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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.