By Richard Winters
My Rating: 4 out of 10
4-Word Review: Playwright turns to murder.
Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) was at one time a top playwright, but his latest play is a flop. To add to his depression he finds that one of his students who attended his writing seminar, Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), has on his first attempt written a brilliant sure-fire hit. Something that makes Sidney jealous. He decides to invite Clifford over to his secluded cottage and while there, and with the help of his wife Myra (Dyan Cannon), kill Clifford and then steal his script and treat it as if it’s his own. Things though don’t work out quite as expected especially when their neighbor Helga (Irene Worth) arrives who has psychic visions that could ultimately implicate Sidney for doing the dirty deed.
The film is based on the Broadway play of the same name written by Ira Levin that ran for 1,793 performances from February 26, 1978 to June 13, 1982. The play was well received by critics and audiences alike including director Sidney Lumet who put up some of his own money to get it made into a film, but ultimately he relies too heavily on the twisting plot while failing to add any cinematic element to it.
The exterior of Sidney’s home was the picturesque DeRose Windmill Cottage, which sits in East Hampton, New York and helps add a visual flair, but the interior of the home was shot on a soundstage and the film becomes quite claustrophobic as almost the entire story takes place in this one setting. The movie desperately needed more cutaways, even some minor breakaway bits like Helga’s disastrous guest spot on the Merv Griffin Show, which gets talked about, but never shown, in order to make it seem less like a filmed stageplay, which it ultimately ends up being.
The script brings up some potentially interesting insights like how sometimes the characters in a writer’s play can closely parallel the authors themselves. In fact many people that knew him felt that the Sidney character here strongly resembled the real Ira Levin, but the film fails to pursue this in a satisfying way and is devoid of any interesting subtext or nuance. The characters end up being just boring one dimensional caricatures that are wholly unlikable. You could care less which one of them killed who, or whether any of them even survive.
Christopher Reeve is the film’s only real bright-spot and the way he plays a gay man is effective and believable. His onscreen kiss with Caine was considered controversial and daring at the time and even upsetting to fans to the point that purportedly one audience member in a Denver theater screamed out “Superman, don’t do it!” just as the kiss occurred. Irene Worth is fun too and her accent is so believable that I was convinced that she must’ve been born in Eastern Europe and was shocked to learn that instead she was from, of all places, Nebraska.
Caine is good, but his presence will remind many of the movie Sleuth, which he also starred in and is quite similar to this one. In fact a lot of viewers thought this was a sequel to that simply for that reason and because of this somebody else should’ve been hired to play the part.
Cannon on the other hand is annoying as the hyper wife and shares no onscreen chemistry with the other two actors. Marian Seldes had played the role on Broadway in every one of its 1,793 performances, which garnered her a citation in the Guinness Book of World Records as most durable actress and because of that alone she should’ve been given the part here.
Johnny Mandel’s soundtrack gives the proceedings a highbrow flair and I wished it had been played more. The plot twists may entertain and surprise some, but not if you think about them for too long, which ultimately makes this just a second-rate Sleuth.
My Rating: 4 out of 10
Release: March 19, 1982
Runtime: 1 Hour 56 Minutes
Director: Sidney Lumet
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube