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Jude Law, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh: "Sleuth" is not a remake

Jude Law, Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh at premiere of "Sleuth" at the Toronto Film Festival.

TORONTO, Ont. – A wealthy novelist named Andrew Wyke is alone in his isolated mansion when he receives a caller. This is Milo Tindle, the man who boldly boasts of being the lover of Wyke’s wife. The two engage in a savage verbal duel during the long evening ahead.

This is of course the set-up for Anthony Shaffer’s famous stage play "Sleuth," made into a movie in 1972, nominated for four Oscars, including Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier as Milo and Andrew. And it is also the set-up for a 2007 version, opening Friday, with Caine stepping up to the Wyke role and Jude Law as Milo.

But do not make the mistake of calling the film a “remake.” The screenplay this time is by Harold Pinter, 77, the Nobel-winning playwright, and as with most of Pinter’s work, the point isn’t so much about what happens, as how the characters talk while something is about to happen.

I talked with Caine, Law and the film’s director, Kenneth Branagh, at the Toronto Film Festival, where the film premiered last month. Good chaps all. Relaxed, kidding each other, pleased to have made an original Pinter.

One question was begging to be asked. Is Law stepping into the former Caine role connected in any way with the fact that he starred in the unsuccessful remake of Caine’s famous movie about a romantic scoundrel, “Alfie?”

“We never discussed that,” Caine said. “It’s one of those things. I’ve done remakes of films. It’s there and you do it and you hope it’s going to be all right and sometimes it doesn’t turn out right, and that’s the end of that.”

“You can’t regret choices you’ve made in this business,” Law said. “You learn from them and you pick yourself up and dust yourself off and move on. Sometimes you’re rewarded. The lesson I learned was that ‘Alfie’ was very much of its time. It didn’t work in a modern setting.”

“The morality had changed,” Caine said. “By the time he made ‘Alfie,’ you could have made ‘Alfie’ a woman who was going out screwing everybody and everyone would have believed it. Not in my time, not when I made ‘Alfie.’ Where I came from if you kissed a girl, two brothers came around saying, you’re gotta get married. It was a bit like living in Sicily.”

And about the 1972 version of “Sleuth?”

“I can’t compare them because I haven’t seen it since the first time I saw it and I didn’t revisit it,” Branagh said.

“We essentially stole the central idea,” Caine said. Two guys playing a deadly game over a woman that we don’t see. That was what Pinter took. He read the play twice, he never looked at the film. It was a funny thing seeing Harold, who came into rehearsals and was around all the time, he was entirely possessive about it. He was excited. And Harold is not an insignificant screenwriter. He may be Mr. Nobel Prize-winning playwright but, you know, he wrote…”

Branagh broke in with his credits: “Accident.” “The Servant,” “The French Lieutenant's Woman…”

“The movie told backwards, where they start in misery and end up in happiness,” I said.

“’Betrayal,’ of course,” Branagh said.

Caine: “With Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge, directed by David Jones.” I had the impression he could have even told us the cameraman.

“We’re not talking about a first-timer screenwriter here,” Branagh said. “One of the things I loved about Harold’s screenplay, and these two absolutely maximize it, is the question of when they are being genuine. Does Andrew really love his wife, or does he simply want to possess her? And at the end does even that disappear, and is it just about winning?

“I remember an electrifying moment in rehearsal was when you guys did the third act for the first time and we didn’t stop and I got to the bedroom where this strange invitation of Andrew’s is made, and I found myself thinking, does he mean this?”

The movie is really about performance, not plot, I said. It’s about whether they can fake out each other.

“Exactly that” Caine said. “People say, why are you remaking this? I say I’m not. I wouldn’t have remade Anthony Shaffer’s script because there wasn’t any point. I mean, we did a perfectly good job, back then, Larry and [director] Joe Mankiewicz and I, I’m sure. But what it was, was Pinter’s script took us somewhere else into a whole other movie and as Jude would tell you, Pinter hadn’t seen the movie, and there isn’t a single line in this movie that came from the old script. It was as though we stole the plot and the title.”

Sir Michael, I asked Caine, were there any moments at all when you thought, this is what Sir Lawrence should have done the first time round?

Caine laughed. “No, no. I haven’t seen the movie since. There was no backward reference to him. Larry did what should have been done for that moment. It was an entirely different way of life. When we opened that first picture, it was a lovely comfortable old English country house. This one, you get inside the country house, and it’s suddenly a nightmare. It’s brass, it’s steel, it’s marble, it’s glass. And minimal.

“On our set on the first film, there was something everywhere. Stuff, cluttered with stuff. So Larry’s performance went with that. My performance goes with this sterile house. That’s the way I see it. If I’d been Larry at that time and I saw that room, I’d have given the performance he did. I wouldn’t have given it quite so big, but I probably couldn’t have given it quite so big, because he’s such an incredible theater actor.”

Law said, “It’s like Pinter builds and builds using the devices of the original play and then you’re washed away into his world.”

Caine nodded, amused. “With Harold, if you’d say something like, ‘Oh, what about the ending, Harold?’ he’d say, ‘I think it’s quite good.’ That meant we were not changing this ending under any circumstances.”

Jude Law: “He really embraced this idea of men at war. What lengths will they go to? In the end you forget about the prize; it’s about domination and it’s in that last chapter they really reveal their hands.”

Caine: “Eventually, the woman disappears and is replaced by the two male egos going at each other. These two stags fighting each other and they’ve forgotten all about the woman. One of the first lines I say to him is, ‘My car is bigger than yours.’ Like a 7-year-old. The thin ice of civilization gets cracked quite quickly.”

“One of the things I love about what Pinter does in this,” Branagh said, “is raise questions without answers. Michael’s character says, ‘I heard you were a hairdresser.’ This issue of whether he is in fact a hairdresser, I still can’t answer. Because he screams, ‘I’m not a hairdresser!' and then at the end, he goes, ‘Here I am, a humble hairdresser,’ and I never bloody know, you know. Who is he? Who is this man?”

“It’s a Pinter thing to play with you like that,” Law said.

“It’s a kind of Cockney thing,” Caine said. “Harold and I are both Cockneys, where you say something quite ordinary which means something else. For instance, if a Cockney gangster comes to you and says something innocuous like, ‘Well, who’s been a naughty boy then?’ like your mother would say to you, you are probably dead or going to be very severely injured.”

They talked on. It occurred to me that “Sleuth” is two men talking about a woman we never see, and our interview was three men talking about a playwright we never see.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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