Michael Caine: Outsmarting Your Opponent to Death

Michael Caine (L) matches wits with Lawrence Olivier. Image: Arizona Daily Sun

Sometimes nothing is more tedious than a person who will go to Any Lengths to prove a point.

There’s no getting around it with these folks; the rotation of the earth is threatened if they can’t beat you about the head with their Point.

Sometimes the Point is noble, such as fighting for safe drinking water or advocating for the wrongly imprisoned. Other times, the Point is more frivolous, such as how to load the dishwasher.

But when the Point is proving Who is smarter than Who, things usually take a dangerous turn. The 1972 black comedy Sleuth bears this out.

Sleuth stars Lawrence Olivier as a wealthy, egocentric mystery novelist, and Michael Caine as an egocentric, up-and-coming entrepreneur. If one takes a dislike to the other, there’s going to be Trouble – and more Trouble than either of them expected.

Things start cordially enough. The wealthy Olivier invites Caine to his countryside manor on a bright, unsuspecting afternoon. They have a drink, they chat about mystery novels.

Olivier’s character is an elitist. He claims there was a time when all the nation’s leaders read detective thrillers (and were surely the better for it). He’s an insufferable snob, and flaunts his wealth by his home and his odd collection of games and toys.

Caine’s character, at first, appears to be more grounded. He comes from a poor immigrant family and knows the value of a Pound Sterling. He works hard and believes he’ll be a Captain of Industry in a few more years. He does not read novels about detectives.

But he does like Olivier’s wife. He’s having an affair with her.

Olivier sniffs and prances about, pretending it doesn’t matter if his wife wants to marry Caine. At first, Caine (the poor slob) believes this malarky, but it soon becomes evident Olivier seeks Revenge.

Caine starts to realize what he’s In For. Image: Projected Perspectives

It’s a treat to watch Olivier in this role, chewing the scenery with flourish. It’s as though he knows he’s being too much, but such is the character, so there you have it.

It’s a demanding role, but his performance – believe it or not – depends on Caine’s reaction to it. Is such a theatrical character to be believed? Caine says Yes.

At first, we believe Caine to be the sensible one, and we depend on him for balance against Olivier’s near madness.

Olivier begins a vengeful Game of Humiliation by proposing the two stage a robbery right there in the manor. Caine is skeptical – offended, even. But Olivier’s character is a salesman and, before long, he has spurred Caine to action.

Caine has the less colourful, more nuanced role; yet we always look to him for guidance re: Olivier. He acts as a tour guide of Olivier’s psyche, and we view him as something of a hero for doing so.

But, by the end of the film, Caine’s character unveils his own darkness. He’s willing to go just as far – if not farther – than Olivier to prove his own Point.

Caine pleads for his life. Image: As Time Goes By

Sleuth is based on the successful 1970 Tony award-winning play by Anthony Shaffer, who adapted the play for film. Director Joseph L. Mankewicz removed some of the “staginess” of the story, but kept the structure of the play intact.

The film would suffer, we think, if the screenplay had been altered too much from the play. One of the reasons this film works is the opulent environment: It doesn’t make the characters look ridiculous. The setting can withstand the men’s growing hatred and desire to utterly humiliate each other.

We might as well face it. Both of these men, deep down, do not feel they fit into “normal” society. Olivier’s character thinks himself as superior to society, yet craves its prestige. Caine’s character feels inferior to society, but craves its wealth.

Sleuth is a well-executed game that keeps you guessing until the last minute. If wonder why Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine are film legends, this film is a place to start.

  • Sleuth was nominated for four Oscars: Best Actor for both Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier, Best Director and Best Original Dramatic Score.
  • This is part of the MARVELLOUS MICHAEL CAINE BLOGATHON hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews.

Sleuth: starring Lawrence Olivier, Michael Caine, Alec Cawthorne. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Written by Anthony Shaffer. Palomar Pictures, Colour, 1972, 138 mins.



  1. I saw the play during its London run (I use the word “saw” a tad loosely: me being an impecunious student at the time, my seat was in the gods and the stage was very distant . . .) but have never felt much urge to see the movie. Alas, though I like Olivier very much as an actor, I have difficulty with Caine. You’ve almost convinced me, though, that I should give the movie a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you do see the film, I’d be keen to know what you think of it.

      As for the terrific word “impecunious” I’m both pleased (and a little embarrassed) to say it’s new to me, and I’m going to use it heartily.


  2. As much as I love classic films, I’m actually more of a fan of earlier classics than later ones (like from the 1960’s and onward) but I loved this film. I loved how Caine and Olivier played off of one another and Michael Caine showed so many different emotions in this film. Interestingly, they remade this film in 2007 where Caine takes on Olivier’s role while Jude Law plays the role he played in the original. I haven’t seen that film, though.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard of the 2007 film, and will see it soon to compare notes. It’s probably very good, and it will be interesting to see what’s similar and what’s different.

      I LOVED Caine and Olivier playing off each other in this film, like you said. It’s a pleasure to watch these two talented actors go at each other. I can’t believe I waited so long to see it.


  3. I am so glad you highlighted Sleuth for the blogathon. It’s such a great film and one, I feel, doesn’t get enough mention when people talk about Michael Caine. Yet it’s one of is best.
    It has to be one of the finest maze-like mysteries with a core of total surprise that I’ve ever seen. Maybe I’m just easily fooled, but I was completely shocked by the twists. The opening credits showing several actors other than Caine and Olivier was a large part of that. It was quite a surprise to me to see Olivier in that kind of role, but Caine more than matched him!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article that zeroes in on one facet of Caine’s brilliance, his devilishly clever persona. Amazing screen shots, too–what a GORGEOUS man!! Still is…happy birthday to Sir Michael!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha – yes, Michael Caine is one of those blessed with near-impossible good looks. I had always admired his performances, and Sleuth is no exception. He’s an actor who always gives you your money’s worth, as far as I can tell.


  5. I’ve seen the 2007 re-make; with Caine in Olivier’s shoes, and Jude Law in Caine’s. What interested me about the 07′ version was that Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay adapted from Anthony Shaffer’s play. Both great playwrights!! Yet, it wasn’t a great movie; though still pretty good.
    I’d really love to watch this original; especially as Lawrence Olivier is one of my favourite actors ever. Now am more intrigued.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t realize Harold Pinter wrote the 2007 version of “Sleuth” – that is interesting. I still have to see that version, with Michael Caine and Jude Law.

      I think you might like this older version. Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine don’t pull any punches here.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. SLEUTH is a very entertaining picture exceeding well acted by the leads. I agree that it needs to remain faithful to its stage origins. I feel similar about another Caine twister: DEATHTRAP. I saw it on stage prior to the film and it reminds quite a bit of SLEUTH.


  7. Loved this film, Ruth, and i’m so thankful for this reminder. I’ve a trip in the not so distant future and this film is a great one to take along. Sure beats anything they’ll be playing in-flight. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree – I think “Sleuth” would be a terrific film to take on a flight…but you might get a lot of people trying to watch it over your shoulder. 😉

      Are you off to someplace exotic, I hope?


  8. I’m not sure what is meant by “staginess”. I saw Sleuth on Broadway,and it was brilliant. I was always sad that they changed the final line of the play. The one that is in the film is NOT as good.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. One of my favourite of Caine’s and Olivier’s. I like the intimate focus of the film and the class of the two actors is allowed to shine courtesy of the two-hand set-up.

    Liked by 1 person

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