Having loved British screenwriter Anthony Shaffer's occult thriller "The Wicker Man"(1973), I decided to give this 1972 film of his, a shot.
Based on Shaffer's play of the same name, "Sleuth" opens with Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) trying to find his way through a complex hedge maze in order to reach the owner of the property on which it lies, a huge manor house of Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), a middle-aged-and-getting-older detective novel writer who has invited him over. This is an initial indication of Wyke's twisted behaviour. He is the kind of man whose hobby, apart from his profession of writing, seemingly includes indulging in elaborate games and riddles, preferably with unsuspecting strangers who aren't aware of his ways.
As it turns out, Tindle is a struggling salon owner who is having an affair with Wyke's wife Marguerite. Aware of the affair, Wyke warns Tindle of Marguerite's expensive ways and points out that it may be difficult to keep her happy forever with what Tindle makes. Himself having an affair with another woman, Wyke is eager to get Marguerite off his hands. Being involved in detective fiction, Wyke hatches an ingenious scheme with Tindle that would make them both happy. He convinces Tindle to steal a lot of expensive jewelery from his house, sell it and make money to live a comfortable life with Marguerite, while Wyke would claim the the insurance money of the jewels, and carry on with his own affair with his girlfriend comfortably! Instantly enticed by the offer which seems picture perfect on paper, Tindle agrees and puts the plan into action...but are things really that simple as they are made out to be? Or does Wyke have his own ulterior motives behind his devious game of insurance fraud?
Since the film is based on a play, 99% of the film is set indoors in Wyke's plush mansion which looks eerie in the night, especially with all the creepy-looking talking puppet dolls scattered around the house! One wonders how Wyke manages to stay alone in that huge house, isolated from any sign of human life! The closed set gives the film a much needed claustrophobic atmosphere. The film relies heavily on the verbose dialog between the two lead actors and of course, their performances, what with them occupying most of the screen space! In spite of having a single set and two primary characters, Shaffer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz successfully create a riveting, neatly structured old school mystery, albeit not without some minor flaws. Some situations do look forced and tad unconvincing, one must admit!
But the flaws are overshadowed, by a taut script with delightfully intelligent twists and by the mesmerizing performances from the two British acting giants, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. They sure know their responsibility of carrying this entire film on their able shoulders and manage it with so much ease, they make acting look simple! Both the actors were nominated for Academy Awards for 'Best Actor' category and it's no surprise!
"Sleuth" references the typical 'sleuth' akin to classic detective-crime fiction from the Agatha Christie era. Just as there is a highly intelligent detective who is usually much smarter than even the entire police force in these stories, Wyke keeps obsessing about his own detective character St. John Lord Merridew and how he would solve a particular crime and confound the officials! Do watch this film if you are a lover of good old fashioned mysteries. Though not perfect, it is certainly worth your time and money.