Thursday 23 June 2016

Deathtrap (1982)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Jay Presson Allen, from the play by Ira Levin
Stars: Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon
Somehow I hadn’t seen Deathtrap before, even though it was a successful movie in 1982, both critically and commercially, though a host of critics noted similarities to Sleuth, which the lead actor, Michael Caine, had made a decade earlier. Before it was a movie, it was a play, written by Ira Levin and produced on Broadway, where it was nominated for a Tony award and racked up a record run, its 1,793 performances the longest for a comedy thriller. Marian Seldes, who plays the female lead, Myra Bruhl, appeared in every one of those performances, earning herself an appearance in the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘most durable actress’. She wasn’t cast in the film, however, her part going instead to Dyan Cannon, perhaps not a good choice given that she was Razzie-nominated for her trouble, but at least that speaks to the prominence of the film, given that the Golden Raspberries don’t tend to notice small picture. Mad magazine even parodied the movie as Deathcrap, which is a mark of success in its own way.

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.
We even start on Broadway, where Bruhl’s latest play, Murder Most Fair, is failing horribly on its opening night. ‘The worst play I’ve ever seen,’ whispers an audience member, too far away from the back of the theatre for Bruhl to hear. He realises that it’s flopped, metaphorically hearing the critics sharpening their hatchets. ‘So much for truth in advertising,’ comments one. Whodunit? Sidney Bruhl dunit. And in public too. And so he heads home by train, pissed as a newt, to shout at his drama queen wife in a performance that feels like it could be on stage too. He’s had four bums, he says, all of which stink. He’s written out. He’s descended far from the glory days of The Murder Game, the longest running thriller on Broadway. And what’s worst of all is that he has a copy of a stunning play in his hands; it just isn’t his. It was sent to him by a student, Clifford Anderson, who attended a seminar he gave a year earlier. It’s so great that, ‘Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it,’ he suggests in one of many wonderful lines dotted throughout the script.

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.
Sidney Bruhl was played by Shakespearean actor John Wood in the original play, eventually handing the part on to actors as varied as Stacy Keach and Farley Granger. The film role, however, went to Michael Caine, perhaps as an opportunity to progress from the supporting role he played in Sleuth to the lead, as indeed he did in the remake of that film in 2007. He’s well cast, easily able to shift between shouty scenes and calm ones at the drop of a hat, and he sells the multiple levels of the script well. His co-star was a major name in 1982, having been launched to fame as the title character in Superman, a role which he’d reprised in his previous film. Yes, Christopher Reeve plays Clifford Anderson and he’s decent too, if a little more stagy than Caine, underplaying deliberately: young, enthusiastic and very na├»ve. With Somewhere in Time, Deathtrap and Monsignor, the other three movies that he made in and amongst the first three Superman pictures, Reeve was clearly aiming to diversify his roles and avoid being typecast as a superhero.

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?
Now, how far can I go without providing spoilers? I should certainly point out that Bruhl invites Anderson to stay with them, with the view of revising his play into something that can be produced. He’s hardly going to own up that it’s perfect already! I ought to highlight the cleverly written scene in which Myra tries to talk her husband out of murdering their guest, while he’s in the room, without letting him in on the fact that it’s even being considered as an idea. That leads to a gloriously tense follow-up where Bruhl traps Anderson in a pair of Houdini’s handcuffs, then proceeds to joke about killing him with his mace. Perhaps I can get away with pointing out that he strangles him to death with a chain instead, given that it happens only a third of the way into the movie, or in stage talk, at the end of the second scene of act one. Reeve was credited above Cannon and had only just showed up, so clearly the script has more for him to do than simply appear and die. That would be overdoing the billing even for Superman!

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.
Worth is remembered far more for her stage work than anything that she did on film, but that’s only a mark of how important she was off screen. She won three Tony awards over the span of a quarter of a century: winning Best Actress for Tiny Alice in 1965 and Sweet Bird of Youth in 1976, then adding Best Featured Actress in 1991 for Lost in Yonkers, a role she reprised two years later when it was adapted to the big screen. Working in a world where critics are notorious for cruelty, Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Times after seeing her play Hedda Gabler that, ‘Miss Worth is just possibly the best actress in the world.’ She made few films, only sixteen over half a century, but they included many notable roles as foreigners, including a seamstress in the French Resistance in Orders to Kill, which which won her a BAFTA. She also played French opposite Alec Guinness in The Scapegoat, but British in Seven Seas to Calais (playing Queen Elizabeth I, no less), German in Forbidden and Russian in both Nicholas and Alexandra and Onegin.

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.
I’m happy to have finally caught up with Deathtrap, especially having watched Sleuth so recently. I grew up in the eighties and I’m well aware that nostalgia currently sees them as the most embarrassing decade culture ever birthed, just as the sixties were when I was a kid and the seventies were to my younger friends. However, every decade is embarrassing when you choose to see nothing else and this is a great and timely reminder that the eighties produced much of substance, even if most of it is currently obscured by the fashionably awful. It’s always fascinating to watch Michael Caine, who has reinvented himself decade on decade. It was fun to watch a young Christopher Reeve, if not much fun to watch a histrionic Dyan Cannon. It was fascinating to find a masterpiece of writing twists upon twists written while M Night Shyamalan was still in short pants, especially one that’s literate and self-effacing. And it was great to discover another great performance from Irene Worth on what would have been her hundredth birthday!

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