The soul of a house lies within he who inhabits it; and indeed, Sleuth’s (1972) grandiose stately manor, tucked away in the Wiltshire countryside – with its immaculate courtyard lined with statuettes and finely trimmed grass – is as precise a representation of Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) and his ostentatious persona as any. A personal favourite of mine, Sleuth could never quite reach the heights it does, even with the astonishing performances of Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine, if it were plagued by a bland or unmemorable setting.
Self-indulgence is weaved into Wyke’s soul as intricately as the elaborate maze in which he is first found and as such, he seems to finds solace in the vastness of his mansion, his only friend, seemingly unmoved by the lack of company and instead simply thriving off his own splendour. Perhaps this could be understandable; the premise of the film makes the social positions of the two leads unmistakably clear: Milo Tindle (Caine) – who has recently embarked on a sordid affair with Marguerite, the estranged wife of the Wyke – though prosperous, is still nothing but a lowly hairdresser in the eyes of the eccentric crime novelist. However, the disquieting nature of the enormous house has always left me wondering how it could be fit for any man to inhabit, let alone enjoy.
Of course, being a film which doesn’t stray from its opening locale, Sleuth’s primary goal is evoke the daunting tone that a story of its ilk requires from the inside-out. Adapted from Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 stage play, Sleuth brings to life every aspect of the pompous, segregated world of Andrew Wyke in ways only cinema can. The glorious tracking shots of Caine and Olivier’s bitter exchanges in and out of the high-roofed manor’s expanses during the first half hour are captivating – both words and images shift in unison to slot the taciturn aurora of the house into place. But despite all the camera panning and wide-angle shots of living rooms and office spaces, we’re still subtly aware that we’re not seeing the full picture. There is a constant fear of the unknown: there hangs an impenetrable mist in the atmosphere, as if uttering a single word would shatter Wyke’s refined stained-glass windows. And as every delicately framed photo, every lonely porcelain jar, “the last tender memento of [Wyke’s] Venetian honeymoon” rest silently, allowing the duel of wits develops in the forefront, the tension is transfixing; brought on by Wyke and Tindle themselves as they battle for the upper hand with a jarring blend of chivalry and eagerness in a game which becomes increasingly less gentlemanly. I realise, when cheering Tindle on as he first attempts to flee at gunpoint, that my avid encouragement is not motivated by my wish for him to escape as much as it is for me to escape. For a film set in a mansion, it is alarmingly claustrophobic.
Just as the abstract gypsy fortune teller placed on the wall spins the narrative into gear, suggesting ‘a proposal’, Wyke’s proudest possessions – his grotesquely unsettling hand crafted puppets – act as a tragic chorus to the tale, watching the madness unfold with blankly humoured expressions. The occasional bouts of laughter from one in particular, “Jolly Jack Tarr, the Jovial sailor” orchestrated at the push of a button by Wyke himself, are the most unnerving of all, and serve to enhance its theatrical conclusion. A genuine stroke of creative ingenuity – the creepiest use of puppets since Attack of the Puppet People (and I say that without a hint of irony, of course). They don’t just represent the chilling incarnate nature of the house in a literal sense; they pretty much define the film, serving as the collective third character in the chaotic mind games.
If ever a house has felt truly alive in a movie, it’s Sleuth. Its location, which, as Tindle points out, you “couldn’t find with a map”, its photographs (which are all black-and-white, suggesting they haven’t been replaced in decades) and most of all, its solitary inhabitant – who entertains himself piecing together enormous jigsaw puzzles and buying hand-made dolls of despair – add up to an immense embodiment of loneliness. And, just as Wyke is dizzy with excitement at the prospect of playing a real game when Tindle arrives, the house appears to leap from its dormant state – as if clearing away its cobwebs with the hollow laughs of inanimate puppets. In a murder mystery, as Tindle puts it, “it’s always the amateur sleuth who knows what’s going on”. But in this unique spin on the murder mystery, thanks to an unmatched location for a film with only two characters, nobody knows what’s going on.
“Be sure and tell them… it was only a bloody game.”