“You’re a jumped-up pantry boy!” hairdryers Sir Larry at Michael Caine in the original 1972 Sleuth. “Who doesn’t know his place!” Back then, the exchange could easily have been a behind-the-scenes tiff; elder thesp tearing into cockney come-lately over some imagined upstaging. The Caine-Olivier Sleuth was stunt-cast as an act-off between strutting hotshot and ageing grandmaster: a taut thematic fit for Wicker Man writer Anthony Shaffer’s sparring theme (young chancer visits mischievous old novelist at his country pile to secure a divorce settlement for the writer’s wife/his lover). Ken Branagh’s version doesn’t benefit from such off-screen edge, but, propelled by the acid pith and parry of Harold Pinter’s bruising script, it’s a decent, if slightly sterile, stab at a contempo remix.
For the first hour, Caine and Law slug it out to mesmeric effect, forked tongues splashing with Pinter’s venom. As they rattle through the textbook of male anxieties (sexual potency, status envy, aging angst) Sleuth shapes up as a smart and relevant two-hander. Sensing the trans-generational draw of the Caine-Law axis, Branagh’s camera digs in close, basking in the glint from Caine’s iconic steel and revealing undeniable acting chops behind Law’s louche pretty-boy sheen.
But then, once the notorious plot trapdoor drops, both Pinter and Branagh take a tumble, unable to dig out anything resembling a third act. They try mashing in a jarring homoerotic subtext, recasting the relationship as a creepy father-son thing, even – very Pinter, this – riffing on the acting process as a splitting and hiding of multiple selves (“Are you being me, now?” asks Law during one of Caine’s hypothetical anecdotes. “No, no!” he replies. “You’re still you!”).
Perhaps the root of the fumble lies in the shift from original writer Shaffer’s warmer, chattier blueprint to the dagger-directness of Pinter’s prose and the chilly minimalism of the set design: callow half-light; antiseptic interiors; an over-designed mini-mortuary of echoes and angles...Caine has argued that screen acting is all about steady simplicity. Sometimes, though, less is less.
Caine and Law rustle up a spicy chemistry which sustains a sizzle for an hour or so. But the second half panders to Pinter's self-indulgence, unravelling Branagh's high-tensile head-fuck as a hollow skirmish.