Sleuth. Class War, Jumped Up Pantry Boys, and Threatening Rich Folk.
A few days ago, I realised that I was waking up on the morning of what would have been Anthony Shaffer’s 90th birthday. (It was also, necessarily, the birthday of his twin brother Peter.) Anthony Shaffer had a great screenplay-writing time of it in the early seventies, with Sleuth (1972, adapted from his own stage play) and The Wicker Man (1973) coming out in successive years. It had been a long long while since I’d seen Sleuth, so I determined to watch it again. On YouTube. In bits. With Greek subtitles.
Sleuth was directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, whose masterpieces included All About Eve and Julius Caesar. He also directed the studio-wrecking behemoth that was Cleopatra, and one fancies that working with a rather smaller cast on Sleuth may have come as something as a relief to him.
Now some people have described Sleuth as “stagy” which is a lazy way of describing any film with a small cast that originated as a stage play. It’s not, of course, stagy at all. It is full of innovative camera angles, extreme close ups and unexpected visual juxtapositions. In other words, it showcases all the things that film (and only film) can do.
In a sense Sleuth offers all the satisfactions of a really really good episode of Columbo. now a “Whodunnit?” but a “Howdunnit?” or a “Whydunnit?” As in Columbo, we see an arrogant, wealthy and brilliant criminal underestimating his antagonist and being thwarted at the end. But Sleuth offers more than a classic detective story for people who like classic detective stories. It’s a classic detective story for people who don’t like classic detective stories. Most importantly, it’s a classic detective story for people who don’t like that they like classic detective stories.
Have your cake and eat it. Present all the satisfactions of a Christie or Sayers country house murder – and then integrate the critique. Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) admirably lists the inherent snobberies and racist stereotypes and exclusions inherent in detective fiction – the casual yet structural ways in which so many lives are simply excluded from its field of presumed significance. Milo himself, with his impoverished childhood and Italian dad, focuses many Andrew Wyke’s class based and racialised hatreds. He is, of course, the original “jumped up pantry boy who doesn’t know his place” – a line that is repeated slowly in the second act, just in case Morrissey wasn’t listening closely enough the first time.
Andrew (Olivier) hates plebs. His hatred has enjoyed decades of gestation – it’s a slow-cooked recipe that is now ready to plate up, but now it has achieved a very specific historical urgency. Olivier would recycle elements of Andrew’s denunciation of Milo when it came to his very great “slum slug” speech in the Michael Apted Granada TV adaptation of Pinter’s The Collection, a few years later. (The slug was played by Malcolm McDowell.) As for Milo (Caine), he is no stereotypical pleb. He’s far more threatening than that – he’s learned to ape the gentry – and in aping them, he can deconstruct the entire performance of gentility. It is notable, and important, that Milo can affect an aristocratic voice far more convincingly than Andrew can do cockney (although Andrew thinks he can do cockney, needless to say). Milo despises Andrew’s games but he can play and win them – and in playing them he can strip them bare.
For Sleuth is a fascinatingly dated play about class warfare. It could only date from the 1960s and 70s, an age when a planned economy really did have a redistributive agenda. Poor people really did get richer. And rich people really did get a bit poorer. The Andrews of this world really did feel threatened as never before or since. Andrew’s rage is the rage of a cornered animal, his privileges seemingly on the brink of being revoked. These days of course, Andrew’s white hot rage has cooled to complacent contempt – still hatred but a different register of hatred. A more confident, less erratic and better organised form of hatred. Now that capital has learned to protect itself far better than it could in the 1970s, and now that inherited wealth feels far more secure than it has in many many decades, much of the peculiar energy of Shaffer’s drama has gone.
The rich kids have won. Hereditary Oligarchy is secure. And Milo Tindle has been kicked back into the pantry where he belongs.
Mind you, wasn’t Alec Cawthorne just brilliant as Inspector Doppler?
How come he didn’t do more stuff?