Michael Caine must’ve seen how almost all of his famous films and roles were being remade lately, from The Italian Job, and Get Carter to Alfie, and thought it was about time that he get into the act himself. Sleuth (1972) was a challenge for Caine at the time, playing opposite the legendary Laurence Olivier in a two character face-off. It was a challenge that he met with great success, not only standing toe-to-toe with Olivier, but often stealing the scenes himself.

The fun in this new version is that Caine is now the legendary actor playing Olivier’s part while Jude Law tries to keep up with him. Were they interested in doing it, Anthony Shaffer’s original hit play still holds up.

Sleuth is the witty story of Milo Tindle (Jude Law), a young part-time actor and hairdresser, who pays a visit to the secluded home of millionaire mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine) to discuss just what the two men are going to do about Mrs. Wyke. You see, Milo is sleeping with her and has intentions on marrying her himself.

This seems to actually please the older gentleman for whom the Mrs. has become a boring accessory. He proposes a nifty plan: Milo will steal Andrew’s prize jewels in a fake robbery, which will leave Andrew with a hefty insurance check and Milo with enough money to give Mrs. Wyke the comfortable life to which she is accustomed.

But this is just the set-up for what turns out to be a game of wits, with each man vying for the upper hand with one trick after another up his sleeve. It all seems very playful, but Shaffer makes sure that the underlying tension keeps building so that we can be sure that this isn’t going to end well for anyone.

The play was already a sly satire on quaint country house murder mysteries when it was first performed in 1970, and with a games-obsessed lead character in Andrew Wyke, it was also a sneaky poke at the games-obsessed composer Stephen Sondheim. Or so they say.

It would’ve been fun enough to watch as Caine moved about the carnival-like set trying his best to out-con Law. But another approach was decided upon and a very inspired, one at that. The idea of having Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter rework the play may initially seem to be out of left field, but a quick glance at the play’s themes reverses that notion.

Pinter has spent the better part of his career writing about the struggles for dominance and territory through veiled verbal communication. What he does with the play is extraordinary since the plot as it is remains virtually untouched, and yet because the dialogue has been completely reconceived, we get a whole new depth in the story’s ambiguity. For example, look at this exchange from early in the film, wherein Milo is talking about being an actor and Andrew is questioning his lack of notoriety:

Andrew: Why have I never heard of you?

Milo: You will before long.

Andrew: Really?

Milo: In Spades.

Andrew: That sounds threatening.

Milo: Does it?

Andrew: Doesn’t it?

There is much less dialogue in this version, but volumes more in meaning and ambiguity, because with Pinter you are never quite sure where the truth lies. On the excellent DVD commentary track between director Kenneth Branagh and Michael Caine, Branagh mentions a key scene later in the film in which Milo receives a cell phone call which interrupts the verbal duel between he and Andrew. He makes a few lines of small talk before very smugly concluding with a knife edged “I love you, too.”

Branagh comments that during the rehearsal period he asked Pinter just what Mrs. Wyke was saying on the other end of the line. The answer was pure Pinter: How can you be sure that it was Mrs. Wyke on the line? He’s right, we can’t, but this doesn’t confuse the drama – rather, it animates it. We’re still dealing with an uncomfortable situation: one man has spoken intimately with another man’s wife in front of him. Only now, we’re not sure if it was real or it was just an act to screw with the older man’s mind.

Armed with this script, this cast, and this director, how could Sleuth miss? Well, it does miss and mostly it’s the fault of each of these very talented creators. Pinter does some dazzling work on the dialogue but doesn’t spend any time in rethinking the structure of the play itself. He also removes the whole gameroom concept of the Wyke mansion and the gamesplaying obsession of the Wyke character without finding a suitable replacement.

Wyke is still a best-selling mystery writer, but he lives in what looks like the HDTV department of Best Buy and instead of winding up strange toys, he merely presses one of the thousand remote control buttons which control his estate. The electronics angle is a smart one, but it should’ve been less modern art and more modern Wii, with Wyke showing off his state of the art video games.

In any case, Pinter’s suggestions lead Branagh down a very destructive path. Branagh has always been a director whose work is based upon a strong interpretive concept. Not exactly an unusual talent for a man of the theater. It has long been a yardstick for critical analysis to examine the manner in which a classic drama has been re-envisioned for a new age.

But its one thing to be conceptual and another to allow the play to drown within the concept. It betrays a lack of trust in the essential qualities of the drama itself. I’m not arguing for some kind of flat rendering of a theatrical rehearsal, but once Branagh gets excited by telling the story through veils of video conference screens and randomly shifting patterns of light, you really begin to wish you could just watch Caine and Law duke it out on a bare stage.

Caine and Law are effective in the production but only to a certain point. Technically they are very proficient, but you never lose the sense that this is some kind of acting exercise between overawed scene partners. The performances never convince in the way that Caine and Olivier seemed to in the 1972 film. As actorly as that film was, it still achieved the all-important suspension of disbelief that this Sleuth does not.

This is really a problem the film never solves. It’s all too smart for its own good, which is why the theatrical excitement of the thriller aspect never catches fire and in the third act, the story element falls completely apart since there seems to be nowhere to go. Once the homosexual subtext is brought to the surface(which actually reminds one of another Caine starring thriller, Ira Levin’s Deathtrap), everything seems to be a joke. Are they gay, kidding, or just considering? It’s great Pinter comedy but it’s distracting here.

What we’re left with is a film both dazzlingly brilliant and incredibly irritating. Often it’s most irritating when it catches itself being brilliant. Sleuth is proof that genius sometimes needs a good editor.

The DVD comes with quite a few nice extras. There’s the usual studio produced behind-the-scenes featurette which goes a little more in-depth than most, and includes some very nice interview segments with Pinter. A short documentary on the complex prosthetic makeup design worn by a major character isn’t that interesting mostly because the makeup never really works.

I’m still wondering whether this conceit, held over from the Shaffer original, ever really worked outside of the theater. In a movie, it’s just too easy to pick out the ruse. I’m not even sure if Pinter and Branagh intend for us to be fooled. If that’s true than the makeup is good, but perhaps it should’ve been worse so we could see their intent more clearly.

The best stuff is in the commentaries. While Law is unfortunately cast off in his own solo commentary, Caine and Branagh provide the film with a conversation that’s worth owning. It’s a relaxed, informative, and very honest talk between a pair of professionals who enjoy discussing their craft with one another.

But some of the best bits are about Caine’s own work as an actor and particularly his challenges in the 1972 original working with Olivier who is described as quite a gamesplayer himself. Branagh is as always very soft-spoken and humble about his work, and his obvious love of the storytelling medium made me wish he would return to making some of the great films of his “youth”, like Henry V, Dead Again, the incredibly charming Much Ado About Nothing and, of course, his masterpiece, the unabridged Hamlet.

All of those films possessed the mastery of screen storytelling in ways that Sleuth does not. Here, his enthusiasm gets the best of him, like it did in his interesting but very flawed Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. It seems that a little Branagh goes a long way.

RATING 6 / 10