Monday, May 19, 2014

Two Detectives

When I think of Sleuth, I think of blue.

They hired Kenneth Branagh and Harold Pinter to remake Anthony Shaffer's 1972 original in 2007. Based on a limited-character chamber piece written for the stage, it starred scene-chewing Lawrence Olivier as the older man and a smoldering Michael Caine hot off "Alfie" and "Get Carter." Both actors got Oscar nominations.

35 years later, Caine played the older man, still smoldering while the young and upcoming Jude Law played the role Caine had been in, also (to further the cultural echo) hot off his own "Alfie."

Branagh's take was colder and more self aware to the point of being arch. The joie de vivre and loose playfulness of what is basically an adolescent game of the original had been rendered sterile. Hell, the set design was hypermodern, all glass and concrete and uncomfortable-looking chairs. And everything was blue. Having Pinter adapt the play this time didn't exactly warm things up either.

And the film stock they used for the prints had an additional problem. I worked in a theatre when this came out and the polyester print would slowly shed particles of plastic as it ran through the projector. Perhaps all prints do to a certain degree (Schindler's List had this problem as well, we seemed to think it had to do with the way the color stock had been processed to make it black & white). But Branagh's Sleuth gave off blue. A fine layer of dust got into every crevice of the projector, behind the lens and along the film path. Thank god for us it only lasted a week.

The next film had a slight twilight glow to it we jokingly ascribed to Branagh's directorial vision (even though his film had left the premises a week before).

DVDs are falling on hard times and they are no longer demanding full price. I was able to pick up (at two different places) both versions of Sleuth this week, each for under $3.00. A shame really as the first is possibly the best mid-'70s puzzle-box play based on character, a post-Christie whodunit/thriller that proves a trick ending need not disappoint or be entirely unexpected.

And the second, as cold-hearted and mannered as it is, in part I suspect to protect against claims of being old-fashioned or obsolete, may serve as the best example of how a different sensibility and cultural circumstances can recast (oops, wrong word) and transform for all practical purposes an identical piece.

The stunt casting (which would work anyway even if it weren't such a delicious stunt) only adds to the resonance between the two films. Viewed one after the other you're seeing a new work, yet also have the benefit of seeing the same work again (which is what film schools always tell you to do - see a film to discover what it's doing, see it a second time to discover what it isn't doing, see it a third time to see how it does what it is (and isn't) doing).

It's a match made in heaven. Have your cake then eat it. See two films for the price of one; one film for the price of two.

I can hardly wait for the next remake, due in about 25 years. Doing the math, it's likely the young actor, who will play against Jude Law who will take on the role of the older man, hasn't even been born yet.

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