Sunday, October 8, 2017


(PG, Warner Bros., 116 mins., theatrical release date: March 19, 1982)

Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap, based on the long-running Ira Levin twister which premiered on stage in 1978, plays to win and then plays all over again, becoming more playful with each curveball. It's a blatant pun to hang an opening statement on, but Levin and the characters he wrote kid knowingly with the impetus of creation, the huffing motivation and the dramaturgic glossary of the pre-production stage. And Lumet, whose Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express will be getting revamped by Kenneth Branagh, has relinquished his grittier side (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) for sprightly humor and potboiler suspense. The main character, an over-the-hill author of theatrical murder mysteries (with names such as "Gunpoint," "In for the Kill" and "The Murder Game") realizes while clutching his own outside goldmine: "Even a gifted director couldn't hurt it." One can easily picture Lumet coming to the same epiphany with Levin's sure thing, rewritten for the screen by Jay Presson Allen.

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) could use such a windfall more than Sidney Lumet. "Murder Most Fair" has just opened appallingly at the Music Box, his fourth successive flop and the catalyst for derisive jeers from producer Seymour Starger (Joe Silver) and the theater critics on TV, among them Joel Siegel and Jeffery Lyons. "I'm doing the only sensible thing," Bruhl screams at his wife Myra (Dyan Cannon), who's resting up back at his Easthampton abode. "I'm getting pissed!" But he gets too soused and misses the train station, reaching the end of the line at Montauk ("Bloody symbolic"). Further humiliating him is the unimpeachable first draft of a play called "Deathtrap," written and sent by one Clifford Anderson, who attended Bruhl's most recent college seminar. Estimating its value at up to $5,000,000 (not including T-shirt sales), Bruhl looks at the antique mace on his wall mount of weapons, stage props and genuine articles both, and contemplates making a killing.

The purse-clutching Myra, whose angina has set her constantly on edge, is catatonic at how serious Bruhl is about the murder plot. He calls Anderson up and invites him over under the pretext of collaboration and counseling. When Bruhl goes to pick up the first-time protégé, it's not a "glandular case" or a stammering dolt he encounters, but a handsome boy scout. Anderson (Christopher Reeve), taking along the proof of his beckoning career's work, coyly rebukes Bruhl's egomaniacal assistance, all the while Myra raises a voice of frazzled conscience. Alas, Bruhl bluffs his way into one-upping Anderson by proclaiming he's got two hot new projects. One of which is based on Harry Houdini, the better for Bruhl to entice Anderson to try on "trick" handcuffs.

Welcome to Act I of Ira Levin's (filmed) play, the 40-minute set-up for ever more chicanery fraught with suspicion, envy and homicidal urges. Deathtrap continues the battle of wills between Anderson and Bruhl, but what happens is far too eccentric and witty to dictate in review form. 35 years later, it is fairly known that a chaste smooch between Caine and Reeve appalled straight audiences, inspiring novelty musician Tom Smith to claim that "Two Guys Kissin' (Ruined My Life)." Mad Magazine ridiculed the film in their October 1982 issue, and Dyan Cannon was singled out by the Golden Raspberry committee for a Worst Supporting Actress nomination (Cannon, Rutanya Alda from Amityville II: The Possession and Colleen Camp in The Seduction all lost to Aileen "Annie" Quinn).

Come on. I just tore Seltzerberg a fresh asshole for their thoughtless crimes against parody. I wouldn't trust an obscure "filkie," a poor man's National Lampoon and the homeless man's Stinker Movie Awards to make fun of what already is an immensely humorous effort. And there is a lot to laugh at in Deathtrap without acting on juvenile superiority. Dyan Cannon is advertently playing Myra for laughs. Her every doting exclamation of "Sidney" or "darling," even going so far as to call Sidney "my darling darling," is a friendly, ticklish poke in the ribs instead of a balled fist. But she is also convincingly fearful in those speechless moments as she watches Bruhl scheme, her cupcake-sweet face going haggard and pupils dilating in close-up, nervously clutching her ring finger in the backdrop. The guilt she confesses in her attempt to tell Sidney to move out is palpable.

And Cannon isn't the only one with a firm grasp on the insanity of it all. Michael Caine has been in a lot of schlocky movies where he was reduced to a stick of dynamite begging for a match. The character of Sidney Bruhl puts the flame to the fuse. Christopher Reeve was clearly still fixed in the collective conscious as a mere comic book hero. As Clifford Anderson, he's sexier, smarter and phenomenally sinister when the occasion calls for it. Caine and Reeve would recycle the same personae in Peter Bogdanovich's version of Noises Off a decade later, but Lumet not only scratches the surface, he gets these actors' exposed marrow. Reeve feigned nosebleeds as the dimwitted hunk in Noises; Deathtrap allows him uncut hilarity after rising from the dead in the Bruhls' vegetable patch.

And there's a fourth party, the Dutch empath next door who occasionally surveys the hazardous shack while sensing "pain, pain, pain!" every foot of the way. Helga Ten Dorp is a budding showbiz personality with a book about her fantastic life of ESP-assisted criminal investigation and a slot on The Merv Griffin Show. And she is played by Irene Worth in one of the most amusing supporting performances of 1982, a comic blitzkrieg on the level of Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli, Bill Murray's Jeff Slater and Joe Bologna's King Kaiser. She will, in as much as the principal stars, be diagnosed with Bruhl calls "thrilleritis malignus," or "the fevered pursuit of the one-set, five-character moneymaker." And like the "master plotter" himself, the fortune awaiting the run of "Deathtrap" strikes her as an enticing retirement fund, as she is aging out of her precognitive talent as much as Bruhl.

The biggest change from Levin's original amorality tale comes at the end, which wraps up in cautionary fashion with Anderson and/or Bruhl's play causing Helga and the porter to become starry-eyed over the prospect of their very own shot at "Deathtrap." The movie diverges in that, complementing the addition of an opening scene depicting Bruhl's pitiful opening night, we actually see who reaps the rewards (here, the porter is played by Henry Jones). The decision strikes me as less of a cheat than the Hollywood ending of Noises Off, if only because there is some context and the kind of irony you'd find in the non-directory yellow pages. The shock cut which takes us there, however, makes it come across as a rushed, if not false, note.

Sidney Lumet does more wonders with the baked-in staginess of Deathtrap than Bogdanovich on Noises Off. Once again assisted by Andrzej Bartkowiak (of Prince of the City and the subsequent The Verdict), Lumet fashions a homely menace out of the countryside mansion, replete with dapper door and windmill, and judiciously moves his camera to get over the one-set, two-act treachery. The foreboding storm which darkens the house at the conclusion works the strobe light a bit too much, and the same overkill is applied to Dyan Cannon's piercing scream during an equally scary set piece, which results in an obvious dubbing gaffe. Would that those were as natural as Johnny Mandel's frisky score, the presence of Tony "Signore Bumbacelli" DiBenedetto (as Burt, the Bartender) and Tony Walton's astute contributions to both production and costume design. 

Deathtrap's ultimate enjoyment comes down to a quartet of excellent performances, the moments where fanatical ambition gives way to sociopathic psychoses and the inflating manner in which real life writes the play. What compels Sidney Bruhl and Clifford Anderson to succeed by nefarious pragmatic necessity is either a self-loathing yearning for the simplest possible life or the cocky, deranged reverence which is the downside of most aspiring self-starters. Bruhl wants to hold on to upper-class prestige without being lumped in with the "ex-mistresses of ex-presidents, former CIA assassins and happy hookers" just out for publicity. Anderson's giddy demeanor just feeds off that fantasy. Where Myra Bruhl and Helga Ten Dorp fit into this story...well, I suggest you find out for yourself. Deathtrap is really that good. Even a gifted reviewer couldn't hurt it.

[Thanks to Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg of the '80s All Over podcast for lighting the fuse of this particular rundown.]

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