What would you give up for fame and fortune: your wife, your life or your immortal soul? Failed playwright, Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) surrenders all three in director, Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap (1982); a rather middling whodunit, despite some intriguing – if highly implausible – plot twists and one very tepid ‘gay kiss’ (I suppose, considered quite shocking at the dawning of the AIDS era) between Bruhl and his protégé cum male secretary, aspiring playwright, Clifford Anderson (unconvincingly played by Christopher Reeve); looking rather lanky and slightly demonic for most of this abortive exercise in suspense. Deathtrap is based on Ira Levin’s ‘cat and mouse’ stage play, slightly reconstituted by screenwriter, Jay Presson Allen here as a stilted compendium of red herrings and one foreseeable twist. As a bone-chilling thriller it doesn’t really work; ditto for its attempt at some urbane black comedy, with Bruhl’s neurotic and perpetually frazzled wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon) bumped off much too soon to make a ripple one way or the other. On stage, Deathtrap was a master’s class in misdirection; Levin, treating the principles as well as the denouement with a certain air of uber-camp and stagecraft sophistication: adroit for the theatricality of the piece, but proving as problematic in its transition to an as erudite movie-land murder mystery.
The great difficulty Sidney Lumet has with this black comedy is that for a good portion of the runtime he treats its macabre misfires in the ‘grand plan’ (Sidney offing his rich wife for the inheritance and some quick insurance money; later, plotting to frame and murder his slightly psychotic gay lover, who thinks he is in on the fix) as legitimate, rather than queerly disconcerting farce. Worse, Lumet seems to frequently become entangled by the basic mechanics of this rather Shakespearean tragedy, further convoluted with the introduction of Swedish psychic, Helga Ten Dorp (Irene Worth) who clairvoyantly sees ‘pain’ everywhere and speculates on some wild scenarios to ensure at least part of her projections come true, as it turns out, to her very great advantage. Yet, at least on film, Deathtrap is a fairly dull page-turner; more a yawn instead of a yarn, and suffering from the extortionate miscasting of Christopher Reeve. Reportedly, the infamous ‘kiss’ between Caine and Reeves was booed off the screen at previews in Colorado with more than one outraged audience member suggesting that to watch ‘Superman’ kiss any man was as shocking as seeing one’s own mother drunk. Critics were far more sympathetic, even laudatory in their praise; Roger Ebert eulogizing Deathtrap as “a comic study of ancient and honorable human defects, including greed, envy, lust, pride, avarice, sloth, and falsehood.”
I cannot agree. What we get here is one exemplary performance: Michael Caine, doing nine brilliant minutes as the perpetually fatigued playwright teetering either on the verge of a crying gag or a complete nervous breakdown (take your pick). Sidney Bruhl’s latest flop will be the death of him yet – literally. Caine’s has been wit is vindictive, idiotic, brilliant, clumsy, serious, and devilishly playful in all his insincerely flawed machinations to become the toast of Broadway once again. Sidney used to be able to write truly hair-raising murder mysteries for the theater. Alas, his last four efforts have been cringe-worthy at best, receiving scathing reviews from his once sycophantic critics who now universally delight in panning his efforts with venomous joy. Sidney’s backer, Seymour Starger (Joe Silver) is livid. After all, he has sunk his own sizable bankroll into this lame duck fiasco. Sidney wants to be back on top; to hear the echo of resounding applause, and to be heralded as the ‘great genius’ he once was, and erroneously believes he can become yet again. But how? Well, Sidney has a plan…a moronic one at that; to force his naïve and grating wife into suffering a fatal heart attack. So, why not cause this fright himself? Perhaps, because Sidney has already entered into ‘an arrangement’ with his off screen gay lover; the plot thickening, or rather, coagulating, as Sidney seemingly makes his ‘intensions’ known to Myra: to lure a promising young playwright who attended one of his college lectures, and has since written him for some free advice, to their secluded South Hampton country home with the promise of helping to refine and promote his play, then murdering his protégé and claiming the unsolicited manuscript as his own. It is all a ruse, however. Deathtrap – the play – does not exist, except in the enterprisingly devious mind of its greedy young complicit, hungry for the opportunity to collaborate with the great Sidney Bruhl on his next Broadway project.
Bruhl and Clifford conspire on an elaborate hoax; Bruhl pretending to handcuff Clifford in Myra’s presence under the guise of performing a Houdini trick, then choking Clifford to death with a heavy metal chain from his assortment of implements and props made for self-destruction; then, forcing Myra to help him bury Cliff’s remains out back in their herb garden. Exactly how we are meant to believe Clifford can survive, hidden under six feet of earth for more than a day – if, indeed, as we are led to believe, both he and Sidney are ‘in’ on this deception – is a moot point for director, Lumet; who seems to be having a whale of a time with all this gargantuan implausibility. After Myra suffers a crisis of conscience, quietly suggesting she wants a divorce for which her remuneration will remain unaffected silence on the crime, Sidney has to do some fast work to convince his wife all his efforts have been partly for her; to make them rich with the proceeds derived from Clifford’s brilliant play. Myra may not be buying it, but she nevertheless retires to the couple’s marital bed, inviting Sidney to share it, before becoming marginally spooked by things that go bump in the night downstairs.
Deathtrap would be an intriguing update on the clichéd ‘old dark house’ thriller and/or locked room murder mystery a la Agatha Christie, except that apart from two thirty second scares, the movie wholly lacks the necessary arc of suspense to make Sidney’s mounting dread palpable for the rest of the audience. The irony infused does not augment the story so much as it diffuses the potency of the crime itself into a cheap sort of lampoon from which not even the most stout-hearted shall survive. Michael Caine does his utmost to convey an insurmountable sense of dread steadily creeping into the heart; his cruel and penetrating stares dissolving into the wounded glances of a scared goat as Clifford resurfaces – literally – and covered in mud, beats Caine’s seemingly bewildered murderer with a prop log, before terrorizing Myra to death in the living room. Poor Myra. She really did have a weak heart after all, going to her grave believing she has just witnessed the cruel assassination of her husband at the hands of a demented killer. Well, she is only partly right. Cliff is not exactly playing with a full deck. In fact, he increasingly takes on the flavor of a slightly deranged, cardigan-wearing greedy gay gigolo; albeit, one who frequently looks as though he would prefer his own mama to Bruhl’s stiffy tucked between their rewrites. Oh yes; Clifford is committed to retelling the story of their get rich quick scheme as ‘Deathtrap’ – a perverse chef-d'oeuvre made for the stage and where art will most certainly imitate life.
It is rather appalling to think how Cliff almost gets away with this eerie verisimilitude; goading, cajoling and finally threatening Bruhl into a submissive acceptance of his master plan; to turn a seemingly accidental tragedy into pure profit and the toast of Broadway, sure to raise the ire of those who will undoubtedly consider it in very poor taste, as well as the suspicions of others surely to investigate the back story a little bit further. But hey, the newly inaugurated ‘Deathtrap’ will make both Sidney and Cliff very rich men. How can it fail? Far too easily I am afraid, as a mutual animosity continues to linger between these two conspirators; neither trusting of the other’s motives; each, determined to outdo the other or die trying. Again, it is Sidney Lumet’s darker interpretation of all this glibness that causes the premise of Deathtrap – the movie – to suffer from an overriding sense of insidiously bland ennui. What could have – and should have – been an homage and/or contemporary screwball, a la the likes of an Arsenic and Old Lace instead quickly devolves into a perilous and fouled up little murder for kicks. The sheer lack of remorse from Bruhl and Clifford is enough to sour us on the plot; neither giving Myra a second thought after her cold remains have been planted at the local cemetery. Sidney’s nonchalance is made light of with a bit of creative cover-up from Clifford, who informs the couple’s attorney and close personal, Porter Milgrim (Henry Jones), as well as the dotty psychic, Helga Ten Dorp that his employer is, in fact, heart sore and deeply depressed, even if all evidence illustrates to the contrary.
Eventually, the insanity of ‘telling the truth’ nightly in front of a live audience gets the better of Sidney. He will not go through with it. Ah, but does he have a choice. One dark and stormy night would suggest – no, as Sidney becomes too sophisticated in concocting yet another murder – Clifford’s, hiding a gun behind a decorative mantelpiece and then waiting for Clifford to stage a confrontation. Ordering Cliff to pick up an executioner’s axe – a prop from one of his earlier plays – Sidney prepares to ‘stage’ a murder, all the while intent on actually bumping Clifford off with the pistol he has hidden. Too late, Sidney learns that Cliff has already emptied the bullets from that gun. Now, Clifford reveals another loaded weapon in his midst, ordering Sidney to strap himself into a chair with shackles that turn out to be Houdini’s trick ‘handcuffs’. Sidney escapes with a crossbow and stalks Clifford, who still has the gun. Shooting Cliff through the back with his crossbow, and assuming him for dead, Sidney is startled by Helga’s sudden arrival during the intense electrical storm taking place outside. Cliff stirs and tackles Sidney, the two wrestling for the gun as the power fails and Helga looks on in horror. We dissolve to two strangers similarly wrestling for a prop pistol on stage, the curtain coming down on a mega hit Broadway show – ‘Deathtrap’, by Helga Ten Dorp who turns out to be none other than Seymour’s wife; the two celebrating their good fortune.
I sincerely could not get my knickers in a ball for Deathtrap, begun in abject tedium with Caine’s self-pitying playwright suffering his latest professional flop, left to drown his sorrows by getting properly pissed at the Café Ziegfeld adjacent the Music Box theater, and, ending some 116 minutes later with the greatest success of Sidney Bruhl’s entire career that, unfortunately, he does not live to see or even get the credit. Sidney Lumet once famously described his inability to hand-craft featherweight entertainments as resulting in more ‘latkes’ than soufflés. In hindsight, this indeed proves Lumet’s greatest failing as a director, though he would infrequently try his hand at musicals and comedies, often with utterly disastrous results: The Wiz (1978), anyone?!? I would nominate Deathtrap as more the pancake than the puff; a wafer thin disappointment that fails to generate even the minutest chills as an effervescent and crafty crime story. It suffers from some intolerably methodical and plodded pacing. Sidney Lumet never gets close to these characters. They are cardboard cutouts. The screenplay is clunky too and, at times, desperately struggling for something of even marginal interest. The characters do not have conversations per say, but engage in a sort of prolonged stichomythic exchange of scheming platitudes on how to commit the perfect murder. This gets old very fast, as the plot entirely hinged on the ever-unraveling and increasingly unstable series of entanglements as two killers engage in a tug-o-war for supremacy over the cover-up; each, pulling and severely twisting the plot in very counterintuitive directions.
Are we expected to be amused by Clifford’s audacity to ‘re-stage’ the murder for hire as part of the ‘fictionalized’ play he hopes to pitch to patrons of the arts? Or do we align our pity and allegiances with Sidney Bruhl’s increasingly sorry sad sack, who is, after all, a murderer, but just wants nothing more – or even better, now - than to disentangle himself from a crazy lover presently recast as the string-pulling puppet master in their very strained relationship? Michael Caine gives the most intelligent read in the piece. Despite the fact, Dyan Cannon was nominated for a Raspberry Award for worst performance, time has been even more grotesquely unkind to Christopher Reeve's wimpy, manic and wholly forgettable gimp; impossibly unattractive – both physically and emotionally – a real weird object for Sidney’s closeted affections. We could have bought into the gay amour between Sidney and Clifford had the acting been better from Reeve; or, at least, if he had been allowed to explore some of his character’s motivations. Impressionable young man on campus Reeve most certainly is not; his goony initial fawning over the prospects of having ‘the great Sidney Bruhl’ look over his manuscript (a skit performed solely to throw Myra off the scent of their affair) is part Clark Kent/part ugly duckling, hopelessly and haplessly never to be considered in the same class: an artist’s tragedy that, at least in hindsight, equally seems to have dogged Christopher Reeve’s career in Hollywood. Without Superman’s spandex and cape, Reeve’s persona simply evaporates from the screen – a nonentity with a sophomoric approach to assimilating into character. Reeves badly bungles this (choke!) performance.
Frankly, I just do not see it in Deathtrap; Reeve suffering from Tourette’s inspired outbursts of anger, offset by other moments of almost sheepishly benign and idiotically playful sensitivity. Okay, so he is playing a psychotic. Can he at least give us one more malevolent than Mickey-Mousing his way through the actor’s cliché and/or textbook of crazies we have all seen portrayed on film – though usually, as campy comedy. There is no severity or even edginess to Reeve's Clifford Anderson. Rather, like a petulant imp or child still clinging to his mother’s apron strings, he simply wants what he wants, and, he wants it now. The other disappointment here is Dyan Cannon as Myra. Her hasty dispatch is neither epically tragic nor even modestly sad. In fact, given Cannon’s inability to present this trophy wife as anything more or better than a shrieking and nimble-headed fluff ball, it is rather a relief to be rid of her early on. At least then we do not have to listen to more of her tearful pleading and wide-eyed monument-making of Sidney Bruhl’s ‘talent’; her nervously shaky, but otherwise thoroughly soulless evocation of the dutiful spouse, destined to have her romanticized viewpoints disillusioned before long. Deathtrap is not great art or even adequate cinema. It strives very hard to be very clever, but winds up exposing too much of the ego and artifice that made the theatrical experience of it so exquisitely memorable. The movie is merely disposable. Regrets.
Nothing regrettable about Warner Archive’s Blu-ray. Like virtually all of WAC’s releases, Deathtrap has been given the utmost care and remastering to ensure a first rate visual presentation that will surely not disappoint. My one sincere wish here is that WAC would get busy releasing more of its stellar back catalog and leave the more forgettable stuff to the end. If Warner was fishing for back catalog titles from the 1980 and 90’s to remaster in hi-def there would certainly be no shortage of goodies to choose from; Reversal of Fortune (1990), Private Benjamin (1980), Protocol (1984), After Hours (1985), Stealing Home (1988), My Blue Heaven (1990), The Shelter Sky (1990), Doc Hollywood (1991) and White Sands (1992) among them. But I digress. Actually, I have been immensely pleased with WAC’s outpouring of classics in 2016 and have every reason to hope for more goodies in 2017. But back to Deathtrap for a moment: full color saturation, exquisite amounts of fine detail, pitch perfect contrast and a light smattering of grain looking very indigenous to its source: all around, top marks and kudos to WAC. A few light imperfections are detected in the print master (not scratches or chips, just a slight and sporadic flicker). The audio, DTS 2.0 mono is again perfect for this presentation. My one complaint: no chapter stops – at least, none accessible by a searchable menu. Yes, you can advance to a scene using your remote to arbitrarily inserted chapter breaks. But you cannot ‘jump’ to a scene ten scenes into the movie without first skipping through the previous nine. Oh well, we can forgive, if not entirely overlook, this oversight. Bottom line: if you are a fan of Deathtrap you will want to snap up this Blu-ray. It sparkles. The movie, at least for me, did anything but.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)