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
Editing by Richard Marden
Studio Palomar Pictures
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • 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, each of whom was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. It features Alec Cawthorne, John Matthews, Eve Channing and Teddy Martin in small roles.


Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a moderately prosperous, flashy, self-made London hairdresser, the son of an Italian immigrant and an English farm girl, arrives at a stately home in the Wiltshire countryside belonging to Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), a pompous, highly eccentric, quite wealthy crime fiction author. A member of the upper class with a great concern for tradition, Wyke is popular worldwide for his aristocratic detective, St. John Lord Meridew.

Andrew acknowledges that he knows Milo is having an affair with his wife, Marguerite. Milo, in return, reveals that he knows Andrew is having an affair with a Finnish prostitute called Thea, and that Andrew’s wife will raise a divorce action based on this.

Andrew suggests that Milo steal his wife's jewels and has arranged for him to fence the jewels for £170,000, enabling him to maintain Marguerite’s expensive tastes, while Andrew will be able to claim the insurance money. To make the burglary seem convincing, Andrew suggests that Milo actually burgle his house. When the time comes for Milo and Andrew to stage a fight, Andrew pulls his gun and creates some bullet holes. Milo is then supposed to tie up Andrew, but instead, Andrew turns the gun on Milo. He says that he will not accept another man stealing his wife and he set up the burglary so that he can kill Milo and plead self-defence. Milo begs for his life. Andrew expresses his contempt for working-class, non-English people like Milo, points the gun at Milo's head, and fires.

A few days later, Inspector Doppler (Alec Cawthorne) of the Wiltshire Constabulary arrives to question Andrew about Milo's disappearance. Andrew explains that what the inspector assumes to have been a murder was a game. Andrew says he "tested" Milo by putting him in fear of his life. Claiming to have shot Milo with a blank cartridge, he tells the inspector that Milo passed out with shock and fled upon awakening.

Doppler refuses to believe any of this. He points out evidence that suggests Andrew’s guilt, including bullet holes in the wall, a passerby hearing shots and blood on the staircase. Andrew becomes hysterical, demanding to see a lawyer and struggling with Doppler. Doppler pulls away a latex mask; he is Milo, wearing an intricate disguise. Andrew congratulates Milo on his ingenuity. Andrew explains his philosophy of games-playing and how Milo must surely concede that life has been much more exhilarating since his first visit to the house. Milo expresses contempt for Andrew’s attitude that they are now even. Milo says he "heard the sound of his own death" and has decided to take the game one step further by actually killing somebody.

Andrew’s air of insincerity and silliness crumbles as Milo explains that he has killed Andrew’s mistress, Thea. A disbelieving Andrew calls Thea’s flat and is shocked to have the news confirmed by a roommate. Milo points out that after Andrew “killed” him the other day, he told the police about it, mentioning that Andrew had expressed an interest in committing the perfect murder. The police promised to arrive at 10pm that evening—it is now 9.45. Milo has planted four items around the house which incriminate Andrew as a murderer. A frantic Andrew tries to decipher Milo’s clues. He must crawl through a coal box to extract one item. Andrew locates and destroys the final piece of evidence, a stocking used to strangle Thea, just as Milo leaves the room, opens the door and invites in the police.

Milo returns to the room by himself. He reveals that he did not kill Thea, but has arranged this ruse with her cooperation. Milo has now beaten Andrew twice at his own game, making him the winner. He brags that Thea was happy to pretend to have been abducted. Furthermore, contrary to Andrew's arrogance about his own sexual prowess earlier, Thea has described him as impotent. Milo mocks Andrew’s detective character, St. John Lord Meridew, adding insult to injury. He leaves Andrew humiliated, going upstairs to retrieve Marguerite’s fur coat.

While Milo is upstairs, a furious Andrew locates a pistol. He begins to conceive in his mind what he will tell the police, that he saw Milo come down the stairs with Marguerite’s coat and shot him as a thief. Milo returns downstairs, where Andrew informs him of his intention. Milo observes that doing so would be foolish and useless, since Milo really did go see the police about the other day’s events, and they really are due at Andrew’s house any minute. Milo turns to leave, and Andrew shoots him in the back.

As his adversary lies dying, Andrew tells him there was no way he was going to fall for the same trick three times. Just then, a car is heard coming up the driveway, and blue lights are seen flashing. A horrified Andrew realises that Milo was telling the truth; the police know about the staged burglary. He will now be convicted of murder. Milo’s last words are, "Andrew, don't forget, be sure and tell them, it was all just a bloody game."


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]

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. Retrieved 24 June 2012. 
  4. ^ "Sleuth (1972)". rottentomatoes. Retrieved 21 May 2010. 
  5. ^ Inside Oscar, Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, Ballantine Books (1986)

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