Back in 1972, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine starred in a film version of Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth, as two men who face off over a woman in a witty, cerebral game of extended one-upmanship. Their marathon work netted them both Best Actor nominations. Thirty-five years later, a new version of Sleuth, directed by Kenneth Branagh, remains an acting showdown (it opened last Friday in limited release). Caine is back, but now he’s playing the older man to Jude Law’s young upstart. Their battle is, again, over a woman, but almost nothing else remains the same. While the original film was written by Shaffer himself, this time the play has been very loosely adapted by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, and he’s made the piece faster, meaner, and weirder.
Last month at the Toronto Film Festival, EW.com sat down with Caine, Law, and Branagh to talk Pinter, remakes, English accents, Olivier, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Michael and Jude, how long have you known each other?
MICHAEL CAINE: About four or five years.
JUDE LAW: We went to dinner.
But weren’t you up against each other for the Academy Award in 2000? [Law was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for The Talented Mr. Ripley, but Caine won that year for The Cider House Rules.] Jude, have you forgiven this guy from stealing your Oscar?
LAW: I’ve really just gotten over it!
CAINE: We met then, but it was a year or two after that we went to dinner.
A new version of Sleuth was entirely your idea, right, Jude?
CAINE: It’s his fault! If it works well, it’s mine.
LAW: Let me tell you, from the start, it wasn’t an idea to remake the 1972 version, because that’s a great film. It was simply about taking the essence of it. And the essence of this story is very simple, and kind of timeless — it’s the idea of two men fighting over a woman, and it’s about why we fight, and then the strange kind of camaraderie that sometimes kicks in.
Did you talk to Michael about it first?
LAW: I mentioned it, but he was very blunt —
CAINE: Because I wouldn’t have made it. Because when Jude asked me, I thought he was going to remake the Shaffer script. We were eating, and he said, ”How would you feel about a remake of Sleuth?” I said, ”All right.” But I would never have remade this with the Shaffer script, you see.
CAINE: How are you gonna improve on the first one, really, when it had Larry [Olivier] and [director] Joe Mankiewicz, and we had 16 weeks to shoot, you know? In the end, we made this one in four.
How did you approach Pinter to write it?
LAW: We made a wish list. Harold was at the top of it. To be honest, I just wanted an excuse to go to lunch with Harold Pinter. But his involvement, I think, signaled to everyone that this was going to be something different. It was gonna be his. And the essence of the story was very well suited to him and his style. I think that really attracted all of us.
KENNETH BRANAGH: Because Pinter says himself, ”I don’t do plot.” So it’s very handy for him to get something that’s already got the mechanics in place.
CAINE: It’s a great plot!
BRANAGH: So he didn’t need to do anything complicated. That way, it’s about atmosphere and character. And of course he absolutely went to town on that — and he made it an hour shorter than the previous film; it’s much shorter than the play.
CAINE: Yeah, what the hell else did we do in the original one? [Everybody laughs] Because, you see, I haven’t seen the first one in 30 years. And Pinter’s never seen it!
BRANAGH: Yeah, he read the play twice and that was it. He ran with it. He retained one line — ”It’s only a game” — and the rest of it was his.
NEXT PAGE: ”The whole movie was an adrenaline rush,” Caine says. ”When I got home, I slept for two days.”