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Deathtrap

Year: 1982
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Ira Levin/Jay Presson Allen
Cast: Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, Christopher Reeve
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Everything about this film is theatrical, from the origins (it was adapted from the play by Ira Levin, the slightly trashy 70s-era writer) to the performances and the harpsichord in the soundtrack, which you can imagine being played at opportune moments in the orchestra pit in front of the stage.

You can see how attractive it would have been for the three principals, working in a single location and with nothing distracting or overshadowing their extreme thesping. Reeve in particular had a lot to prove – after playing beefcake in Superman just a few years earlier he was probably already feeling the sting of typecasting, and for a director of Lumet's calibre to roll the dice on him for a major roll would probably have felt like his big chance to be recognised as an actor.

Caine is thriller playwright Sidney Bruhl, who's made a good living doing modern Agatha Christie-like murder mysteries on Broadway but who's in a rut after his most recent play proves a critical flop.

When a former student sends him a play seeking his comments that turns out to be nothing short of brilliant, Sidney jokes with his skittish but dedicated wife Myra (Cannon) that he should invite the kid to their remote house, ask him to bring all the copies he has, murder him and pass the work off as his own.

The two play-act about Sidney being serious, and when the kid turns up and Sidney doesn't abandon signs of the ruse Myra worries he might be serious. Like a sucker punch, Sidney does the unthinkable right when you think he was joking the whole time, and chokes Clifford (Reeve) apparently to death with a length of chain.

With her weak heart and jumpiness, Myra is freaking out until Sidney finally calms her down and convinces her they can't get into any trouble but in the film's most predictable moment, she opens the bedroom shutters to look outside – finally calm – only for the bloodied Clifford to burst in and attack them both.

After her subsequent heart attack, Sidney puts Myra to rest and then the ruse of the story is revealed – that he and Clifford are gay lovers and have concocted the whole plan to do away with Myra and enjoy the inheritance of her fortune. But as they cohabitate comfortably, signs of mistrust leach between them, starting with the manuscript Clifford keeps in a locked drawer...

It's very over the top in both plotting and delivery, all sudden jangles of music and overwrought expressions, and it must have been great fun for the three leads with all the room the film gave their characters to move. Of course, it didn't unshackle Reeve from the restraints of his most famous role and Caine chalked up another signature role in his kind-of-sleazy 80s output.

Like The Producers, this movie based on a play is an exercise in meta-referencing. Reading the trivia page on the Internet Movie Database will make your head spin when you learn all the connections between the movie, the play with in the movie, the play on which the movie is based, and so on.

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