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April 10, 2008 |

By Brian Prisco | Underappreciated Gems | April 10, 2008 |

In my humble cave atop the summit of Mount Dramageek, theatre is next to godliness. I can appreciate the fact that one man’s pudding is another man’s poison when it comes to the staged arts; what makes it so mind-meltingly glorious to me bores others to the contemplation of suicide by arsenic and old lace. While there is much to be said for vibrant cinematography or dazzling special effects, nothing gets the old humors riled up in me like a couple of boardtrodders duking it out via verbal pugilism. Wars can be waged with words. It’s no surprise that many of the finest features committed to celluloid have began life as stage productions, only to be rebirthed by their playwright parentage. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? presents a haggard Elizabeth Taylor versus a scowling Richard Burton going mano y blotto in a besotted whirlwind of beloved bitterness that savages everything around them like a pack of feral coyotes set loose on the Olson Twins. To the fucking bone, people. To the fucking bone. And how many wannabe Boiler Room jockeys have the Alec Baldwin “Coffee Is For Closers” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross etched into the underside of their cockshafts for their interns to quote verbatim as they take their freshman paddlin’? First place, David Mamet. Second place, steak knives.

It is from this proud theatrical tradition that I pluck this Underappreciated Gem for your perusal, Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. Crafted by the devilish genius who gave birth to Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, and directed by none other than Sidney Lumet, who was still surfing the golden glory of Dog Day Afternoon and Network, this 1982 film is surprisingly unknown to many folks. It’s a clever little murder mystery, structured exactly in the style it presents, a three act, five character whodunit. This format works to its detriment and its benefit. Things run slowly for the first half hour, the action mostly broken up by closeups and strange camera angles played for suspense that don’t necessarily jive with the intentional rhythm of the dialogue. But it also enables the story to make several clever meta-jokes about slow second acts and clunky pacing.

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine), a playwright of some renown, has just scribbled his fourth straight Broadway thriller to shameful, Mel Brooksian post-Robin Hood: Men in Tights type reviews. He retires to his provincial estate in the East Hamptons to seek solace from his doting and well-off wife Myra (Dyan Cannon). To make matters more morose, he has just finished reading a play by Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), a former seminar student who solicits advice from him. The play, a murder mystery named Deathtrap, is predictably brilliant, or as Sidney laments, “Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.” However, nobody has read the play; as a matter of fact, nobody even knows Clifford writes. It’s his only copy, as the local Xerox machine is on the fritz. (This takes place before the time of the interwebs, when dinosaurs and Jeff Goldblum roamed free.) So naturally Sidney invites Cliff to pay him a visit at the cabin, where he intends to murder Cliff and steal the script for himself.

This is what makes the movie such a darkly delicious delight. There’s an overarching sense of impending evil that hovers over the twisted humor. Sidney openly jokes with his wife about bludgeoning Cliff to death with a mace, of burying his corpse in the garden. It’s all with a wink and a chuckle, yet there are these wonderful pauses where you can actually see the gears of the death machines cranking in Sidney’s mind. Even his wife is ill at ease, because once Clifford arrives at the train depot, the story quickly descends into a desperate playwright and his youthful protege circling each other like two maniacs playing musical chairs with a rickety beartrap.

And here’s where reviewing this particular movie becomes a bit of a sticky wicket. It begins a process of clever twists and shocking turns of fate that make the movie so captivating. I dare not even risk listing them in spoilers because I know curiosity will get the best of you and the experience will be lessened. Even telling you that there are bends in the road to beware will sully the viewing pleasure. In this film, you cannot trust that a person is truly dead or that they will stay that way. I am fully aware of the massive cock-block I’m currently manifesting. And the worst part is, because of the way the Deathtrap is built, and the squeak of the dated hinges with age, people may not even care to endure the experience. But I love you sick fucks with all my heart and most of my kidney, so I ask you to trust me on this one.

All right, fuck it, I’ll show a bit of thigh. But be forewarned, this is potentially like one of those trailers where they have to give away major plot points in order to sell you your soda and seat, and I fucking hate that with a passion usually reserved for youth pastors in YMCA shower stalls, so tread lightly or skip this paragraph and the one following. Sidney’s office in the Hamptons home is lined with assorted weapons and instruments of torture from the various plays he’s penned. (Some day this will be what my office looks like, oh, yes.) Walls filled with axes and maces, daggers and crossbows. Clifford and Sidney saunter about, handling the weapons, waxing gorrific on the damage they could do, fondling them like old lovers reminiscing over bondage gear with which once they played.

Sidney takes down a pair of manacles supposedly owned by Houdini and has Clifford shackle himself to a chair. You know, just to try them out. Clifford can’t work the trick cuffs, and now he’s incapacitated. Sidney stands in front of him, a copy of Clifford’s play in his hands, surrounded on all sides with all manner of sharp pointy things with which you could cut the tension flooding the room. Myra starts to pitch a panicky shitfit, which gets Clifford sweating. He suddenly mentions a girlfriend who may call the Hamptons, when supposedly nobody knows that he’s there. Sidney grills him, and there’s a menacing interrogation sequence with Cliff handcuffed, Sidney prowling like a caged jungle cat, and Myra all a-kitten. Finally Sidney relents, Clifford admits he was lying to protect himself, and they all break the tension with a laugh. Right before Sidney throttles Clifford with a chain.

This is only the beginning of what is to become the insane whirligig that is Deathtrap. The acting is at its peak. Though primarily remembered for his ability to don a big sparkly S, it is easy to forget how truly badass an actor Christopher Reeve was. In Deathtrap, he pinballs around from menacing sociopath to sweet awshucks hunk, as if he pulled off his Clark Kent glasses and became Patrick Bateman. Michael Caine is just a scary motherfucker. Rumor has it this movie scarred his future performances because of the intimacy and intensity of his scenes with his costars. But we’ll always have Jaws IV.

Deathtrap is a movie about a play about a play about a play about a murder. (If said in Canadian, that sentence is like four thousand times funnier.) It does get a bit stiff and sluggish while you are waiting for the mayhem to rear up, and the dialogue does get a bit precious and “theatrical” at times, with a few “fellas” and “darlings.” At one point, Myra actually refers to Sidney as “darling darling.” There’s also the conundrum of the fourth major character (the fifth being a lawyer), the Nordic Psychic Helga Ten Dorp. (Irene Worth) She’s blatantly cheesy, with an accent about as sturdy as Sergeant Schulz, but the payoff is kinda worth it. It’s another one of those endings where I cackled gleefully, but more demanding viewers may groan and eyeroll. But I feel that Deathtrap has enough clever tricks up its sleeve and a few witty snippets of dialogue that you can forgive it for being a bit of a dated bar-mitzvah-style magician. It does a great job waving the right hand while palming the quarter in the left. And much like Scorcese’s King of Comedy, another big-time director’s stab at dark comedy, even if you don’t like it, at least you’ll look smart at Trivial Pursuit. And isn’t that really what it’s all about?

Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.

Underappreciated Gems

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Deathtrap / Brian Prisco

Underappreciated Gems | April 10, 2008 |

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