Sleuth (1972 film)

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Sleuth movie.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Produced by Morton Gottlieb
Screenplay by Anthony Shaffer
Based on play Sleuth by
Anthony Shaffer
Starring Laurence Olivier
Michael Caine
Music by John Addison
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Edited by Richard Marden
Palomar Pictures
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s)
  • 10 December 1972 (1972-12-10) (USA)
Running time 138 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $3.5 million[1]
Box office $5,750,000 (rentals)[2]

Sleuth is a 1972 mystery thriller film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (his last film). The screenplay by British playwright Anthony Shaffer was based on his 1970 Tony Award-winning play Sleuth. The film stars Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, both of whom were nominated for an Academy Award for their performance.

Andrew Wyke, a successful writer of crime fiction, who lives in a large country manor house filled with elaborate games and automata (moving mechanical dolls), invites his wife's lover Milo Tindle, a hairdresser of Italian heritage, to his home to discuss the situation. Andrew warns that his wife has expensive tastes and that Milo should go along with an elaborate plan that he has devised, to commit a bogus burglary. Andrew tells Milo that this is to help him take his wife of his hands by providing enough money for Milo to be able to afford to keep her. Andrew would then file a claim on the insurance, and Milo would have jewels to sell on to a fence. Milo agrees and proceeds with the "burglary", however, things don't go quite as Milo expects. Andrew eventually pulls a gun on Milo and explains that the whole burglary charade was, in fact, a set-up engineered by him to make his rival Milo look like a real burglar. Andrew would then shoot and kill Milo in apparent self-defence. Andrew then cold bloodedly executes Milo by shooting him in the back of the head.

A few days later, a policeman, Inspector Doppler arrives at the manor house investigating Milo's disappearance. Andrew at first purports to know nothing, but his guilt becomes evident as the inspector collates clues; in particular blood stains and bullet holes. Frightened, Andrew breaks down and explains the entire ruse to Doppler; he set up a fake burglary, then "shot" a terrified Milo with blanks in revenge for Milo's seducing his wife. He insists that it was all "just a game" and that Milo left the house emotionally damaged but physically unharmed. Andrew insists that he has no knowledge of what happened to Milo after he left the house. After finding more seemingly unmistakable evidence that a murder had taken place recently in the house, Doppler arrests Andrew for murder. As Andrew is being restrained by Doppler after refusing to go with him to the police station, it is revealed that Doppler is not a real policeman but is someone in disguise. Doppler begins to remove his disguise and is revealed to be Milo himself; having executed an elaborate "game" of his own to get his revenge on Andrew.

The score seems to be even between the two men, but then Milo states that now he wants to play another game, this time involving a real murder. Andrew is persuaded that the police will soon be arriving, and that Milo has planted evidence throughout the house that will point to Andrew's involvement in the killing of his own mistress, Tea (pronounced ‘Tay-a’). Andrew believes at first that this is yet another game of Milo's, but a phone call to his mistress's roommate, Joyce, confirms that Tea is indeed missing. Andrew, in a continuing state of mounting frenzy, hunts through the house to discover where the evidence is hidden; relying on cryptic clues from Milo who is now revelling in Andrew's predicament. Andrew finds all the evidence, the last item of which he finds just as the police arrive. Milo answers the door to the police whilst Andrew straightens himself up after getting dirty and dishevelled hunting the evidence. In the background we hear Milo talking to the police officers in an attempt to stall their entry into the house, which Andrew pleaded with him to do. Milo then invites the officers in. However, only Milo enters the room. He impersonates the voices of the officers and Andrew realises that it was Milo all along and that the officers do not really exist. Milo had indeed executed a second elaborate "game" on Andrew, besting him twice at his own "game".

Milo gets ready to leave, but before going he continues to taunt Andrew emasculating and humiliating him using information that he obtained from both Andrew's wife and mistress. Milo, who is in buoyant mood, leaves the room and whilst he is absent Andrew finds and loads his gun. When Milo returns Andrew announces that he intends to kill Milo for real this time. Milo smugly replies that he anticipated this reaction, and that the police really are on their way to the house. If Andrew shoots him, he would effectively be caught red-handed. Milo turns to leave and whilst his back is turned, as he walks to the front door, Andrew pulls the trigger. Milo collapses to the floor, mortally wounded. Suddenly blue flashing lights shine into the room through the window and Andrew rushes out of the house onto the drive to discover that Milo had indeed summoned the police. Andrew runs back inside and locks the house up so the police can't enter. Milo who is dying, laughs and with his final words tells Andrew to be sure to tell the police that it was all "just a game". He then collapses with the button for the automata 'Jolly Jack Tar' the sailor in his hand, and the life size doll begins to laugh. The film ends with Andrew standing in the living room panicked, upset and unsure what to do next.


Shaffer was initially reluctant to sell the film rights to the play, fearful it would undercut the success of the stage version. When he finally did relent, he hoped the film would retain the services of Anthony Quayle, who had essayed the role of Wyke in London and on Broadway. Alan Bates was Shaffer’s pick for the part of Milo Tindle. In the end, director Mankiewicz opted for Olivier and Caine.

When they met, Caine asked Olivier how he should address him. Olivier told him that it should be as "Lord Olivier", and added that now that that was settled he could call him "Larry".[3] According to Shaffer, Olivier stated that when filming began he looked upon Caine as an assistant, but that by the end of filming he regarded him as a full partner.

The likeness of actress Joanne Woodward was used for the painting of Marguerite Wyke.[3]

The production team intended to reveal as little about the movie as possible so as to make the conclusion a complete surprise to the audience. For this reason there is a false cast list at the beginning of the film which lists fictional people playing roles that do not exist. They are Alec Cawthorne (an anagram for Michael Caine, which replaces the M for a W and two Is for a T) as Inspector Doppler, John Matthews as Detective Sergeant Tarrant, Eve Channing (named after Eve Harrington and Margot Channing) as Marguerite Wyke, and, Teddy Martin as Police Constable Higgs.

Much of the story revolves around the theme of crime fiction, as written by Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Merridew = Lord Peter Wimsey) or Agatha Christie, whose photo is included on Wyke's wall, and how it relates to real-life criminal investigations. Class conflict is also raised between Wyke, the long-established English country gentleman, compared to Tindle, the son of an immigrant from the working-class streets of London.


The film received extremely positive reviews, and with modern audiences has 96% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.[4]

The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier), Best Director and Best Music, Original Dramatic Score. Olivier won the New York Film Critics award for Best Actor as a compromise selection after the voters became deadlocked in a choice between Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in The Godfather after Stacy Keach in Fat City won a plurality in initial voting and rules were changed requiring a majority.[5] Shaffer received an Edgar Award for his screenplay.

The film was the second to have its entire credited cast (Caine and Olivier) nominated for Academy Awards after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966 and the first where all of the actors in the film were nominated. (Virginia Woolf featured uncredited bit parts by actors playing the roadhouse manager and waitress.) This feat has been repeated only by Give 'em Hell, Harry! (1975), in which James Whitmore is the sole credited actor.

Deleted footage[edit]

While questioning Wyke, Doppler points out that the clown costume that Tindle was wearing when he was shot is missing, though the clown's mask is later found and put on the head of the plastic skeleton in the cellar. He is probably implying that Tindle was buried with it.

In the trailer for the film, there are the scenes with Doppler laying out the evidence against Wyke as shown in the movie. They include him pulling open the shower curtains in one of the bathrooms and exposing the clown's jacket, dripping wet and apparently with bloodstains on it. This scene was not included in the final film.

2007 film[edit]

Main article: Sleuth (2007 film)

On 7 September 2006, Kenneth Branagh announced at the Venice Film Festival his new film of the play, with the screenplay by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter. Caine starred in this adaptation, this time in the role of Wyke, while Jude Law played Tindle as a struggling actor. Production was completed in March 2007, and released in the UK on Friday, 23 November 2007. The remake did not use a single line of Shaffer's script, and was considered unsuccessful in comparison to the original.


  1. ^ Nat Segaloff, Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors, Bear Manor Media 2013 p 192
  2. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1973", Variety, 9 January 1974 p 19
  3. ^ a b "Follow these clues to the original 'Sleuth'". USA Today. 10 October 2007. Retrieved 24 June 2012. 
  4. ^ "Sleuth (1972)". rottentomatoes. Retrieved 21 May 2010. 
  5. ^ Inside Oscar, Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, Ballantine Books (1986)

External links[edit]