Writer: Jay Presson Allen, from the play by Ira Levin
Stars: Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon
It’s an intricate piece, which can’t lose its origins on the stage. Almost the entire movie takes place at Sidney Bruhl’s home on Long Island, which is a delightfully open plan affair inside a converted windmill. Such a memorable location, right down to the intricate mechanisms in the roof above the bedroom, is perhaps the most important component that the film can provide but the play can’t. However, it’s a stretch to imagine anyone watching the movie not envisaging the action unfolding on a stage, especially given that Andrzej Bartkowiak shoots much of it from a distance, as if rendering us a theatre audience. It’s ridiculously simple to give spoilers when reviewing this, so I’ll be careful and merely highlight that it’s about both a playwright and a play, also called Deathtrap, while referencing previous plays from the pen of Bruhl, both through dialogue and through use of props from their productions, which adorn the walls of Bruhl’s gorgeous study. The script feeds upon itself vociferously to make all those twists possible.
Those of you with twisted minds will already be imagining where the plot will take us next and, sure enough, Bruhl runs through a host of options. He promptly fantasises about killing Anderson with the mace which was used in Rigorous Child or attempting to get the play produced under his own name. It’s flippant at first, of course, but then he starts to seriously think about the ramifications. Would he literally kill for another hit play? If we weren’t thinking that already, his wife Myra asks it of him aloud. And yes, he just might! After all, this appears to be the only copy in existence, Anderson having sent his ‘first born child’ to its ‘spiritual father’. He has no family and he’s currently house-sitting for folk travelling abroad. Who would miss him? Who would connect him to Bruhl? This is a dream scene, because it’s literally the job of a mystery writer to figure out how to kill people without anyone finding out. In fact, they do it more often than actual killers, because they never have to worry about being caught. Well, until now.
I’m far less sold on the performance of Dyan Cannon though, but a debate raged in my head throughout the picture about whether that was a fair judgement or not. Sure, Myra is a histrionic drama queen of a wife who screams like a ditzy blonde waste of space, but then she is, right? Sidney often talks to her like she’s a child, with patience and small words because she’s clearly not on the same intellectual level and she’s her own worst enemy, as highlighted by the pills, cigarettes and lack of any defining purpose. Yes, she’s frickin’ annoying but she’s supposed to be, right? Was she nominated for a Razzie because she was so annoying as Myra or because Myra was so annoying and she played the part precisely right? I couldn’t choose which side I’d take in that debate but ended up noting that the fact that I was debating during the film instead of being caught up in the story’s flow, which might well be an answer all in itself. Of course, is that bad acting from Cannon or bad writing from Levin or screenwriter Jay Presson Allen?
But I can’t really go any further, except to introduce the fourth major character, Helga ten Dorp, especially given that she’s played by Irene Worth, the reason why I’m watching this movie as she would have been a hundred years old today, 23rd June. Helga is an awesome opportunity for an actress, given that she’s foreign, characterful and the personification of the unexpected. If the film is about Sidney Bruhl and his cleverly constructed murder plan, then Helga ten Dorp is the wild card that he simply couldn’t predict. We’re first introduced to her through conversation between Sidney and Myra; she’s some sort of psychic who assists the police in solving murders in her native Holland and she’s taken a local cottage for six months, which in this sparsely populated part of Long Island means that she’s their temporary neighbour. However, she shows up in person, right after the murder, walking right in and traipsing around feeling pain in the air. She dominates immediately, acting circles around Cannon and Caine lets her run with it.
Here, she’s Dutch and she comes very close to stealing the show, even though she doesn’t really have a vast percentage of screen time. Part of it is certainly that Helga is a gift of a part to any talented actress, but the greater part is that she’s the talented actress who brings her to life. As the script unfolds and the paradigm shifting twists proliferate, we never forget that Helga isn’t far away and could easily show up at any moment to throw a psychic spanner into the works. Surely I wasn’t the only one watching not just to grin at the intricate genius of Sidney Bruhl’s plans but to find the one thread that would unravel the whole thing? That old line from Robert Burns floated invisible in the air around him, that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. And there was never any doubt in my mind that it would be Helga who found that one thread and yanked it out from under him, all the more for her continued conspicuous absence through much of the film.