A good time will be had by all who sit down to Deathtrap, Sidney Lumet's 1982 film of Ira Levin's 1978 Broadway comedy-thriller. One might say (and, in fact, I will) that Deathtrap is one of the many children of Anthony Shaffer's twice-filmed 1970 play Sleuth, another twisty tale of mystery writers locked into high-stakes criminal gamesmanship.
Levin's nimble script—skillfully adapted by Jay Presson Allen (Marnie)—was somewhat ahead of the curve in its steel-trap "meta" construction. Michael Caine plays Sidney Bruhl, a tapped-out playwright of Broadway comedy-thrillers. His latest play an instant flop, the dejected Bruhl retreats to his Long Island home, where wife Myra (Dyan Cannon) remains bothersomely optimistic. Their conversation turns to a manuscript called "Deathtrap," which one of Sidney's workshop students, Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), has sent to his would-be mentor for feedback. Sidney considers the play a sure-fire hit, which only further depresses him until he realizes that he could easily lure Clifford into a meeting, kill him, and claim "Deathtrap" as the comeback of Sidney Bruhl. In one of the script's many catty industry jabs, Sidney explains to Myra, "Darling, though I might be capable of killing Clifford Anderson, I am not up to the criminal behavior of a Broadway producer."
It would be criminal to reveal how the plot unfolds, other than to say it's impressive dramatic origami, manipulated deftly by an ideal cast and one of Hollywood's all-time top directors. Caine proves especially delightful in a role that allows him to run a gamut of thought and feeling: Sidney is witty but prone to self-absorption and tunnel vision, bitterly disillusioned yet envigorated by his new winner-take-all game, passionate in his twin lusts for sex and success (guess which one he wants more), and hiding every desperation behind his slimy crocodile smile. Reeve likewise has hardly been better: as in the also theatrically derived Noises Off! (again opposite Caine), he shows a knack for comedy, especially playing guileless types...or is he? For good measure, Levin throws in Dutch psychic Helga Ten Dorp (played to the hilt by Irene Worth) and Sidney's attorney Porter Milgrim (Henry Jones of Vertigo), making Deathtrap the "one-set, five-character, two-act play" that is the Holy Grail for both the author and his characters.
For some, Deathtrap's inherent theatricality may be a turn-off. Other than a couple of framing scenes set in a Broadway theater and brief excursions onto Sidney's lawn, Lumet's film stays firmly ensconced in the Bruhls' Easthampton house. But Lumet's dynamic, never showy approach effectively serves the story, the performances never lose their grip on our attention, and the biggest star, in a way, is Levin's plot. Screw-turning claustrophobia is, of course, part of the point (there's a heritage of locked-room mysteries, after all), and production designer Tony Walton obviously had a ball creating a physical space to match Bruhl's career-minded ostentation, replete with a wall of prop weaponry...or is it? Kudos, too, to cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak and composer Johnny Mandel, who turns in a cheeky, harpsichord-flavored score.
Warner Archive Collection grants Deathtrap a brand-new hi-def transfer for one of its two inaugural Blu-ray releases (the other is Gypsy). Warner's made-to-order Archive Collection line allows for titles that don't necessarily have mass appeal to hit the market (though the first two films seem awfully appealing to me), and it's utterly thrilling that Warner Archive is now supporting Blu-ray. Deathtrap looks fantastic, in that it ably recreates the film's theatrical look by bypassing excessive digital sharpening. Detail is excellent here, grain light, and colors and contrast entirely convincing. There's no reason to expect sonic fireworks from the audio here, which accurately presents the original mono soundtrack in a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that affords clear dialogue and surprisingly pleasing musical fidelity.
With a studio archive title, there's no reason to expect any bonus features, but Warner graciously provides the film's nifty original "Trailer" (:54, HD), in hi-def, no less. This is what we hope for from catalog titles on Blu-ray: a faithful and yet fresh-seeming presentation that revivifies a film simply by presenting it properly for the first time in years.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer