FORGOTTEN CLASSICS – DEATHTRAP (1982)

Published September 9, 2010

WORDSLINGER’S NOTE: This series features reviews of some of my favorite films, many of which – while not forgotten – have been out of the mainstream so long, they’ve been neglected.  If I can introduce someone to a great film they’ve never seen before, my work will not be in vain.

Michael Caine is one of my favorite actors.  While James Brown was often referred to as “the hardest working man in show business,” I would argue that Michael Caine – with over 100 movies over his 60 year career – lays true claim to that title (… William Shatner runs a close second).  Among the Cockney actor’s many classic films, is the 1972 mystery/thriller SLEUTH – costarring Lawrence Olivier.  SLEUTH is not only one of Caine’s best, it is one of the best films of that particular genre ever made.  (Its 2007 remake, directed by Kenneth Branaugh, and adapted by Nobel-Prize-winning writer Harold Pinter, with Jude Law taking over Caine’s old role, and Caine stepping into Olivier’s, was one of the biggest cinematic disappointments I have ever had – what an epic waste of talent.)

Ten years after the original SLEUTH, Michael Caine returned to the mystery genre with another film based on a hit stage play: Ira Levin’s DEATHTRAP.  Directed by Sidney Lumet, DEATHTRAP is a charming and intricate little thriller, one that is too often dismissed as Sleuth-Lite.  No, it is not as good as that earlier film, and never quite escapes its stage-to-screen roots, but definitely has its own unique charms.

With a plot that makes even the briefest description SPOILERIFIC, I will simply, and safely say that it involves a once-hot, but currently down-on-his-luck playwright, Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine), who is in dire need of a hit.  When he is sent a new play by a former student, Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), he realizes that this new manuscript is not only perfect, but that the circumstances have been laid for him to steal this play, off Anderson, and make the play his own.  When he discusses this admittedly insane idea with his ill wife (a delightfully giddy and high-strung Dyan Cannon), she is understandably dubious.  To give away more would be criminal.

Christopher Reeve, hot off the first two Superman films (and the underrated Somewhere in Time), has arguably never looked better, and actually proves himself quite adept and charismatic in this difficult part.  Watching this performance, one forgets the actor’s famous Kryptonian role, and is also reminded of why this young actor was chosen to play such an iconic superhero.  Reeve works well off of Caine, and their chemistry  … oh, but now we’re getting into spoiler territory again.

Jay Presson Allen’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s play is so good that, as a character in the movie says, “even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.”

Michael Caine has said of his role in this film: “He’s a very successful mystery writer, with expensive tastes and a sick wife, whose macabre muse has deserted him.  He has always assumed that committing crime on paper siphons one’s hostilities.  But now, after a lifetime of vicarious murder, Bruhl finds himself fantasizing the real thing.  Even so, I kept asking myself – how do you explain his strange behavior?  Childhood trauma?  A deep-rooted compulsion?  The stigma of a name like Sidney?  No, that’s all too simple.  The answer is that he’s mad – stark raving mad!  It’s a lovely role.”

The film is available on DVD, but sadly, in a woefully bad, pan-and-scan-only 1999 issue, with NO bonus content.  This is one of the few full-screen films that I have in my library, simply because it’s THAT good, and this is the only version available.  Amazon.com is currently showing a widescreen version on their Video On Demand page.  I highly recommend checking it out.

DEATHTRAP is a definitely a forgotten classic – if you are a fan of intricately-plotted, blackly-humorous thrillers, you could do a lot worse than to spend a couple of hours with Caine and Reeve, surrounded by ancient weaponry in a spooky old windmill.