Based on the bestselling play by Ira Levin, Deathtrap is a housebound mystery in the vein of Clue and Sleuth and, all in all, represents one of Sidney Lumet’s finest theatrical adaptations. In part, that’s because it’s about a playwright who has lost his touch – also called Sidney, and played by Michael Caine – who sets out on an elaborate mission to “adapt” his own work in a new and quite bizarre manner. Most of the action plays out over the course of a couple of days at Sidney’s Long Island home, although the house itself is owned by his wife Myra (Dyan Cannon), who we meet in the midst of encouraging him to feel more comfortable living off her inheritance while he plans his comeback play. As it turns out, however, he doesn’t need to, since it’s only a couple of minutes after returning home from a disastrous opening night that he finds a envelope addressed from Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), a former student at his dramatic writing seminar. Upon opening it, he discovers a prodigiously brilliant script – entitled Deathtrap – and promptly invites Clifford to the house to discuss it, playfully broaching the possibility of murdering his protégé and taking credit for the script himself. Here, as at so many other moments in the film, the gap between playfulness and seriousness is very fine indeed, giving the proceedings a quite diabolical and fiendish tone that works perfectly with Caine’s particular brand of mischievous camp.
By this stage in his career, Lumet had mastered the art of building breathing-room and generating dynamism within a theatrical environment. While virtually all the action is constrained to Sidney and Myra’s house, it never feels claustrophobic or especially stagy – apart from when the action demands it – as Lumet moves seamlessly between inside and outside, dialogue and silence, close-ups and long shots, and from room to room, managing to capture a strong sense of Long Island in just a few exterior sequences. Often this kind of connective tissue can feel like something of a token concession to cinema in otherwise theatrical adaptations, but Lumet knows just how to time and frame his establishing shots so that they resonate across the lengthy interior sequences, all of which brim with the austere and increasingly inhospitable landscape and weather outside. On top of that, the space itself evolves and expands as well, with the second act taking us upstairs to the bedroom, which happens to be in a windmill turret improbably and picaresquely affixed to the house. As the slight, creaky movement of the blades in the wind outside – and the rotation of the cogs just above the bed – imparts its tension to the house as a whole, the action seems to become both more cinematic and more theatrical at the same time. In the end, Lumet was a master of fusion, rather than straight theatrical adaptation or straight cinematic transformation, and one of the delights of Deathtrap lies in his consummate ability to introduce just enough spatial and atmospheric elasticity without losing sight of the delicious artifice of it all.
While Lumet was a master of fusing theatrical and cinematic space at a global level, he also had a set designer’s taste for the way small specificities of the backdrop can gradually impart themselves to the tone of the play as a whole. Indeed, it is in the realm of mise-en-scene – and the fine details of mise-en-scene – that his syncretic temperament often most made itself felt. Deathtrap is no exception, since while Sidney and Myra’s house is chock-full of pregnant objects and spaces – many of which have a role to play as the action unfolds – the first act is driven, stylistically, by what appears to be an atrium or greenhouse at the back of their living room. This vestibular space would be utterly inauspicious were it not for the fact that it is lit with a lurid purple light that not only acts as an uncanny colour anchor in an otherwise naturalistic space but also serves to collapse even the cosiest corners of this Long Island retreat back into the neon glow of Broadway. As the first act proceeds, this light source is more and more foregrounded and filtered through the giant stand-alone fireplace in the middle of the room, until the whole set seems to be lit by a giant garish ultraviolet flame. As if in response to that bizarre light source, the action becomes more and more melodramatic, with Cannon, in particular, putting in a ditzy, hysterical, drugged-up performance that initially feels completely jettisoned from the world of the play and more attuned to the characters that populate Sidney’s own crime thrillers. Once Clifford arrives, that hysteria alternates with odd moments of silence, in which the focus shifts and rearranges itself in quite a fixated and fetishistic manner – it is here that Lumet’s close-ups really work wonders – as Caine’s suave sleaziness and Reeve’s polished good looks are subsumed into an unsettling queerness that mutates and distorts the play’s naturalistic style and sits quite oddly alongside the cat-and-mouse mechanics promised by the opening minutes.
By the time that Clifford and Sidney passionately kiss each other halfway through over Myra’s dead body, it feels both like a foregone conclusion and utterly surprising, just because of how much Lumet has managed to both signal and incorporate their homosexuality into his visual style; this is, after all, the director of Dog Day Afternoon. After a series of rapid plot twists, it emerges that the entire plan has been a concoction to take advantage of Myra’s heart condition by scaring her to death, in a kind of cross between the morbid decadence of Rope and the elaborate conspiracy of Les Diabloques. All of a sudden, Myra’s strange hysteria makes sense – her Golden Razzie nomination misses the point – as a kind of inchoate apprehension and acknowledgment of her husband’s affair – or at least his inclination – in what often feels like a riff on Vivian Leigh’s performance of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. To some extent, it seems clear that this gay kiss is meant to have the same impact upon the audience as well, not least because this is a major departure from the play, in which homosexuality has only ever been permitted as a matter of allusion and suggestion. As recently as 2012, Levin’s estate denied the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Centre permission to stage the play on the basis of a brief nude scene and a kiss along the lines of that found in the film. Yet what makes Lumet’s Deathtrap so powerful is not the kiss in itself but the way in which the kiss doesn’t “transform” or “out” Sidney and Clifford in any particularly emphatic way. While it might allow us to envisage their coiffed screen personae in very different ways, the transition from heterosexual to homosexual living arrangements is utterly seamless: as tempting as it might have been at this particular moment in cinematic history, neither actor camps it up. In the end, all that really risks “giving them away” to other people is that they occasionally come off as just a little too scripted in their heterosexuality, as Clifford takes on the role of Sidney’s secretary in order to justify cohabiting with him.
While test audiences might have booed the kiss, then, the most powerful aspect of the film – and the most disturbing, perhaps, to a homophobic audience – is that these two actors never really “add” anything to their screen persona to “come off” as gay. Instead, Lumet takes their persona and clarifies that there was already always something gay about it, directly addressing their (very different) queer fandoms and demographics for possibly the first time. Dissociating Caine and Reeve’s queerness from their more general appeal in the same breath as it insists upon their inextricability, Deathtrap thereby offers up a pair of remarkably fresh performances of gay masculinity for the early eighties. If anything, it feels as if these two straight role models have played gay characters all along, with Caine’s elaborate, avuncular politeness, in particular, perfectly syncing up with the role of the older gay lover, in a kind of sexually liberated descendant of Alfie. Above and beyond the mechanics of the story, then, the titillation of the film lies in witnessing two men in flagrante domestico, which is to say the titillation of seeing two gay men in a complete familiar and untitillating scenario. It’s no surprise, then, that most of the film is devoted to this domestic gay space, and while the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center’s production sounded fascinating, I can’t help but feel that it missed the point somewhat, since no amount of physical contact or nudity could be as scandalising – at least to the play’s original context – as that matter-of-fact domesticity. In that sense, Deathtrap often reminded me of Clint Eastwood and Dustin Lance Black’s’s J.Edgar, which came out around the same time as Eastwood’s comments about gay marriage, and takes the somewhat scandalous step of presenting J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson as a traditional married couple. Much the same holds here, which is not to say that it is devoid of sexuality, but that – as in Eastwood and Black’s vision – sexuality is suffused with domesticity, with Sidney and Clifford continually “physicalising” their plans as if the house were a giant stage, creating an enormously visceral sense of sexual proximity and precarity.
In particular, the transitions between serious and playful discussion works brilliantly to suggest the special sensuality and sexuality of this relationship, with the second act playing as an apparently endless series of nested endings, as both Sidney and Clifford aim to outplay each other, even as they relish the dance and take pleasure in the game for its own sake. At the same time, that continual, dodging movement works beautifully to capture the closet as a shifting, mobile entity, since virtually all of the duo’s efforts to outmanoeuvre each other hinge on who is that little bit more “out” and who is that little bit more “in.” One of the great strengths of Levin’s script and Lumet’s direction, then, is that the closet never feels like a discrete border or a discrete threshold – just as it never quite feels as if we are wholly in cinematic or theatrical space – but a condition of possibility that rearranges itself around every effort on the part of Sidney and Clifford to elude or outplay it. In part, that is a result of Lumet’s elaborate tracking-shots: with many of the most complex movements clearly drawn from Rope, this is easily his best orchestration of the camera within a single confined space since 12 Angry Men, managing to capture and latch into the undercurrents of feeling and regard between men in ways that both reiterate and puncture the insecurities and tensions of Lumet’s very first film.
Only the last part of the film – scored to a blackout – feels as if it might work better on the stage, so it is wonderful to arrive at a final double twist in the epilogue that sees the entire script “transformed” into a play by a side character even as it becomes clear that this couldn’t possibly be a straight theatrical adaptation, as much as it might feel like it at times. While Levin’s play certainly had a prior life of its own on Broadway, its self-referentiality only really ramifies when it is filmed as a play as it is here – its ideal form is as a filmed play – as Lumet sets future stage directors the curious challenge of how to extrapolate and continue to stage the play in the aftermath of the film, or as an adaptation of the film. It makes sense, then, that Sidney – who is first introduced as having written the longest running thriller in Broadway history – is a kind of oblique pre-emptive adaptation of Levin himself, who also became the author of the longest running comedy-thriller in Broadway history off the back of Deathtrap, which ran for four straight years, as well as off the back of Sidney himself. And in the way it allows the play to effectively catch up with itself by way of cinema, Deathtrap may well be the other Sidney’s finest theatrical adaptation too, as well as an unofficial sequel to Dog Day Afternoon, both of which place it amongst my very favourite works in his vast and voluminous filmography.