In the 1972 big screen version of Sleuth, Sir Michael Caine played Milo, the handsome young man who’s invited to his lover’s husband’s home to talk about the affair. Sir Laurence Olivier handled the role of crime novelist Andrew Wyke, the cuckolded husband who engages his wife’s lover in a battle of wits. In 2007’s Sleuth, Jude Law takes over for Michael Caine, while Caine plays the Olivier role of the jilted husband. According to Sleuth director Kenneth Branagh, Caine could still play the brash young man who takes on the aging novelist with the help of a few digital effects, but Caine’s perfectly happy to be able to tackle the Andrew character in this new version of the story.
“Even when I did the first one with Olivier, I always thought that his part was better than mine,” admits Caine. “I like this part. It's a good part. I don't want to play the other one. Anyway, Jude's prettier than I am. He should be. It's very hard to do a story where I took the wife away from Jude. See what I mean?”
Michael Caine is quick to point out this Sleuth is not a by-the-books remake of the original film. While both films boil down to two men fighting over the same women, there are vast differences in the 1972 and 2007 versions. Harold Pinter’s screenplay is leaner and meaner than Anthony Shaffer's. “It never felt like revisiting it because there aren't any lines from the original movie in this,” says Caine. “All that happened was that Jude took the stage play to Harold and said, ‘Would you write a screenplay of this stage play?’ Harold had never seen the play or the movie. He read it and he said to Jude, ‘There's a great plot there,’ so he took the plot and wrote his own play, his own screenplay.
None of the lines are the same, so there's no sense of me remaking something. I couldn't look at Jude when he was working and say, ‘Oh, I said that line better than he did,’ because there are no lines there that I said. I'm not saying any lines that Larry ever said, and we're certainly not the same kind of characters because I have a house which is full of technology which wasn't even invented then. I'm sure if you saw Larry play that character, if you took the computer to him, he'd say, ‘Oh, I'm no good at that sort of thing.’ He would say that, but I'm an expert at that. I've got a whole house full of it. I'm a control freak. If I went to that house, I'd be frightened to go to the toilet in case someone came out with a digital photograph.”
Kenneth Branagh finds the twists Pinter added to the story fascinating. Equally as fascinating to the acclaimed filmmaker was the way his actors approached their characters. “I think one of the beautiful things about the script was just endless, endless interesting question marks. Not annoying ones, but ones that make you go away from the film and talk about it. And in that third act, that great twist, in which Harold borrows the plot up to that point, and then he says, ‘I’m not going to, like the original play, I’m not going to worry about whether, the lady in Swindon, he’s going to go back to, whether the police are going to arrive, whether he’s going to pretend to be a policeman just outside the door, that’s all gone.’ Instead the twist is, ‘It’s one set all. We have completely and utterly humiliated each other and that’s now made me think you are my kind of person.’
And suddenly that was legitimate, as weird and intensified as it was and compressed as it was. But the very compression, the very irrationality, the high temperature of this kind of revenge drama made you feel it was possible. Then it started to make me think, ‘Well, is he gay? Is this happening in the moment or is this part of a kind of provocation which will lead to an ultimate and yet to be discovered humiliation, which we don’t get a chance to see because Jude turns the tables and says, F--k off you big poof!’ We are not sure what it was, and so they play it."
“That scene, I remember we rehearsed it, and the first time when we rehearsed it the whole rehearsal room went still,” recalls Branagh. “The entire temperature of the room, nobody knew what to do or say. And it was like almost the tennis match had gone into slow motion. By the time Jude was looking at Michael for the first time and going, ‘How do you like your eggs?,’ we didn’t know what to think.”
Pinter’s screenplay was, of course, the launching point for Branagh to figure out how to approach to this intimate, character-driven thriller. “It’s always down to the screenplay to begin with and what is starts to tell you about, what’s important here, performance was clearly the center of it, so it was about preparing and rehearsals with Michael and Jude separately and then together to try and absolutely work from their instincts,” explains Branagh. “What did Michael feel the books were like that his character writes? The covers, the titles, all of that, the outside of the house? I’m trying to get that from both guys, and then try to find a way to maximize what they were doing in rehearsals. How do you do that? Well, find an environment that sets it all off.”
Branagh continues, “I remember having a conversation with the producers four days in where they got terrified that they hadn’t seen a close-up yet, saying, ‘No, no, no, you’ll get to a close-up. It’s about Michael Caine 12 minutes in says, ‘I understand you are f--king my wife.’ That will be the first close-up because that is sort of the dirty center of what this film is, but up to that point we’ll stay way back and we will make the house become a third character and make the audience feel what’s going on.’
There is a whisky glass poured. He hasn’t asked him what he wants to drink yet. He hasn’t answered yet. Where are all these cameras? Who is shooting it? Is there someone watching this outside? Is the wife in the house? We wanted to set all of that kind of thing up. And that all came basically from the script, which is Harold Pinter."