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Countdown to Mystery: Deathtrap

September 26th, 2020

In our previous installment, I mentioned the meta-aspects of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth – a cat-and-mouse thriller about a writer who turns his estate into an interactive mystery in an effort to ensnare the man who’s been sleeping with his wife.

Today’s recommendation is Deathtrap (1982), and this time the story centers on playwright Sidney Bruhl (Michael Cain of Sleuth) whose latest play has just bombed on Broadway.

As one critic opines early in the film: “Sidney Bruhl’s new whodunit Murder Most Fair opened tonight at the Music Box. But there’s no point in you folks going there, ‘Cause I’m gonna tell you who done it. Sidney Bruhl done it. And what’s inexcusable is he done it in public.” Yikes!

Certain his career is over, Bruhl returns home where he receives a package from young playwright Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve).

Inside the package, Bruhl finds the script of Anderson’s unproduced play Deathtrap – a work of genius that Bruhl is convinced could be a smash. If only he himself had written it!

The plot, full of more twists and turns than I could ever summarize here, hinges on a scheme to invite Anderson to the Bruhl home, kill him, and pass off the brilliant new play as the work Sidney Bruhl.

Written by Ira Lavin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives), the stage version of Deathtrap opened in 1978 and went on to become Broadway’s longest-running comedy-thriller. Released four years later, the film version, may lack the wit and depth of Shaffer’s Sleuth, but it makes up for those shortcomings with a clever array of twists, turns, and double crosses – more than enough of them to keep us entertained while we continue our countdown to Prime Stage Theatre’s release of A Knavish Piece of Mystery.

Unlike Sleuth, Deathtrap is readily available on most major streaming platforms, including Prime and Vudu – where you can rent it in HD for $2.99. And, for those of you who prefer physical media, it’s also available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and VHS (for the true 80’s experience).

Check out the trailer below … and stop back here tomorrow for another recommendation as we count down to October 1, when Prime Online will kick off Prime Stage Theatre’s season of virtual performances with the release of A Knavish Piece of Mystery.

Five days and counting!

Countdown to Mystery: Sleuth (1972)

September 25th, 2020

With a week to go before Prime Stage Theatre lifts the curtain on my new mystery series A Knavish Piece of Mystery, I thought it might be fun to look back at the plays, films, and stories that first got me interested in mysteries. I don’t intend this to be a definitive list of the all-time best of the genre. Rather, with a nod to Josh Olson and Joe Dante, whose podcast The Movies the Made Me invites screenwriters and filmmakers to discuss films that have shaped their art, we’ll make this a kind of Mysteries that Made Me.

First up is Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, which debuted on Broadway in 1970, went on to win the Tony Award for Best Play, and has since been adapted twice for film, in a terrific 1972 release starting Laurence Olivier and Michael Cain and then again in a needlessly updated 2007 remake with Jude Law and Michael Caine.

The story takes place at the mansion of Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), a successful mystery writer whose books feature the fictional detective St. John Lord Merridew. As the film opens, we see him in the center of a sprawling hedge maze, composing the final scene of his next book. Enter Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a young hairdresser who has been having an affair with Wyke’s wife.

What follows is an intricate play of cat-and-mouse that adds up to what Clive Barnes of the New York Times has called “the best thriller I have ever seen.”

Nevertheless, the cleverness of the plot’s mystery notwithstanding, what impressed me most about the film when I caught it during its first run at Pittsburgh’s Warner Theatre, was that Sleuth is about more than its central mystery. By offering meta-commentary on the nature of crime fiction and economic privilege (topics also touched on in the recent film Knives Out), Sleuth becomes more than “a fastidious, acrobatically cunning and invigoratingly well-acted thriller” (Time Magazine).

It is this aspect of the film – its ability to be about more than the sum of its clues – that I have tried to emulate in my own stories, including the forthcoming A Knavish Piece of Mystery.

Sleuth is currently available on all-region DVD from Umbrella Entertainment. You can pick it up on Amazon for $12.99, where you’ll also find the more-readily available (though not recommended) 2007 remake. Sadly, the original is not currently available on any of the major streaming platforms, so — for now — the Umbrella DVD is the best way to catch this classic.

Check out the trailer below … and stop back tomorrow for another mystery recommendation.

I’ll be waiting.