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A Winning 'Deathtrap'

By Gary Arnold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 1982; Page F1

"Deathtrap" seems an unusually skillful and satisfying example of devious entertainment. It offers as much double-crossing amusement as one can reasonably expect from a theatrical murder mystery.

Opening today at area theaters, the movie version of "Deathtrap" promises to enlarge on the success of Ira Levin's original Broadway hit. Deftly transposed by screenwriter Jay Presson Allen and director Sidney Lumet, the play has inspired zestful, inventive performances from the four principals--Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Dyan Cannon and Irene Worth. "Deathtrap" is basically fun to watch because this classy quartet appears to take so much humorous pleasure in the material.

Cannon, for example, is evolving into such an inventive comic actress that she threatens to explode the boundaries established by Levin's plot. Taking off from her jumpy routine as the scheming wife in "Heaven Can Wait," she invests her character in "Deathtrap" -- the doting, apprehensive spouse of Caine, a failing playwright desperate enough to contemplate murder to acquire a promising manuscript -- with an astonishing, freshly hilarious case of the jitters.

She's so full of surprising reflexes and expressions that you want more of this endearing, wobbly helpmate than circumstances allow. You'd like to see the role expand to accommodate all the comic shading now at Cannon's command.

Worth, a celebrated dramatic star on the stage, finally gets an effective movie opportunity. Cast as the querulous Swedish psychic who keeps hovering around the premises, threatening to expose an unfolding murder conspiracy with an absentminded flash of intuition, Worth suddenly seems like a specialist in eccentric comedy who must have been adorning the medium for years. It's as if this dotty characterization put the icing on a venerable screen career.

Reeve's comic skills shouldn't surprise anyone who realizes how hopeless the "Superman" movies would have been without them. Nevertheless, a misconception lingers among the uninformed that any handsome young lug could have done justice to a comic-book hero.

The role in "Deathtrap" calls for a schizophrenic personality of a radically different sort, and it must have appealed to Reeve as a means of shocking viewers out of the tendency to identify him with the Clark Kent-Superman role. He ingratiates himself in a fresh way by impersonating a charming menace, extending his range to the amoral, treacherous aspects of human nature.

Caine was, of course, the costar of "Sleuth," the last prominent movie drawn from a popular theatrical murder thriller. Casting him as Sidney Bruhl, the predatory protagonist of "Deathtrap," incorporates an inside career joke that certainly does no harm to the material. Relishing the hamminess of Sidney, a desperate theatrical monster, Caine generously shares his enjoyment in every feature of the role without playing it false--the epigrammatic zingers, the furtive scene-setting, the temperamental binges and even the protruding potbelly, an authentic flabby touch for a middle-aged, sedentary character--Caine has never been funnier than he is as busy, scheming Sidney.

Sidney, once a box-office master of the mystery genre, suffers another discouraging flop as the movie begins. Returning in drunken despondency to his East Hampton residence, he startles his devoted wife, Myra, with the suggestion that only crime can save his career. An aspiring young playwright has sent him the manuscript of a mystery Sidney would perhaps kill to call his own.

He invites the talented novice, Clifford Anderson, to drop over for a chat, lying blithely about his evaluation of the play over the phone--"A very promising first draft . . . a bit unsteady at the odd moment, of course . . . " When the guest arrives, the scene is set for murderous deception, hopefully at the expense of the audience's expectations. The principal setting is the interior of the Bruhl residence in East Hampton, a windmill manor quite a bit roomier than the stage set, yet still effectively concentrated. Lumet and his key collaborators--designer Tony Walton, cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, and editor John J. Fitzstephens--retain the theatrical atmosphere and tension of the material in slightly more spacious, flexible surroundings.

There also are playful bonuses, like the brief appearance of reviewers attached to the New York TV stations to pan Sidney's play on the evening news broadcasts. Who could have imagined that the Joel Siegel who keeps popping up in the movie ads would turn out to be a spitting caricature of Gene Shalit?

Levin's least attractive tendency is a nasty-minded streak that can be traced without much variation from "A Kiss Before Dying" through "Rosemary's Baby" through "The Stepford Wives" through "The Boys From Brazil" through "Deathtrap." It's this tendency that compromises the fadeout. I haven't the foggiest idea how Levin could manuever himself out of a tight plot corner and invent a kicker that is really satisfying, but the alternative he resorts to isn't. There has to be a way of bringing down the curtain without suggesting that everyone is a crook at heart.

© 1982 The Washington Post Company