Taking the top spot as my all-time favourite British film is Anthony Shaffer’s brilliant, labyrinthine tale of a country house, the Lord of the Manor and the pretender to the throne. Shaffer’s razor-sharp pen guts and cannibalises the pre-war detective genre in much the same way that Wes Craven carved up and then feasted on the slasher movie in the 1990s. Although this is no ghost story or grisly horror, Sleuth’s tongue in cheek approach to costume, design and soundtrack steeps the whole movie in a strange kind of broken-dolly creepiness as the action lurches from quirky, through witty, before descending into something altogether darker.
Based around the simple idea of a staged burglary at a remote manor house, the storyline starts quite conventionally before taking a sharp detour into hidden agendas, psychological torture, humiliation and revenge as the characters are locked together in a battle of wits that has no beginning, no end and no clear rules.
Originally written as a stage play, it’s a testament to Shaffer’s scripting genius that he can hold the viewer’s attention for over two hours while only ever employing a maximum of two characters on screen at any given time. In fact, there are only three live characters in the whole movie, but I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Although the writing and the plotline are superb, the other reasons Sleuth stands head and shoulders above remakes and imitations are the remarkable performances of Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It’s to Caine’s credit that he immediately spotted the potential to cannibalise his own cockney geezer persona by both trying to hide it and letting it slip out at exactly the right time, resulting in a very believable character whose wardrobe has risen in society while his accent often forgets its manners. This script demanded a lot more from Caine than most of his on-screen appearances and he rose to the challenge, with his character every bit the equal of Olivier’s older, more established and definitely more mercurial persona.
For me, one of the great joys of watching Sleuth is to see a renowned, respected and hugely serious actor like Laurence Olivier having the time of his life and basically arsing around on screen, seamlessly morphing into an array of quirky Cluedo characters from one line to the next as he amuses, cajoles, threatens and reminisces his way through Shaffer’s superbly crafted script.
As the story reaches its climax, there is literally no way of telling what’s going to happen next, let alone which of the characters is lying, bluffing, or deadly serious.
Relying on character motivation and on-screen interplay, Sleuth reminds us that truly great stories are driven by plots and characters, rather than successions of rapid-fire cut scenes designed to overwhelm the watcher and bludgeon the senses into submission. However, it’s nice to see a more situational and character driven approach reasserting itself in modern moviemaking, at least in some lower budget productions.
Although unjustly side-lined today, Sleuth is a masterclass in writing, acting, directing and set design. Although it boasts some of the most memorable plot twists in the history of cinema, Sleuth nonetheless remains true to Chekov’s Iron Law, one of the few rules in writing that actually matters. This is why it continues to satisfy audiences even today, in opposition to the jarring left turn that modern scripting schools seem to be teaching these days. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched this movie, and yet still I see little actions or background details I’ve never noticed before. Sometimes expressions or actions fly across the screen so fast they can only be witnessed in hindsight, on a second or third viewing.
The fact that it still offers up something new after more than forty years is just one of the many reasons why Sleuth is my all-time, knockdown champion British film.