Deathtrap (1982)


(director: Sidney Lumet; screenwriters: Jay Presson Allen/from the play of Ira Levin; cinematographer: Andrzej Bartkowiak; editor: John J. Fitzstephens; cast: Michael Caine (Sidney Bruhl), Christopher Reeve (Clifford Anderson), Dyan Cannon (Myra Bruhl), Irene Worth (Helga Ten Dorp), Henry Jones (Porter Milgrim); Runtime: 116; Warner; 1982)
“What eventually shines through, is how clever and manipulative the script is.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A verbose talk-fest, a play more than a film experience, as adapted by Sidney Lumet from Ira Levin’s Broadway play about a parlor murder game. Lumet, as always, sucks any subtlety out of his films. Here he is in a bit of a theatrical frenzy in portraying the characters, relying more on plot twists than character development. In comparison with a similar-type of stage play put to the silver screen, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Sleuth, Lumet’s is clearly the inferior one.

The film centers around the Michael Caine character, Sidney Bruhl, a once successful mystery playwright, who at the age of 46 has lost his ability to write. He is tired of living off his wealthy wife, Myra (Cannon), in their spacious and attractive East Hampton home. When his latest Broadway play flops, his fourth such disaster in a row, he returns home drunk and depressed; but, he tells his wife that a student in one of his writing seminars sent him a brilliant manuscript that he would kill for. At first, Myra thinks he is joking about killing for the play but she changes her mind and thinks he’s serious when he tells her this student, whom he doesn’t even remember what he looks like, Clifford Anderson (Reeves), “has written a play that is so good, even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.” To make matters even better, he is a loner who has no other copies of the manuscript. She begins to think, maybe he isn’t joking, that he actually might kill for a hit play.

The story builds in suspense when the cheery Clifford arrives in their house to go over the play with his former teacher and Sidney carries out his plan to kill him by trickily getting him to handcuff himself with his souvenir Houdini handcuffs and then strangling him with another prop from one of his plays. Myra tried to stop him, but could only helplessly scream, feeling repelled that her husband could do something like that. But she is unwilling to turn him over to the cops. At this point, the film had a fluidity and a definite macabre comical tone to it. But it changes in a drastically different direction and the surprises in the plot, from here on, come about faster than a Venice Beach skateboarder trying to impress a movie scout.

Removing Clifford’s body, with his reluctant wife’s help, the Bruhls are about to retire for the night when a nosy neighbor, Helga Ten Dorp (Worth), a visitor from Holland who is staying with the family next door, pays them a visit. She also happens to be a psychic and senses something is wrong in the house; she feels pain everywhere, especially in the study-area where Sidney keeps his mementos from his other plays which include guns, knives, and swords. The psychic clearly sees dangers ahead and warns the couple to leave the house, she is especially fearful about what will happen to Myra.

What eventually shines through, is how clever and manipulative is the script. I felt used by the characterizations, as it took away a lot of the pleasure derived from the snappy dialogue and the absurdity of the story line that worked really well in the first act. Caine seemed marvelous at first, but I soon tired of his constantly frantic look. It was Dyan Cannon with her sweet giggles and frustrated looks who brought a needed restraint, and as long as she was onscreen the film had an edge. Too many contrivances made everything seem superficial, which is a shame, because the film did have its funny moments.