THE BACK PAGES

Alfie I and Alfie II joined at the hip

Two scorpions in a Pinter test tube, Caine and Law take a walk on the wild side in 'Sleuth'

Brian D. Johnson October 29 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Alfie I and Alfie II joined at the hip

Two scorpions in a Pinter test tube, Caine and Law take a walk on the wild side in 'Sleuth'

Brian D. Johnson October 29 2007

Alfie I and Alfie II joined at the hip

film

Two scorpions in a Pinter test tube, Caine and Law take a walk on the wild side in 'Sleuth'

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Usually you try to avoid interviewing two actors at once. Too often, they’re so desperate to amuse each other that nothing gets said. But when Michael Caine and Jude Law teamed up to promote Sleuth at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, they turned out to be the exception that proved the rule. Stepping into their hotel suite was like joining two actors onstage in mid-scene. “You sit there and we’ll sit here,” barked Caine, firmly taking charge as a microphone is planted between them. “We’ve both got foghorn voices so you’re not going to miss anything. I remember going onstage for the first time and the director saying, ‘Stop! The people up there [the upper balcony] have paid to hear every word you say! ”

It makes you wonder how Marlon Brando, that famous mumbler, ever cut it in theatre, I venture. Which prompts Caine to unleash a nasal impression of Brando crooning in Guys and Dolls: “Your e-e-e-y-yees are the ee-e-y-y-es of a woman I love...”

“What I love about that peformance,” offers Law, “is it’s not relying on a booming singing voice. It’s pure swagger.”

And they’re off. Finishing each other’s sentences as they discuss acting, ego, and class snobbery. Caine is 74, Law 34. They are intergenerational dead ringers—two blond, blueeyed renegades who were both born in southeast London, dropped out of school in their teens, and became famous by playing roguish playboys. Actors with swagger. And they seem joined at the hip. Law has already slipped into Caine’s shoes by starring in a 2004 remake of Alfie, the 1966 movie that cemented Caine’s stardom. Now they’ve remade Sleuth, in which Law takes on the role once performed by Caine, while Sir Michael takes on the part

originally played by Sir Laurence Olivier.

But Caine, Law and director Kenneth Branagh insist their Sleuth is not a remake. Nobelwinning writer Harold Pinter, who never saw the 1972 film, adapted the script from Anthony Schaffer’s 1970 play without keeping a line of the original dialogue. The drama is a twohander, a match of wits between a famous crime novelist (Caine) and an unemployed actor (Law) who’s run off with his wife. In the crucible of Pinter’s dialogue, this clash of male egos is reduced to an acting exercise, a duel of thespian virtuosity. The action takes place entirely in the novelist’s mansion, which Pinter has turned into an austere showpiece of surveillance cameras and high-tech devices. He’s also made the drama much darker, and pumped it full of homoerotic menace.

“It’s a lot heavier,” says Caine. “Larry [Olivier] played an eccentric who becomes dangerous. I play a man who’s already psychotic and becomes murderous. Kenny Branagh gave me a psychological treatise on a condition called morbid jealousy, a study of why men kill for jealousy. The ultimate humiliation is homosexuality—if you seduce the lover yourself.” Law says the film “is about men fighting over a woman—the woman becomes irrelevant and it’s just about men fighting.”

It’s also about that oh-so-English form of male endowment called class. Both Caine

and Branagh are working-class heroes who stormed the gates of cultural privilege, and were knighted for it. Branagh, a carpenter’s son, brought Shakespeare to the masses; Caine, a fishmonger’s son, became the first cockney leading man. “Michael as a British movie star was otherworldly,” says Law, when asked about his elder’s influence. “He represented a generation—the first actor who could really be himself, with an accent.”

Caine explains. “I saw American films where working-class people like myself were treated with dignity. I saw British films and there were lots of cockneys, but they would always be nasty, sleazy and comic. The Americans made war pictures about privates; the British made war pictures about brave officers. Then Richard Attenborough would turn up as a snivelling coward with a cockney accent. But I had the biggest stroke of luck. Working-class writers started writing working-class heroes—Osborne and Pinter.” Adds Caine: “The first actor I saw was the Lone Ranger. I thought, ‘That’s what I want be.’ I didn’t want to play Hamlet.”

Branagh, of course, made a meal of Hamlet. So why would he want to go slumming with Sleuth? “I thought it was a dirty film,” says Branagh. “I responded to a savagery in it, something atavistic and primal even though the surface is a well-made piece in an elegant English house.” Besides, how could he say no to a script by Pinter and a twin set of Alfies going at it like scorpions in a bottle? M