Owner of an expensive hairdressing salon, Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) has been invited to the country manor of mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier). He has a spot of bother finding him when he first arrives, eventually tracking him down to the maze in the mansion's grounds as Andrew is dictating another novel at the centre of it. Milo calls to him, and his host obliges by revealing the secret revolving section of the hedge to allow them to meet face to face. And the reason for this meeting? Andrew wants to put a proposal forward to Milo since he is having an affair with the author's wife... but is he sincere, or is there a scheme of oneupmanship in his head?
Oneupmanship is the whole theme of Sleuth, a screen adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's long running and award-winning play. Shaffer, who also scripted Frenzy for Alfred Hitchcock as well as The Wicker Man, adapts his own material here in a twisting plot that ensures you're never sure of anyone's motives, and once you realise that the film becomes a jokey romp for the viewer, yet crucially never loses that steely glint in its eye especially with the seething undercurrent of class tension between the two men. It's not for nothing that Andrew's home is filled with Victorian-looking games and tricks.
In spite of the faithful wordiness, the filmmakers go quite some way to opening out the play by using various locations around the mansion, including the garden, to keep things visually interesting and Ken Adam's production design helps immensely. Every so often we're treated to a the blank stare of one of the dolls or the fitfully laughing Jolly Jack Tar (Olivier provided his chortle in a nice touch), as if silently judging the characters as they run rings around each other, adding an atmosphere of edgy creepiness to the proceedings that is at odds with the apparently rollicking plotting.
As the two leads, Olivier and Caine are more than a match for each other, and it's very rewarding to see them sparring with Shaffer's witty dialogue. What Andrew points out to Milo is that he cannot afford to keep his wife living in the style to which she has become accustomed under Andrew, and so has devised a plan to allow them both to earn a little cash. Quite a lot of cash, actually, and Andrew fancies himself as something of a criminal mastermind having thought up a theft of his wife's jewels from the safe that will work like a charm and fool the police.
But will it fool the audience? After you accept that nobody here is quite as they seem, it's possible to see through the tricks that they employ, particularly the central one. One the other hand, this simply adds to the fun, darkly comic as it is, with Milo donning a disguise of as clown suit to commit the robbery even as Andrew orchestrates it. While shrewd, neither of the two antagonists are quite as clever as they think they are, but the enjoyment arises from seeing how they will outwit each other and in a way Sleuth points out the manner that the traditional country house mystery beloved of the likes of Agatha Christie falls apart in reality through the plotters' arrogance. That said, this film still appears artificial as many plays adapted for the cinema can, although the inherent intelligence and fine performances are to be treasured. Music by John Addison.