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The Essential Pinter:
Selections from the Work
by Harold Pinter
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Sleuth"

As you have probably heard, this is a trick movie. It will require an abandonment of credibility in order to entertain you with the extraordinary skills of two great actors; to make sense of it; and to force you to go along with the artifice. The reward is a treat to two of the best, with cinematography, art direction, production design and music equally accomplished. Don't go along with it and it falls into the realm of the absurd.

A man appears at the front door of a country mansion, having driven through the estate under the observation of the occupant and strategically placed security cameras along the drive. The visitor identifies himself as Milo Tindle (Jude Law) to the owner of the manse Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine) who, after a little palaver at the door, invites him in. The interior is cement bunker grey with lighting and interior design of extreme and expensive modernism. A one-story elevator is audaciously positioned in the center of the main room.

Wyke, after impressing Tindle with his success as a book author and the scintillating breadth of his mind, offers a drink. Milo chooses Scotch, a glass of which just happens to have already been poured into a glass as though divined beforehand. After comparing relative superiorities of charm and accomplishment, Tindle gets down to the business that brought him here, to wit, the request for an agreeable and immediate divorce from his wife, who is now Milo's lover and who asked him, Tindle, to make the request.

Wyke comes up with a proposal. Tindle is to "steal" a million dollar necklace from Wyke's safe, hock it in Amsterdam for a pre-arranged $800,000, and live happily ever after with enough money to treat his spoiled woman to the comforts and standard of living she's become accustomed to. As for Wyke, well he's got the insurance money, of course.

This, of course, is met with great suspicion but, through the means of clever dialogue by a master of the English language, we accept that Tindle accepts, and is subsequently guided through the entire escapade -- from gaining entrance through a skylight, descending by a hidden metal ladder and coercing the owner to give up the combination to the safe. Halfway through Wyke's staging of the break-in, however, he pulls a gun, and reveals that all of the foregoing has been a battle of wits with a romantic rival, and a potentially lethal game in which justice will prevail. No, there is to be no $800,000 payoff after all. Wyke may be a forlorn husband but he's no altruistic idiot. It's an author's scenario, devised on the spot and customized for his detested, very appealing competitor for his wife's affections.

To instill fear into his subject, Wyke shoots his gun twice, at photos of him and his wife, raising Tindle's fear level. Wyke then forces his captive to open the safe and remove the necklace, which is everything it is purported to be: a tastefully beautiful, luxurious piece of art. Wyke shoots again, this time directly at the supposed thief.

Alerted by a report of a missing person, a constable appears at Wyke's door three days later, a visit for which Wyke is totally unprepared. The encounter is uncomfortable. The rich man isn't entirely able to defend himself against the plainclothes officer's proposition that there could have been a sordid crime carried out on his premises. His nervousness turns to desperation and fear as the policeman presents his suspicions and makes his case.

This is Agatha Christie by way of playright Anthony Shaffer, thence Joseph I. Mankiewicz's subsequent 1972 film adaptation with Caine (as Tindle) and Laurence Olivier and, now, renewed for modern audiences, re-adapted by Harold Pinter ("The Trial") and director Kenneth Branagh ("The Magic Flute").

There are as many holes of plausibility in the plot as there are diamonds on that necklace, so if you're a literal type, this wouldn't be for you. But violation of reality isn't what it's about. Instead, it's a showcase of talent, a scintillating demonstration of the state of the art in all the disciplines previously stated. Pinter, the man most responsible, constantly chooses his corners to paint himself into and to escape out of. It's all highly stylish and stylistically clever, but you're never allowed to forget that it begs the viewer's collaboration. You're in an ether between a stage play's suspension of disbelief and film realism.

Jude Law pulls out all the wily charm and craft that are the distinctive trademarks of one of the most resourceful actors of our generation, clearly on display from "The Talented Mr. Ripley" to "Road to Perdition" to "AI: Artificial Intelligence" to "Alfie."

Caine, on the other hand, reaches, in moments, a level of concentrated danger that we've rarely seen. Watch for how his lingering intensity after he shoots Tindle conveys, internally, the satisfaction of a plan completed, contempt fulfilled. This latter day performance of one he gave so long ago (as the young visitor) would make for a stimulating comparison of a great actor's development. The experience might be best if you get the DVD before you catch this version in a theatre. And, BTW, the Mankiewicz version has a larger cast.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


The Soundtrack

(of the 1972 version with Caine and Olivier)

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Michael Caine and Jude Law
An old classic in new garb.

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