It is not a good night for playwright Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) for his latest work has just debuted on Broadway, but is not receiving the best of receptions. As he stands behind the audience with the work performed to a bored silence - it's supposed to be a comedy thriller - he wanders out to visit the bar next door, drowning his sorrows. Later his producer (Joe Silver) insults him for inventing such a turkey, and he sees the TV critics taking down his best efforts, basically telling the viewers that in spite of his earlier successes, Sidney has lost it. But he'd kill to get it back...
Deathtrap was based on the play by Ira Levin, a writer well known for his twisting plots, and the longest running work of its kind to grace Broadway, which was fitting as it was written as sort of an American answer to Agatha Chirstie's The Mousetrap, which is the longest running play of any kind to grace any stage. Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen was very faithful to his source, apart from two things: he changed the beginning and the ending, in both cases to make them more cinematic, as if there were any complaints about the material they were that the first act was far stronger than the second, though that didn't prevent theatregoers from flocking to it to find out the big reveal for themselves.
For the film, Sidney Lumet was hired, having done so well with silver screen versions of plays before - 12 Angry Men for a start - and a hit Christie under his belt as well - Murder on the Orient Express. Then a star cast was assembled, headed by Caine (significantly the star of Sleuth) who had wanted to work with Lumet after bowing out of The Hill back in the sixties; in many ways watching him simmer with quiet menace then explode with anger were among the most enjoyable aspects of the whole production. Dyan Cannon played his doting wife Myra whose heart condition prevents her from getting too excited or stressed, and then there was Christopher Reeve, in between Superman movies and looking to demonstrate his range.
Reeve played Clifford Anderson, an aspiring writer who has sent his latest opus to the grumbling Sidney for appraisal, having taken one of his courses recently. Although he doesn't admit it to the young man, the veteran is deeply impressed with his work and sees the potential to pass it off as his own: the whole question of where an artist, or even an entertainer, draws his inspiration from is something Levin threaded through the plot, often in a manner verging on the postmodern as the characters discuss the play within the play as if they were critiquing how effective the effort we're watching would be with audiences. This was dicing with danger, naturally, as once you're putting the question in the viewer's mind "How could this be better?" you're opening it up to all sorts of trouble.
And so it was that some were able to find fault in both the original and its film adaptation, suggesting everyone involved was being too clever for their own good. But you had to accept that far from being a deadly grave examination of the mechanics of a solid murder mystery, this was actually a bit of a giggle at the expense of those who would take such artificial constructs of fiction so seriously. Sure, have the characters take it seriously, but make certain the audience are having fun with it, which in this case owed something to Les Diaboliques, but then, what in this genre did not? Deathtrap was not a horror movie, however, it was intended to surprise you of course but also make you laugh at its audacity. Part of that was what made Caine tell Reeve, "Whatever you do, don't open your mouth!" and caused unnecessary controversy in its day, but it was all part of the amusement in a movie which aimed for pure entertainment, and succeeded better than some. Music by Johnny Mandel, heavy on the harpsichord.
Esteemed American director who after a background in theatre moved into television from where he went on to be the five times Oscar nominated filmmaker behind some of the most intelligent films ever to come out of America. His 1957 debut for the big screen, 12 Angry Men, is still a landmark, and he proceeded to electrify and engross cinema audiences with The Fugitive Kind, The Pawnbroker, Cold War drama Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, The Offence, definitive cop corruption drama Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (another great Al Pacino role), Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running On Empty and his final film, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Often working in the UK, he also brought his adopted home town of New York to films, an indelible part of its movies for the best part of fifty years.