One of the few original blockbusters of the last three years has now officially entered into franchise territory as Now You See Me 2 has just been released. As a mystery/caper lover, I instantly gravitated towards the first Now You See Me and quickly embraced it for its escapist qualities as well as its use of the great Michael Caine.
If the follow-up does anything right, it will be in the bringing back of Caine for another round as one of the film’s key players. However, this isn’t the first time Caine has revisited a property tinged with twists and turns. The actor’s most tour-de-force work in the mystery genre remains his performance in 1972’s Sleuth opposite Laurence Olivier and again opposite Jude Law in the film’s 2007 remake.
While the two films are wildly different, the core plot is still the same. A wealthy mystery novelist has summoned his estranged wife’s younger lover to his secluded country estate in order to discuss the matter of a divorce. As the two men size one another up, a battle ensues, leading to a collection of mind games which neither man can see coming.
Starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine as Andrew Wyke and Milo Tindle respectively, the 1972 version of Anthony Schaffer’s play (adapted by Shaffer himself and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) is everything you want it to be and then some. The film opens and closes with an elaborate stage setting on the screen, which makes the film feel like a lively piece of theater between two great actors who, incidentally, yet unsurprisingly, give stellar performances. A film such as Sleuth has the ability to feel incredibly stagey, yet the fantastic score and the sprawling set complete with an unnervingly large collection of wind up toys and life-sized dolls keep the film from ever feeling like a filmed play. Beyond that, the endlessly clever wordplay between the two men takes the place of traditional thrills so effectively that when action does happen, it becomes almost secondary. There’s an ongoing sadistic quality running throughout Sleuth which both men eventually share. However, it’s the plays underlying duel of old vs young which is the heart of the plot between Milo, who is in the prime of his life, and Andrew, who is trying to recapture the spirit of who he once was.
Director Kenneth Branagh’s ambitious remake comes on the heels of the original Sleuth’s 35th anniversary complete with a Harold Pinter screenplay and a cast which includes Jude Law as Milo and Caine now occupying the role of Andrew. Had the film been a straightforward remake, there’s no question it would have been a dismal experience in comparison to the brilliance of the original. Thankfully though, the 2007 Sleuth exists purely as it’s own entity, mainly thanks to Pinter never having seen the original, but instead borrowing the central premise and going from there. This Sleuth is exciting and invigorating in a way that the original never was mainly due to the field day Law and Caine are having with their menacing characters. Being 2007, the macabre settings of the original have been replaced by sleek and stylish surroundings, which are heavily dependent on technology. This is more than emphasized by occasionally filming the actors through security cameras. However Branagh and Pinter have kept Sleuth a mystery of the mind, rather than one driven by devices. Maybe it’s because we live in a world where a movie like Sleuth is an oddity that a surprising yet intriguing homosexual subtext has been thrown in. In the end, though, such a move only helps heighten the mystery of who the two men really are and what their true motives might be.
The reception and reputation of the two films simply couldn’t have more different. While the highly-praised original garnered Oscar nominations for its two leading men, the severely-judged remake was labeled a bomb by the critical media, including famed well-respected critic Leonard Maltin. And yet, it’s hard not to ignore the factors which make each film work, especially in the way the two retain a back to basics element in spite of modern trappings and how each Sleuth feels incredibly cinematic thanks to their glorious surroundings. More than that, though, both films exist in a world of their own despite their respective settings; relying on the highest and keenest of wills and wit to exist and survive. As it stands today, the two movies remain a pair of wonderful curios in their respective decades. While the original is a pleasure, the remake is a treat, and both continue to serve as surprises that mystery fans will delight in discovering for years to come.