Best Director Home Stretch: Joseph L. Mankiewicz for Sleuth

JOSEPH L. MANKIEWICZ FOR SLEUTH (1972)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Bob Fosse for Cabaret

John Boorman for Deliverance

Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather

Jan Troell for The Emigrants

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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SPOILER ALERT: Pretty much throughout this post. You’ve been warned.

The stage-to-screen adaptations Sleuth, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Give ‘em Hell Harry! as the only films to earn Oscar nominations for their entire casts. However, James Whitmore’s one-man show is the only definitely qualified candidate, since Woolf features two actors with no screen credit (Agnes & Frank Flanagan as the the roadhouse proprietors) while Sleuth credits four actors who are never featured onscreen. The actors, Alec Cawthorne, John Matthews, Eve Channing, Teddy Martin, don’t exist—screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz are having a little fun. The story’s match of wits unfolds exclusively between Laurence Olivier‘s Andrew Wyke and Michael Caine‘s Milo Trimble. Both put on a great show, but the key difference between the two is hinted at in the two acting styles: Lord Olivier’s classical performance is all affect and no passion, while the younger Caine is operating from a position of genuine feeling. Like Edward Albee’s Woolf, Andrew Shaffer’s mystery thriller is basically a game of chicken between two characters, a competition to see how much they can put each other on until one of them breaks the façade. In the characters’ ultimate showdown, the notions of who is actually feeling and who is fooling will become of vital importance. The amusing and chilling film seems like a comment on Mankiewicz’s career–a lifelong purveyor of clever diabolically clever narratives, he uses his final puzzle box to dismantle itself.

Mankiewicz’s previous Best Director nods came for elaborately constructed narratives (wins for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve, a nomination for 5 Fingers), centering on a central Macchiavellian protagonist who is able to bend all of her or his inferiors at her or his whim. In Sleuth, Mankiewicz exposes the fragility of this master operator in the form of mystery novelist Andrew Wyke. At first, Wyke delights in his superiority over the hapless Trimble, impervious in the sanctuary at the center of the author’s hedge maze. Safe in a contraption of his own design, Wyke is permanently in the position of power as long as he plays by his own rules. By trusting in his adversary, Trimble leads himself to the brink of his own final defeat, while Wyke unwittingly creates a fearsome enemy by revealing this to be just another of his games. Through the second half of the film, Trimble’s stroke of genius is to persuade Wyke to suspend his own rules, exposing the vulnerability that will undo him. Trimble finds that Wyke’s vanity is the key to his undoing; he doesn’t pull the trigger out of outrage toward his humiliation (which motivated Trimble), but out of fear that others will learn of it.

Mankiewicz’ directing choices in Sleuth are among the most ostentatious I’ve seen in any of the sound-era nominees. At first I simply couldn’t’ understand the garish ornamentation of Andrew Wyke’s mansion, the jangly musical accompaniment by John Addison (a notorious replacement nominee after The Godfather’s disqualification), or the mannered cutaways to the many pieces of bric-a-brac. Finally, though, during the frantic climax of the film, with Wyke scrambling about in search of the incriminating clues, I finally understood the garish cutaways as the kingdom of brainless subjects with which Wyke has accustomed himself to dealing, fictional constructs with no ability to resist his will. Mankiewicz’s shallow symbolism reflects the childish mentality of the hackneyed author, one which obscures the serious game Wyke is actually playing. The only prop of any significance in this film, the only one that he can really use to break the rules, is the gun. Every round of Trimble’s game has been dedicated to getting his adversary to pull that trigger, and once it’s clear Wyke won’t get to be the supreme god of his own world anymore, he does himself in without a second thought.

 

THE VOTE

Twenty years after his last nomination, Mankiewicz slid into a Best Picture-dominated field of newcomers in 1972. Jan Troell’s painterly Scandinavian saga The Emigrants and John Boorman’s dark action adventure Deliverance provided window dressing, but of course the marquee players were two radical updates of traditional Hollywood genres. Broadway genius Bob Fosse was nominated for the expressionistic screen translation of his stage hit Cabaret, while UCLA Film School graduate Francis Ford Coppola elevated the pulp gangster film into the epic register with The Godfather. The way history worked out, with Coppola winning his own trophy two years later for the sequel, I’m okay with the fact that Fosse took home the prize for his grotesque Weimar Republic musical. However, there’s no denying that Coppola’s almost peerless directorial accomplishment gets my vote.

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