The Heartbreak Kid. To add insult to injury, these particular films all have sub-par 21st century remakes that are readily available to stream! Yet another reminder for movie fans to not disregard physical media just yet!

Up Next: I’ll be taking a look at The Black Windmill, a film that I have never previously heard of but am assuming/hoping Caine will be playing the titular windmill in a Pixar type animated romp.

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