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Release Date(s)1982 (November 20, 2012)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Warner Archive)
This may be hard for many of you to believe but there was once a time when movies were based on hit plays, not the other way around. Your mind is probably already blown but hold on, it gets crazier. Believe it or not, during this time, not every show on Broadway was a musical. I know, right? Inconceivable!
One of the most popular and enduring theatrical genres is the murder mystery. The preeminent example is Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. In London, that play long ago went beyond being merely wildly successful. It’s now more like a cultural institution, still running after 60 years, presumably by royal command.
We have shorter attention spans here in America, so our longest-running thriller doesn’t come close to that record. Still, with a four-year run of 1,793 performances, Ira Levin’s Deathtrap was no slouch, which meant that a movie adaptation was inevitable. And while Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap was only moderately successful at the time, it’s held up surprisingly well over the years.
Michael Caine stars as Sidney Bruhl, a once-successful comedy thriller playwright suffering through a long string of flops. After a particularly disastrous opening night, he’s dismayed to receive an unsolicited manuscript from a former student, a two-act, five-character thriller entitled Deathtrap. The play is so good and Sidney is so desperate, he considers killing the young writer and passing the script off as his own. His hysterical, frail wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon), instead urges him to collaborate with the young man. And so, Sidney invites Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve) out to his country estate, although what he intends to do with him is anybody’s guess.
Deathtrap is often compared to Sleuth, another comedy thriller that starred Michael Caine (twice now, in fact, following Kenneth Branagh’s 2007 remake). And while Deathtrap isn’t quite the twisty delight that Sleuth is, it offers plenty of its own pleasures. The movie is both an entertaining thriller as well as a sly, if gentle, commentary on itself, made long before such post-modern meta-fictions were commonplace. Cannon’s shrieky performance tends to grate on the nerves a bit but both Caine and Reeve are in top form. Reeve, in particular, seems to be having a field day stepping well outside his Superman image. It’s a performance that should have opened more doors for him than it did.
Deathtrap was a surprising but welcome addition to Warner Archive’s Blu-ray collection. This marks the first time the movie has been available on home video in its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio and it looks pretty terrific. Colors are warm and rich and the image is nicely detailed, if maybe a hair too smooth at times. Not enough that most people will complain or even notice, but there a few moments that seem slightly less cinematic and more processed than others. The mono sound is in DTS-HD Master Audio and it’s fairly unremarkable. No complaints but there’s nothing to really gush over, either. The disc includes the original trailer, which does a pretty good job of selling the movie without revealing too much.
On Broadway, thrillers and whodunits have long since gone out of style. But they remain extremely popular, especially on television. Witness the success of the BBC’s Sherlock. Deathtrap is an enjoyable throwback to a somewhat old-fashioned genre enlivened by some fantastic performances. It’s also a slightly ahead of its time comedy with some fascinating subtext that makes it worth revisiting. If you’ve never seen it, or if you haven’t seen it since 1982, it’s worth checking out.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke