Two’s trouble when three’s a crowd…
A successful playwright – with writer’s block – has murder on his mind when the only copy of the perfect play falls into his hands.
Deathtrap (Original Theatrical Trailer), warnerarchive and photos © Warner Bros
Michael Caine films just don’t get better than Deathtrap (1982). Caine takes the limelight in this witty mystery and psychological crime chiller movie. This comedy film shows Caine in a leading role which shows his acting versatility at its best.
The movie shows his cunning, heartless, tender, comic, sad, scared, frightening and manipulative character as played effortlessly, credibly and brilliantly by our leading man. This role was surprisingly for Caine a non-nominated award-winning performance.
Deathtrap‘s screenplay was based on a Broadway play of the same name. This play was written by Ira Levin. It is comparable to Levin’s previous chilling novels, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Boys from Brazil (1978) and The Stepford Wives (1975). All these novels were made into successful films.
Deathtrap is one notorious for baffling successful critics – old and new – on just how to write about the film’s plot without giving the whole game away. This film keeps you in a high state of apprehension from moment to moment and scene to scene.
The unpredictability of its plot and characters are just two of the movie’s main strengths. This play demanding excellent acting skills with characters attributes seen in one way, then these shown in their polar opposite.
The title Deathtrap, itself leaves you with a sense of foreboding and uncertainty. Deathtrap is defined as a plot device where the villain has usually a most outlandish and cruel plan to kill their victim. The victim often escaping their evil plan just in the nick of time.
In Deathtrap the roles of villain and victim change rapidly and effectively from moment to moment between the characters. This unpredictability leaving you to wonder how the film will conclude, or even who will survive until the final credits.
So to discover more on the film, let’s return to the early 1980s to Caine and his supporting cast for Deathtrap…
Caine plays successful Broadway playwright Sidney Bruhl, a writer of chilling mysteries with writer’s block. After his latest crime mystery play is slated by the audience on its opening night, Bruhl gets drunk in a bar next to the theatre.
The bar has a TV on, with more wounding words of his play from critics on every channel. He phones home, frightening his sickly wife, Myra. Myra (Dyan Cannon) seen with her medication next to her bedside.
Myra is a rich, highly-strung young woman. She screams with fear at the slightest thing, Bruhl sums his wife up perfectly when he tells her; “Every time I come in this bloody house, You scream!”. The poor woman appears in a permanent state of anxiety, despite her husband’s firm and loving support.
The couple lives in an isolated, renovated windmill in The Hamptons. On Bruhl returning home after his drinking spree, Myra comforts and placates him. Her support has little effect on her miserable husband. Myra tells him that Helga Ten Dorp (Irene Worth), a renowned Dutch psychic is staying with their neighbours.
Bruhl dramatically laments on how he hoped for a hit with his play. This play now sadly added to his run of recent box office failures. Bruhl hates depending on his wife for money and he turns down Myra’s offers to help out. Bruhl bitterly tells her that a brilliant script was sent to him by his former student, Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve).
Anderson was a student Bruhl met at a seminar he gave. The script is Anderson’s first attempt at writing. Anderson writing to Bruhl for advice and to help him edit the piece. On reading Anderson’s play, also named Deathtrap, Bruhl’s dismayed to find this the perfect script.
Bruhl emphatically states collaboration is out of the question. Bruhl – now sober – on re-reading this play spots a solution to his money problems. Bruhl’s plan is to kill Anderson and then publish the play as his own work. Now he jokes with Myra that he has murder on his mind. As he adds – with just a hint of menace – “what’s the point in owning a mace If you don’t use it?”.
Bruhl then telephones Anderson (Christopher Reeve) and Bruhl manipulates the conversation with him to find out more about the script. Bruhl tells his wife he’s deadly serious about putting his plan into action. Myra is all wide-eyed at her husband’s cunning and his murderous plans.
Bruhl discovers that the apparently friendless Anderson has just one copy of the script. Bruhl invites Anderson over for the evening. Like a lamb to the slaughter, Anderson willingly visits… To tell you more would be wrong,
The location adds to the twists and turns of the tale. The movie mainly takes place in the Bruhls’ isolated home. This adds to the tension in that there literally is no escape for the characters, once the villainy begins.
The sound emitted by the windmill and the visuals seen both inside and outside the home increase the chilling aura tenfold. Thunder, lightning, minimal lighting and darkness are used as effectively as a horror movie. The effectiveness of these contrastingly lit scenes reminds me of their use in The Innocents (1961).
The sound of the doorbell was used to startle the characters and audience, with the plot following this turned on its head. The set lays clues here and there to establish more on the characters. Like the setting and lighting, the characters are also seen as deceiving.
Deathtrap has only five characters and this number not including the three starry critic cameos (playing themselves). Bruhl appears to have a love of the macabre. This seen in the titles of his plays or his collection of weapons – seen in the opening credits – which put John Wick to shame.
His talk and thoughts on the full execution of his plan show a darker side of Bruhl’s personality. Caine is superb and his character leads you on a merry dance. This character showcasing all of Caine’s acting talents. At various extremes, it’s his shouty best, his most genial, charming or tender or his most evil and manipulative. In all these, his performance is credible and believable.
On meeting Anderson – as Bruhl’s starstruck fan – he appears amiable, pleasant, agreeable and all too trusting of his hosts. This vulnerable character appears like a rabbit trapped in the headlights, once he guesses his hosts’ intentions. Anderson is later revealed as not as sweet as he first seems.
This film was made after Reeve’s role as the titular Superman (1978) and after Somewhere in Time (1980) shows him in a new light. In Deathtrap, Reeves is convincing in a contrasting role from the superhero and romantic.
Dyan Cannon is wonderful as Bruhl’s wife, and her convincing screams add to the fun. Her romantic on-screen chemistry with Caine is quite sweet and innocent. Despite her initial shock at her husband’s evil side, Myra is on his side till the end. Her passionate speech to Anderson when he visits, where Myra verbally supports her husband keeps you enthralled in this gripping scene.
Helga Van Dorp is seen in a few random scenes with her psychic babble and behaviour unsettling to the main characters (and the audience). Irene Worth plays her role as an eccentric yet eerie addition to the film.
These four characters playing off against each other’s weaknesses in their scenes together. The small cast is compelling, charismatic and chilling at different points of the film. But I urge you to watch this film, rather than read a spoiler review. As Michael Caine reportedly said about this film…
And there is nothing worse than seeing a mystery after some twit has told you the butler did it. That’s hypothetical, of course. There’s no butler in ‘Deathtrap’.
Second Marvellous Michael Caine Blogathon 2019
This review was added to my Second Marvellous Michael Caine Blogathon. Other reviews with this cast include Dyan Cannon in Heaven Can Wait. Michael Caine stars in Surrender, The Swarm, Dressed to Kill, The Hand, Bullseye, The Prestige and 5 of his 70s and 80 Retro Reviews. Christopher Reeve starred in Somewhere in Time which was reviewed both HERE and HERE. He also featured in Superman HERE and HERE.