What kind of bait goes on a Deathtrap?
Warner Archive has offered a number of forgotten oddities on DVD, such as The Last Dinosaur or Jabberjaw, not major releases, but available for the cult following fans who want them. Now, Warner Archive has released Deathtrap on Blu-ray. It seems like an unlikely choice, since it was directed by film legend Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men), written by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby) and starring huge stars Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules) and Christopher Reeve (Superman). For whatever the reason, fans and newcomers alike get a fun mystery flick on high-def .
Sidney Bruhl (Caine) is a down-on-his-luck playwright desperate for a big hit to save his career. He then receives a script from a former student of his, Cliff Anderson (Reeve). Bruhl says Anderson’s script is the best he’s ever read. Bruhl and his wife Myra (Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait) concoct a plan to invite Anderson to their home on the pretense of working on the script with him, when in reality, they’re plotting to murder the young man and claim his script for their own. As three of them meet on that fateful night, they’d best be wary, because not all is as it seems.
It’s an old joke that you can’t have a murder mystery with only three characters—victim, killer, and detective—but I’ll be damned if Lumet and Levin haven’t pulled it off. OK, there’s no traditional “detective” character in Deathtrap, but all three characters do a lot of clue-finding and puzzle-solving in their attempts to one-up each other. The story takes place almost entirely inside the Bruhl home. One half of the room looks like a rustic country home. The other half, Bruhl’s office, is covered with weapons of all sizes and shapes, props from the mystery plays he’s written. Lumet, as always, knows exactly where to place the camera to elicit the most drama of any given scene. Despite everything happening in a single space, Lumet’s camerawork never makes it feel like we’re watching a stage play.
The nature of this material relies on powerful acting to carry it, and Michael Caine carries it well. He bounces back and forth from charming one minute to furious outrage the next. At times, these changes in tempo seem out of nowhere, but as the scene progresses, suddenly you realize what the character is up to and what game he’s playing, and it all makes sense. Reeve is good as well. He starts the film in “aw, shucks” nice guy mode, not to dissimilar from his most famous role as ol’ Red Boots. But as the plot goes on, we see more and more sides to the character, and Reeves reveals more depth to him. Cannon goes over the top as the whiny, shrewish wife, but she too gets some moments of real humanity, where you can see Myra cares about what’s happening, and that the human lives on the line mean something to her. Also along for the ride are Irene Worth (Lost in Yonkers) as a nosy neighbor who claims to be psychic and Henry Jones (Vertigo) as Bruhl’s lawyer. Worth hams it up big time, but I really liked Jones who takes a low-key, world-weary approach to his otherwise exposition-heavy character.
This movie is infamous for a scene in which two characters kiss. The kiss is notable because…no, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say I wasn’t offended, and I thought it worked in the context of the story. Deathtrap is a tale with plot twist upon plot twist upon plot twist, and the kiss was one big reveal in a series of big reveals. In other words, don’t let one much-talked-about kissing scene get in the way of your enjoyment of the movie.
While the Blu-ray’s picture doesn’t have the near-perfect clarity of the best discs on shelves, it’s just fine, without any noticeable defects, and making the most of the rustic brown and burgundy color scheme inside the Bruhl house. The audio is much the same, not booming, but good, so that the all-important dialogue comes through just fine, as does the harpsichord-centric score from composer Johnny Mandel. A trailer is the only extra.
Deathtrap takes the mystery genre and puts a number of clever new spins on it, both a whodunit and a who’s-gonna-do-it. Great performances, great direction, and a great script make it a must-see.