Branagh updates 'Sleuth' with Michael Caine for a second go-round

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Going Down: Michael Caine takes Olivier’s role in the new ‘Sleuth,’ while Jude Law takes Caine’s.

By Richard von Busack

There were two actors in the 1972 film Sleuth. One was Laurence Olivier, cozy in the idea that he was the greatest thespian of his generation. At the same time, he turned 65 on the set of the film, with all the jealousy and insecurity that growing age implies. Kenneth Geist’s book on Sleuth‘s director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, says that the other actor in the two-man picture, Michael Caine, described Olivier in the terms Churchill used to describe the Germans: “When he’s not at your feet, he’s at your throat.”

That quip sums up the games in Sleuth: two men either at each other’s throats or feet, an alternation of gambits and blocked power plays. It’s a story of one-upmanship: a wealthy old man named Andrew Wyke and a poor young man named Milo Tindle, both fighting over an offstage woman in a remote English manor house. They use treachery and psychological warfare upon one another, and at last comes a pistol, honor-bound by Chekhov’s law to go off by the third act.

The most noteworthy part in this remake by Kenneth Branagh is an unprecedented bit of stunt acting. Caine is now playing the wealthy snob Wyke, facing down that exemplar of Tony Blair’s Britain, the polymorphously perverse Jude Law as the dodgy, unsuccessful and, worst of all, half-foreign actor who has seduced Wyke’s wife. I mention Blair as one spot of evidence that the world is richer, queerer, more diverse and more treacherous than it was in 1972. England is more cosmopolitan, and the ruling class far less sure of itself. (And yesterday’s angry young man is today’s boring old crank.)

Branagh and Harold Pinter renovate the structure of Anthony Shaffer’s original play/screenplay, sweeping out the carnival automatons and amusement-park games. They have replaced them with a slightly dated “futuristic”-looking concrete bunker full of surveillance gadgets and electronic remote-operated sliding panels. They have spruced up the structure, but they can’t get the damp out of the walls. Naturally, Pinter’s rewrite of Shaffer’s play is more consciously profane. Pinter and Branagh try to Mamet things up; every use of the word “fuck” is supposed to make the roof tremble.

But in this version, it’s harder to buy the premise. Is Caine’s character nobility? In a sense, but he is no blueblood. A man who could afford a place like that would have to be a self-assured celebrity, instead of the doddering male Agatha Christie Wyke was first time around.

Branagh brings out a small camera for purported intimacy. The under-the-chin shots of the actors reveal, rather than conceal, a once-delightful bit of second-act trumpery made possible by longer shots. (The audience of 1972 may have been shrewder in many respects, but loads of them were pranked by a character then called “Inspector Doppel.”)

Needing a fresher surprise in the end, Pinter’s version takes a would-be flesh-creeping turn. It still feels a few decades too late, and it’s not really more of a surprise than the ultimate revelations in Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, or even more seriously diverting.

‘Sleuth’ opens Oct. 19 at Century CineArts at Sequoia. 25 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. 415.388.4862.

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