“Deathtrap” (1982)

by A.J. Hakari

"Deathtrap" poster

 

Resisting the urge to decipher a murder mystery before you even see it is virtually unheard of. It’s natural to hit up our memory banks and think of potential clues, double-crosses, plot twists, and all that. Admittedly, keeping such eagle-eyed tabs over a show’s every step can get in the way of actually enjoying the damn thing, which is what makes Deathtrap such good fun. A film well-versed in the ways of audience members itching to stay one step ahead, Deathtrap presents itself such a wickedly wry manner, seeing both its satire and the pieces of its own deadly puzzle come together are equal treats.

No one makes plays like Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) anymore. The trouble is that neither does he; once the writer of Broadway’s longest-running comedy/thriller, the man just hit his fourth flop in a row. However, when it seems like success and financial independence from his ditzy wife (Dyan Cannon) are a distant dream, into Sidney’s lap falls the ultimate meal ticket. Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), a budding wordsmith who attended one of Sidney’s seminars, has created the perfect stage mystery…one over which Sidney has no qualms about killing. But this being a picture with murder in mind, nothing is as it appears, for when Sidney invites the unsuspecting Clifford to his country home, it’s just the first act of a diabolical plot waiting to unhatch itself.

Deathtrap isn’t a comedy in the way Clue or Murder by Death are. It’s not a direct spoof of the mystery genre’s most recognizable figures or weariest tropes. Instead, its humor comes from its wit — the need to generate its own attention-grabbing material rather than reference others’ — which made the Broadway hit it’s based upon into its own runaway smash. Deathtrap is quite funny, thanks chiefly to Sidney’s bitter ranting about the theatre business and later attempts to pull one over on those pulling one over on him. But it can also be a startling and effective thriller itself, in ways I dare not reveal but which do the story a great service. This is a film that can back up the game it talks, observing how weary certain cliches have become in addition to offering some surprising twists of its own.

Deathtrap also benefits from a cast that, more often than not, is up to the task of selling some tricky material. Caine is great as the acerbic Sidney, his tone moist with sarcasm and condescending to perfection. That he fills this role’s shoes with ease is a no-brainer, but Reeve’s role is doubly impressive. Cast at a time when he sought to be seen as more than Superman, Reeve’s performance walks a thin line between naive and dangerous, convincingly switching from affable to unstable in an instant. Both he and Caine are in tune with the plot’s balancing act, which unfortunately can’t be said for the other additions to this humble ensemble. Cannon overacts a touch much (though she has her moments), but Irene Worth’s Dutch psychic is straight from “Looney Tunes.” A take-off on the omniscient detective character, Worth tries too hard to be quirky and endearing, resulting in the dreadful possibility that she might very well make it to the credits alive.

Newly-arrived on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection, Deathtrap held up just fine for my second go-around. Some of that initial discovery and excitement is lost, but the clever script and top-notch leading performances are still plenty crisp. If you dig your comedic thrillers with a bit of bite, then Deathtrap is just the brew to down.

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