Sunday, March 19, 2017

Don't Overlook This Gem

"I wonder if it would not be, well, just a trifle starry–eyed of me to contemplate a partnership where I could count on no sense of moral obligation whatsoever."

Sidney (Michael Caine)

There were a lot of movies in the theaters in 1982. Some were good, some were not, but nearly all of them, it seems, spent more time in the spotlight than "Deathtrap," which premiered on this day 35 years ago.

And that really is a shame because "Deathtrap" may have been the most creative movie out there — and I say that knowing that 1982 brought us "Poltergeist," "E.T.," and "Tootsie," among others.

It was an overlooked gem at the time, and it is still overlooked today.

"Deathtrap" also took a backseat to "Porky's," a putrid sex comedy that was nevertheless the fifth–highest grossing movie of the year. "Porky's" premiered the same day as "Deathtrap."

I must confess that I didn't see "Deathtrap" when it was in theaters, and that is something I have often regretted. I saw it much later on cable.

As I have mentioned here before, I am a fan of the work of Alfred Hitchcock. I got that from my parents, who were fans of Agatha Christie's books as well. If you have been reading this blog for awhile, you almost certainly have noticed that I have written about both Hitchcock's movies and Christie's books here — and I expect to do so again.

My parents loved mysteries, and they appreciated stories that had all kinds of twists and turns, requiring the viewer or the reader to mentally shift gears from time to time. "Deathtrap" had plenty of twists and turns, certainly enough to satisfy fans of Hitchcock and Christie, with a gut–punch ending that, I must confess, I kind of anticipated — but only because of a movie I once watched with my parents (I'll get back to that).

Nearly the entire movie took place in the remote country estate belonging to Michael Caine's character, a once–successful playwright who was enduring a streak of flops, and his wife, played by Dyan Cannon, who suffered from a heart condition. They were doing well financially — a wall in the house that was decorated with weapons from Caine's numerous successful plays testified to that — but Caine's ego longed for another hit.

Caine had received a manuscript by a student (Christopher Reeve) from one of his writing workshops. The student wanted Caine's input. In private, Caine believed the manuscript was flawless, and he decided that he wanted to produce it as his own. He invited the student to come to his home, where they would discuss the play — and Caine would murder the student.

Cannon argued against the plan, but Caine rebuffed every argument — and after the student arrived, Caine did attack him, convincing Cannon to help him remove the body.

She also said nothing when they received an unexpected visitor, a psychic who was staying with some neighbors. The psychic walked around the house, observing that she sensed pain and death in the very places where those things had been happening to Reeve's character and warning Caine that he would be attacked by a man wearing boots.

After the psychic left, Caine and Cannon prepared for bed, and Cannon appeared to be coming to grips with what Caine had done — when Reeve stormed in with a log in his hand and appeared to bludgeon Caine to death. Then he turned his attention to Cannon and chased her around the house — until her weak heart gave out and she collapsed.

Caine appeared in the scene, unharmed although he had a few words of criticism for Reeve's performance with the stage prop log. The murders of Caine and Reeve had been staged to produce this very result as the audience learned when Reeve and Caine shared a kiss.

(I have read that, when "Deathtrap" was showing in theaters and Caine and Reeve were about to kiss, a woman stood up in one theater and exclaimed, "No, Superman, don't do it!" I don't know if that is true or not, but it is a great story, isn't it?)

Reeve moved in with Caine after Cannon's funeral, and they began working on manuscripts at an antique partners' desk. Caine continued to suffer from writer's block, but Reeve pounded out page after page — and mysteriously left his manuscript locked in a drawer whenever he was away.

Caine finally managed to get his hands on Reeve's manuscript and was shocked to learn that Reeve was using the circumstances of Cannon's death for a play titled "Deathtrap" (which, ostensibly, had been the title of the manuscript Reeve originally sent to Caine). Caine confronted Reeve, who insisted the story had great potential and he would continue writing it. He offered to share credit with Caine, who was coming to believe that Reeve was a sociopath, and he agreed to cooperate while secretly planning a resolution to the problem.

The psychic paid another visit a few days later asking for candles in preparation for an anticipated thunderstorm. When she met Reeve, she told Caine that Reeve was the man in boots she had warned him about.

The last part of the movie is best experienced, but suffice to say that just as you think one of the characters is about to go to his reward, the ground shifts beneath your feet, and suddenly the other character has the upper hand.

Their struggle left both men dead — and the psychic was the beneficiary, apparently becoming the successful writer of "Deathtrap," the latest hit on Broadway.

As I say, I anticipated the finish. It reminded me of "The Ladykillers," a movie that was in theaters about 25 years earlier. I watched it with Mom and Dad — ironically, only about a year or two before "Deathtrap" was in theaters.

In "The Ladykillers" a gang of thieves used an old woman as the centerpiece of a robbery plan. In the end, they all killed each other, and the little old lady, who discovered the plan after the robbery had already been carried out, was the only one who benefited from it.

If you see this movie on your TV schedule — or the DVD in the discount bin — don't let the opportunity get away from you.