Deathtrap (1986)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Dyan Cannon

Many films never get the attention they truly deserve and in retrospect Sidney Lumet’s "Deathtrap" seems to be such an example. There is nothing spectacular about the film, no real blockbuster star power and nothing controversial. Although Michael Caine can certainly rank as a star in his own right at least in my personal book, Christopher Reeve unfortunately never managed to break away from his popcorn "Superman" image during his acting career. "Deathtrap’s" real strength lies in the story, the well thought-out cat-and-mouse story that keeps the viewer constantly guessing and climaxes in a insidious plot twist. Warner Home Video has now released "Deathtrap" on DVD as one of their low-cost releases, but don’t get fooled by the low price. This is a first class release!

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) is having the crisis of his life. Once a highly acclaimed mystery playwright, his recent plays have turned out to be permanent flops, hovering near obscurity, ferociously torn apart by critics and audiences alike. Feeling he has lost his once glorious abilities the writer is frustrated, disillusioned, desperate and close to bankruptcy. It doesn’t help at this point that one of his former students, Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), is sending him a copy of his first own play, "Deathtrap". It is a script that is absolutely flawless and in the right hands it can produce millions of dollars. A hideous thought befalls Bruhl. What if he killed the former student and published the script under his name? He proposes the idea to his naïve wife Myra (Dyan Cannon) who is outright shocked that the man she loves could possibly harbor such a horrible thought.

Bruhl devises a plan. He gets on the phone with the young playwright and invites him to his house to go over the script with him and make some adjustments, corrections, just offering an experienced helping hand. During the conversation he asserts himself that no one knows about the existence of the script or the proposed meeting. He carefully plans to kill the young man with one of the weapons from his rich collection and claim the fame for the ingeniously written screenplay. But things start to go wrong when Myra can’t stand it anymore and desperately tries to save the young man, almost uncovering Bruhl’s devious plan.

This is just the beginning of the plot but giving away more would completely spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t seen this witty film yet. It is based on a stage play by Ira Levin, who also wrote the novel for Rosemary’s Baby, and has an ensemble piece feel throughout with its limited settings and a very limited number of characters. It gives the movie a tight feel however, one of cohesiveness and almost one of safety, while the story plays with the audience and tosses the viewer from laughter to gasps with ease.

Staged and presented almost like a theater play itself, director Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of "Deathtrap" is a wicked cat-and-mouse movie, and no matter what you think you know, the film will constantly prove you wrong. Nothing, absolutely nothing is the way it seems and every time the story will take one of its wild twists you will be either completely fixated on the screen, mesmerized by what just happened, or you will slap your forehead in exultation about the events. Either way, you will experience a film that is fresh, entirely unpredictable and funny at the same time. Many times this movie has reminded me of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" in its nature, its wickedness and its cleverly written, oftentimes unexpectedly dead-on dialogues. The film starts out a bit slow and is overly dialogue-laden in the beginning. Once you pass the 25-minute mark however it picks up speed considerably as the plot takes its first wild turns and hardly leaves the viewer enough time to recuperate from one twist to another.

"Deathtrap" is one of Warner Home Video’s no frills $14.95 DVD releases. The film is presented only in a <$PS,fullscreen> version on the disc. I am not sure what the film’s original aspect ratio was but the image hardly ever looks cropped or unbalanced. The intimate setting mostly inside Bruhl’s own house does not really ask for a wide cinematic look and as such the <$PS,fullscreen> presentation on this disc is absolutely acceptable. The compression is surprisingly well done with deep solid blacks and a good level of detail. Interestingly in a few shots there is some dot crawl evident, but it is not as you’d expect in the darker parts of the image which are usually more critical, but in the lighter areas. It is never distracting however and hardly ever noticeable at all, and the overall image quality is very good with a sharp and well-defined picture that has good shadows and well defined highlights.

The disc contains English and French language tracks. While the French track is 1-channel mono, the English one is presented as a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 channel track. It sounds a bit thin at times, and it is especially noticeable with the music. While the dialogues are generally well balanced, Johnny Mandel’s whimsical score – that is reminiscent to the music from Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple movies – comes across a little breathlessly.
No subtitles or additional features are supplied on this release making this clearly a movie-only presentation.

"Deathtrap" came as a surprise to me, I have to admit. I was initially attracted by Michael Caine’s name on the packaging but soon found myself trapped in a sneaky mystery game where nothing was as it seemed. Although a lackluster release in terms of supplements or overall presentation, this film is a fabulous study for minimalist filmmaking. Featuring only a handful of actors and limited settings, the intrigue of the entire film comes from the writing and the hairpin twists. I have had a great time watching this film and was more than surprised by its absolutely unexpected outcome.