The Principals: Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, Christopher ReeveThe Premise: Sidney Bruhl (Caine) is a famous playwright of murder mysteries. The film opens with the opening night of his newest play, which the crowd and critics all think is junk. Bruhl does the only sensible thing and gets shitfaced and then rides the train home to his secluded Long Island estate where his panicky wife, Myra (Cannon), is waiting for him. Bruhl is twisted up over his play, but he’s even more twisted up over the script Clifford Anderson (Reeve), one of Bruhl’s former students, has sent him. The play, “Deathtrap,” is completely brilliant. So brilliant that Bruhl decides to invite Anderson over to the house. He tells Myra that he plans to murder Anderson so he can steal “Deathtrap.” But is he serious?
That’s all I can tell you in good conscience. Like a good card trick, trying to figure the puzzle out here is half the fun.
Is It Good: Deathtrap dazzles with how much excitement it generates with only one location and rarely more than two characters on screen at any point in the film. A wealth of the credit goes to Ira Levin’s stageplay, which is a gold mine of wicked dialogue and delirious plot twists, but the danger in adapting this kind of play into a film is that it will seem claustrophobic and small. So Sidney Lumet was a perfect choice to take on directing duties. Who better than the man who made a film set solely in a jury room into a riveting masterpiece? Lumet breathes so much life and energy into the script that you begin to completely forget you’re stuck inside a house for almost two hours.
Michael Caine is always good, and quite often great. This is an occasion where he is great. Few actors can so effortlessly shift between scenery chewing and subtly from beat to beat. The look on his face when Cannon realizes he might actually be serious about killing Anderson is wonderful. Cannon (who I haven’t seen in many other films) is a lot of fun as Myra. And while Reeve can seem a little outmatched when paired up with Caine, he suits his role perfectly, which helps smooth out most of his performance wrinkles.
Is It Worth A Look: I suspect there are people out there who just can’t get into this kind of film, maybe unable to find substance with the twists-for-twists’-sake tropes of the subgenre. Which is too bad. Cause Deathtrap is quite simply one of the best twisty-turny, comedy-thrillers cinema has ever offered up; Sleuth, also based on a popular play and starring Caine oddly enough, is the only film that may arguably be better; may. Deathtrap is a frustrating film to discuss, as I would not deprive those who haven’t seen it of the pleasure of watching it unravel naturally. Thus I’m forced to give it somewhat hollow praise.
Random Anecdote: Dyan Cannon was nominated for a Razzie for this movie, which is just one of many, many examples which serve to prove that the Razzies are even stupider than the Oscars.
Anecdote For Those Who Have Seen The Film: (highlight to read) The kissing scene between Sidney and Clifford was not in Levin’s play. In his book The Celluloid Closet, gay film historian Vito Russo reports Reeve as saying that the kiss was booed by preview audiences in Denver, Colorado and estimating that a Time magazine report on the incident (which spoiled a key plot element) cost the film $10 million in ticket sales.