Remaking "Sleuth" seems unnecessary, really. Anthony Shaffer's endlessly circulated stage thriller was filmed in 1972 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in a prestige project featuring Laurence Olivier as the mystery writer and Michael Caine as the hairdresser who cuckolds him and pays for it. The year the film came out I caught the national touring company of "Sleuth" here in Chicago, when I was 11, which may be the ideal age for "Sleuth" and its one-upmanship games. I was floored by the central twist, the one involving the detective who comes calling on writer Andrew Wyke. Floored.
So here's the question: If you remember the play or the '72 film version, and you know the central twist involving the detective who pays Wyke a visit, why would you want to see "Sleuth" again, exactly? Well aware of the material's general overexposure, Harold Pinter has gone his own merry, sadistic way for director Kenneth Branagh's remake. He de-emphasizes the big reveal. No longer do the speeches and gamesmanship monologues come rolling out at you like carpet. Pinter's into "terse," not "gabby," and he has taken nearly an hour out of the thing. The new version runs a moderately diverting and wholly optional 86 minutes.
Pinter and Branagh drag "Sleuth" out of the closet. Wyke is now an ice-queeny manipulator and hairdresser Milo Tindle a knavish flirt. Wyke lives in chilly high-tech splendor (no overstuffed manor home here) designed by Tim Harvey and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. Lines such as "Women are not my scene!" and talk of how "humiliation" bonds men together in a spirit of gladiatorial combat lend an air of suffocating nastiness.
Branagh, whose screen career with Shakespeare began on a high note with "Henry V" and has gone steadily downhill since, does a nice job keeping a stagebound piece relatively cinematic without resorting to the usual opening-up techniques. Caine and Law may not be playing human beings, but Pinter's sense of humor is at least more interesting than Shaffer's. Caine in particular appears to enjoy honing his cold-eyed stare.
Will the results work for those new to the premise? Can't say. Honestly, I can't. Among the rest of us, Branagh's version will likely fare best with those interested in watching, and hearing, what happens when a major playwright milks a minor playwright's cash cow his own way, for his own amusement.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times