This film is a chilling tale about a man who cannot stop playing games. Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) is a clever and successful writer of detective stories who lives in an exquisite Gothic mansion. Here he has surrounded himself with picture puzzles, ancient Chinese games, fortune-telling machines, and a host of little amusements such as dolls that dance, clowns that display smiles, and circus bears that drink. His two best friends: scotch and laughter (in the form of a mechanical, life-sized doll dressed as a sailor that sends out volleys of laughter when Wyke pushes a button). The writer spends most of his time concocting new schemes and situation for his books.
One day he summons Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a beautician of Italian background to his home. The well-dressed and handsome chap wants to marry Marguerite, Wyke's wife. The always imaginative writer has a scheme guaranteed to please both men: Milo will steal his jewelry and Wyke will collect the insurance on the theft. However, as the scheme unravels, Tindle realizes that he is the object of Wyke's twisted sense of play. Sleuth then becomes a frightening examination of gamesmanship as well as a startling mystery play.
One might describe the film with Winston Churchill's comment on Russia: "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." The enigma of man's nature is his need for competition and victory. The mystery is how men do one another in through deception, masks, cheating. Humor is the riddle wrapped inside the mystery and the enigma.
The Broadway play has been adapted for the screen with great polish. Anthony Shaffer's literate script is still replete with witty banter and light tomfoolery. Olivier is perfect as the gentleman with a taste for sadism and elegance; Caine works his way into a rage with slow and cumulative versatility. Sleuth, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, is at once a metaphysical thriller, a psychological cliff-hanger, and a deft satire on the detective genre of literature.