Sleuth — A Riddle, Wrapped In a Mystery, Inside An Enigma

Based on Anthony Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning mystery, SLEUTH stars Laurence Olivier as a popular mystery writer and Michael Caine as the hairdresser who is having an affair with his wife, whose invitation to his country estate turns into a witty and deadly game of one-upmanship. Under Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s assured direction (SLEUTH was his final film), Olivier and Caine ham it up like two the old pros they are.

One of the real joys of the film is John Addison‘s buoyant and witty Oscar-nominated score. The brass announce the curtain going up on the charming diorama main titles as an overture to the “play” that follows. “At the beginning of the picture,” said Addison in an interview at the time, “it was essential not to give away anything that was going to happen. I didn’t want to use the themes for the play’s characters in the main titles music, yet we had to come up with some kind of idea. What I did was write an overture for a theater production; in the course of it, you hear different textures and types of music, almost summing up the different sounds you get in light theatrical music. In a funny way, this effectively tied up with the music in the film to give it an unusual flavor.”

The overture was also specifically orchestrated so that it sounded like a pit orchestra. “I could have had as big an orchestra as I wanted,” said Addison, “but I purposely made it a little short on the strings, with not quite enough brass and so on, to give the music that pit orchestra feeling. You never get as many people n the orchestra as you would like in the theater.”

The theme for Caine’s Milo is a devil-may-care clarinet solo supported by walking pizzicato strings. A lilting waltz represents the offscreen presence of the much-discussed wife at the center of the feud.

“The idea I had for Olivier,” said Addison, “was to use a harpsichord playing a single line along with a limited number of other instruments. I was initially worried about this, but a film editor helped me to appreciate why this was right. What it had to do with was the mind of the writer (Olivier), who was rather an intellectual and mathematical type; Baroque writing, with harpsichord, seemed to convey this in some strange way. In other places within the picture, where I combine the harpsichord with ‘misterioso’ effects, the approach again works very well, and adds a touch of humor.”

Addison’s road to Oscar was a stroke of luck. At nomination time, Nino Rota’s memorable music for THE GODFATHER was understandably one of the film’s 11 nominations. However, the nomination was withdrawn after it was learned that parts of Rota’s score, including the famous love theme, had been used in the 1958 Italian film FORTUNELLA. (This technicality makes Rota’s Oscar for THE GODFATHER, PART II even stranger, considering he obviously used themes from his GODFATHER score.)

The ballot was resubmitted to members of the Music Branch with six scores vying for the fifth spot. SLEUTH was included (as was THE GODFATHER once again) along with BEN (Walter Scharf), FELLINI’S ROMA (Nino Rota), THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN (Maurice Jarre) and THE OTHER (Jerry Goldsmith). Addison’s nomination is in good company with the other nominees, which included Buddy Baker’s odd nomination for the Disney live-actioner NAPOLEON AND SAMANTHA, John Williams’ first double nomination with IMAGES and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, and the winner, Charlie Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (also credited to Raymond Rasch and Larry Russell).

SLEUTH is a thoroughly delightful film with an equally delightful score and welcome addition to any film music collection.