Caine, Law Bash Heads in New `Sleuth’

October 11, 2007 at 6:46 pm Leave a comment

 Michael Caine would not have been interested in an update of “Sleuth” if all he’d done is move up to the role Laurence Olivier played opposite him in that 1972 classic battle of wits.

For both him and Jude Law, who takes on the character Caine created in the original, it needed to be something different.

Enter Harold Pinter. Loaded with the sort of sharp, absurdist dialogue that propels the Nobel Prize-winning playwright’s stage dramas, Pinter’s screenplay for the new “Sleuth” resembles the original only in title and basic plot as an older man and his wife’s young lover duke it out in a series of mind games at an English country house.

The look of the update, which opens Friday, also is a wild departure. Director Kenneth Branagh fills Caine’s mansion with cold, modern technology and art, contrasting the fuzzy warmth of the antique games and contraptions crowding Olivier’s home in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s version.

And barely a line remains of Anthony Shaffer’s script for the original, which he adapted from his own play.

“It’s like a whole new project, and it’s got nothing to do with Olivier or Joe Mankiewicz or Tony Shaffer. I feel like we stole his plot and title and ran away,” Caine said in an interview alongside Law at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “Sleuth” played. “You don’t see it as the Olivier part because it’s so different. I don’t look at Jude and say, `Well, I wouldn’t have done that line like that,’ or `He’s done that line better than me,’ because we don’t do those lines. There aren’t any lines. There’s nothing.”

Pinter had never seen the play or the film. Law, also a producer on the new “Sleuth,” sold Pinter on the idea over lunch a few years back.

The dramatist then read Shaffer’s play and wrote his own version, a tauter, more blackly comic rendition that fits right into the Pinter world, a landscape where things seem normal and straightforward but really are twisted and sinister.

“Harold doesn’t adapt. Harold doesn’t do anything Harold doesn’t want to do. You’re in his world, so as Michael said, we were starting with something fresh,” Law said.

Clocking in at just under an hour and a half, 50 minutes shorter than the first film, Pinter’s lean take on “Sleuth” preserves the essential conflict: Two men in a psychological and occasionally physical duel over a woman we never see.

Young, flashy hairdresser Milo Tindle (Law) is having an affair with the wife of wealthy mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Caine). At Andrew’s invitation, Milo comes to his aging rival’s home, ostensibly to sort out some arrangement where the older man can divest himself of a gluttonous spouse and the younger can gain the financial means to keep his lover in style.

What’s really happening is an intricate game of one-upmanship, the two men’s machinations and deceptions growing ever more menacing, to the point where the fight itself is what truly matters and the prize becomes irrelevant.

“It’s not about losing the woman. It’s about losing, and not wanting to lose,” Branagh said. “And it’s not so much about love as it is about possession, then possession doesn’t even matter after a while. It’s about winning. And then winning isn’t even enough. Destruction has to follow. So there’s something about the inability of the male ego or the male psyche to be satisfied without sort of complete and utter domination.”

Both films open similarly, with Milo driving up to Andrew’s stately, isolated manor. The home’s interior in the 1972 version matches the exterior rich, quaint, a bit vulgar in its classical ostentatiousness.

In the new film, though, the courtly exterior gives way to a maze of minimalist rooms filled with sliding doors, gliding walls, harsh furniture and surveillance devices run by remote control.

“It’s glass, marble, concrete, steel. Now you’re in Pinter country, and the house has become a character,” Caine said. “A kind of uncomfortable character. It’s not a comfortable house. It has sharp edges. You can cut yourself.”

“The setting is one that, if you like, relishes man’s aesthetic and technological advancements, but in the middle of it, we’re acting like cavemen. Just fighting,” Law said.

The first film pulled a rare feat come Academy Awards season, earning both Olivier and Caine best-actor nominations.

Shot in just four weeks, compared to four months for the original “Sleuth,” the new version was filmed in chronological order. That lends an urgency and momentum to the exchanges between Caine and Law, who both deliver devilishly sly performances.

Two-time Oscar winner Caine and two-time nominee Law would not talk about their awards prospects. Their director was willing, though.

“I’m an academy member,” Branagh said. “They’ll get my vote, those two.”



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