The Big Picture

  • Michael Caine’s retirement confirms his well-earned rest after a remarkable and successful career spanning decades.
  • Sleuth showcases Caine’s talents at their best, with his engaging performance and ability to hold his own against acting legend Laurence Olivier.
  • The genius plot, skillful writing, and impressive performances make Sleuth a timeless and riveting thriller that deserves more recognition.


There were reports back in 2021 that Michael Caine, then 88 years old, had been considering retirement. He appeared to walk back those claims, but then 2023 came around and Oppenheimer was released – notable for being the first Christopher Nolan movie since 2002’s Insomnia to not feature Caine in a supporting or cameo role. Then, later in 2023, reports once again broke about the now 90-year-old Caine considering retirement, and the man himself has confirmed it this time. It’s a little bittersweet, but with his lengthy and remarkable career, no one will deny Michael Caine’s more than earned his retirement. He had his earliest film roles back in the 1950s and found greater success by the time the 1960s came around, becoming beloved for his screen presence, charisma, ability to shine across different genres, iconic voice, and tendency to considerably elevate what could otherwise be average or even subpar movies. And when Michael Caine was properly utilized in a great movie, classic titles were born, with perhaps the best of the best being the 1972 mystery/thriller/comedy Sleuth.

Sleuth is twist-filled and endlessly entertaining, with Michael Caine and the legendary Laurence Olivier engaging in an extended battle of wits for more than two hours. There are arguably plenty of other Michael Caine movies that are of similar quality, or maybe even considered better by some – when it comes to other movies with Caine in a lead role, for instance, something like 1971’s revenge-themed crime/thriller movie Get Carter is undoubtedly a contender. There are also those memorable Christopher Nolan roles, particularly as Alfred in The Dark Knight movies, and then his Oscar-winning turns in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters and 1999’s The Cider House Rules, which are also worthy of praise. But few roles asked as much of Michael Caine as his one in Sleuth, playing the seeming underdog in a film-long game of wits. He holds his own against Olivier, commands the screen whenever his character gets the upper hand, and effectively has to give more than one performance in just one movie. Sleuth represents Caine at his best and is an ideal movie to watch to celebrate the man’s acting legacy and undeniable talent.


What Happens in ‘Sleuth?’

Sleuth - 1972
Image via 20th Century Fox

The genius and dense plot of Sleuth is one of the things that makes it a highlight within Michael Caine’s filmography. Things start simple, but gradually get more and more complex as the minutes tick on, with the skillful writing ensuring viewers need to pay attention, though things aren’t so complicated that attentive viewers will ever get lost. Playwright Anthony Shaffer wrote the original play version of Sleuth and was also responsible for adapting it (quite perfectly) to a screenplay here. Beyond Shaffer, Caine, and Olivier, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz also does a phenomenal job, keeping things vibrant and stylish when it comes to the look, feel, and visuals of the film, but never making things too showy in those departments; not to the point where the filmmaking overshadows the writing or the acting.

Because, in the end, those aspects are where a movie like Sleuth is going to shine the most. Things begin with Olivier’s character – a wealthy older man named Andrew Wyke – inviting Milo Tindle (Caine) to his isolated mansion. Things largely play out inside, but the mansion’s size means the confined setting never gets boring, with the unusual decor and objects that litter the interior helping to make the whole place feel uneasy and off, which naturally builds tension. Wyke is unfaithful in his marriage and knows his wife is, too. He knows she’s been having her own affair with Tindle, and that’s where the conversation between the two men begins. Wyke has a scheme involving insurance fraud that he convinces Tindle to go along with, but his motives aren’t so clear. Eventually, he pushes too far and humiliates Tindle in a way that makes the younger man desire vengeance of his own… and that’s when the seemingly harmless games between the two get serious, and potentially deadly.

‘Sleuth’ Is Both a Battle of Wits and a Battle Between Acting Legends

sleuth0

The barebones plot outline (it’s not worth giving away too much) of Sleuth already makes it sound like it has the potential to be a great thriller, but it’s the acting that takes things over the edge. Both Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine were both nominated for Best Actor that year and surely one would have won had the competition for 1972 not been so tough (Marlon Brando in The Godfather is a rare untouchable performance). They undoubtedly earned their nominations, though. The whole movie is centered on just the two of them, and they have to carry things for what ends up being a fairly lengthy runtime (138 minutes in total). It’s like a feature-length bottle episode: just a huge amount of dialogue exchanged back and forth, a handful of sets all within the same main location, and no other cast members to bounce off.

Perhaps if there’d been some competition between the actors, that came out in the performances, and made the acting feel even more impactful. Laurence Olivier had been active in the film industry for decades by 1972 and had a total of seven Oscar nominations for acting, plus one win, for 1948’s Hamlet (his nomination for Sleuth became his eighth). Caine likely had more to prove, having only attained considerable acclaim less than a decade earlier, rising to fame in 1964 with Zulu, and getting his first Oscar nomination in 1966, for Alfie (Sleuth marked his second nomination). Just as the film pits an older, richer, and more intellectual (not to mention pretentious) man up against a younger, more naive one, so too does the casting of Sleuth inevitably pit a more experienced older actor against a younger one. Thankfully, both actors rose to the challenge here, and it is indeed more difficult to say if one gives a better performance… though it is possible to say that Caine’s character goes through more changes.

What Makes Michael Caine’s ‘Sleuth’ Role So Complicated?

Sleuth - 1972 (1)
Image via 20th Century Fox

Key to Sleuth’s success as a timelessly engaging thriller is the way it introduces a power dynamic, lets it play out for a while, then starts to suggest a change could happen, and then eventually allows a significant one to occur, changing the well-established previous dynamic completely. Perhaps it’s not if this will happen, but more a question of when and how; that’s what makes Sleuth so rewarding to watch, even if one’s revisiting it or can guess where it’s going. And, as mentioned before, Michael Caine’s character is the one who goes through the most, and becomes the person to challenge Olivier’s character (well, he’s really the only one who can, given the minimal cast of Sleuth).

Milo Tindle seems out of his depths, then distraught, then his motives seem unclear, and then he starts to do things that suggest maybe he has what it takes to be even more cunning and manipulative than the older, purportedly smarter Andrew Wyke. Caine needs to sell these various emotional highs and lows throughout the film, transforming himself in more ways than one; ways that surprise Olivier’s character perhaps as much as they’ll surprise the audience. And Michael Caine excels every step of the way, delivering such a confident performance, both when his character himself is confident and when the character’s at his rock bottom; completely sapped of confidence. Watching the 2007 remake of Sleuth makes it apparent just how good Caine was in the original. Though Jude Law’s a fine actor, the weaker screenplay and reduced length (just 88 minutes!) of 2007’s Sleuth doesn’t let him go through the motions quite as well as Caine had 35 years earlier (the one interesting thing about that remake is that Michael Caine himself appears, this time playing the role Laurence Olivier had in the original… but it’s otherwise pretty unexciting, and entirely inferior to the 1972 film).

RELATED: Michael Caine Officially Retires From Acting at Age 90

Why ‘Sleuth’ Earned All Those Oscar Nominations

Sleuth - 1972 (2)
Image via 20th Century Fox

Selling the idea of Sleuth to someone might be a difficult task, even for those who enjoy other movies starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. A movie released more than half a century ago, all confined within one house, with a runtime that nears 2.5 hours, and featuring just two actors? Maybe some people would hear all those things (which are undoubtedly true statements, it has to be acknowledged), and be turned off. But it’s the execution that makes Sleuth work. A movie that’s well-executed across the board can make just about any premise – big or small – work and be riveting. And make no mistake: riveting is, without a doubt, a word that can be used to describe this absolute classic from the 1970s.

With its four Oscar nominations (beyond Olivier and Caine, Mankiewicz got a Best Director nomination, and composer John Addison got a nomination for Best Original Dramatic Score), and relatively high average ratings on sites like IMDb and Letterboxd, perhaps Sleuth isn’t quite underrated. It clearly has a certain amount of recognition and respect, but could still be called perhaps under-appreciated, or otherwise deserving of more love (its lack of a Blu-ray release and general absence from streaming services don’t help, either). Without a doubt, anyone who hasn’t seen it and wants to appreciate what might be Michael Caine’s best-ever performance should put in the effort to track it down, because on top of Caine, Sleuth’s also got an astoundingly good screenplay, a great Laurence Olivier performance, and plenty of style and atmosphere. It combines thrills and humor exceptionally well, allows Michael Caine to carry (with Olivier) an entire movie, and gives the legendary actor many memorable opportunities to shine. With news of his retirement, Caine’s presence on screen will be missed, but at least the performances he gave in the past – including his one in Sleuth – will live on and continue to be enjoyed forever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *