Words, Words, Words! CMBA Blogathon: DEATH TRAP (1982)

 

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Who doesn’t love a strong whodunnit murder mystery with twists and turns and a thriller ending? Based on a record-breaking run on Broadway, Ira Levin’s play was brought to life on the big screen with Sidney Lumet’s DEATH TRAP (1982). You don’t know who or what to trust in this film based on a play about a play. Following me so far? Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. ALERT: It’s impossible to discuss this film without revealing some spoilers so expect it. However, I’ll hold back on some goodies.

After an astounding run of 1,793 runs on stage and four Tony noms, famed filmmaker Sidney Lumet brought in a stellar cast screen for this popular production. We begin the opening credits with a key figure in this story- a wall of torture devices. An old wooden planked wall of weapons of every sort imaginable proudly displays knives, machetes, pistols, chains, maces and more, all while cheery harpsichord music plays on. Who could possibly be the owner of such a wall of death? Michael Caine portrays Sidney Bruhl, a bitter, spoiled bully of a playwright and owner of this gruesome gallery.

Sidney’s in trouble. His current play is a bomb and he’s been in a career slump for some time. It’s been years since he had a hit on his hands yet he was once known as the creator of the longest running murder-comedy on the Broadway stage. Before heading home, he gets drunk. He prophetically admits that he woke up “at the end of the line” of the subway. Now daylight, he walks into his unique and stately home (replete with a windmill and a wall of horror tools as souvenirs from each of his play productions), hungover and gruff, he barks at his wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon).

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To say Myra is an easily startled woman is understatement. She screeches at the top of her lungs and jumps at the slightest unexpected peep. It’s written all over his face that the years of this behavior has pushed Sidney over the edge. Myra is also a sick woman, with serious heart problems. She nervously flits about as he angrily moves across their large open living room, sharing a recent discovery.

A prior student, Cliff Anderson (Christopher Reeve) is an avid fan and has submitted the draft of his first play, “Death Trap.” Sidney admits to Myra that the play is perfect in every way. He reads Cliff’s enthusiastic letter out loud. In his dry, sarcastic tone he openly fantasizes how wonderful it would be to oblige this protege with a visit to their home with Cliff’s only other copy in hand and murder him, then simply taking credit for his perfect play. He devilishly grins as he delights in how this would solve all his problems.

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Meanwhile, Myra nervously cackles, unsure if her husband is creating fictional murder plot details for a potential play, likely a common process he’s repeated across the years, OR… could he actually be serious?

After tense debate of implications ensues, their new neighbor unexpectedly arrives. Helga Ten Dorp is visiting from Europe and has taken up residence in their otherwise quiet, wealthy Long Island community. A mature woman of bright energy dressed in her jogging gear, she’s a quirky character with unique talents. Known as the psychic who has successfully assisted police in solving murders, her presence is oddly appropriate. She immediately goes through the room and starts pointing out areas of “pain.” Sidney and Myra brush off her insights and predictions, assuming she’s sensing his wall of stage props and his writing room of fictional deaths.

Later, Cliff arrives. Fearing the worst, Myra takes over the conversation, blurting ways that Cliff and Sidney could collaborate. Sidney scolds her and Cliff senses the weird tension. Cliff goes from bouncing in as the eager and grateful student to cutting his visit short, stating he appreciates their interest but he plans to show his play to others and must leave. On his way out, Sidney is cordial and invites him to try out one his famous stage prop inspirations, a pair of Houdini handcuffs. Being the polite student, he follows his former professor’s instructions. He sits dutifully in a chair, following Sidney’s steps and attempts to escape from the cuffs. To no avail, the cuffs won’t budge. Both Cliff and Myra are visibly nervous as Sidney casually looks for the key.

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Sidney breaks the palatable tension when he discovers the key. Myra and Cliff sigh and chuckle out loud with heavy relief. Sidney calls out the elephant in the room by openly pointing out that he suspects perhaps they thought he had no intention of finding the key. Just as they laugh off the awkward scene, Sidney strikes. Grabbing a rugged iron chain from his wall of torture, Sidney flings it around Cliff from behind, squeezing it tightly around his neck with all his strength. Cliff is thrust forward on the floor, struggling for his life. Sidney tightens his chain. Myra is screaming in terror as Cliff grasps at the blood chain.

This is just the beginning of many twists and turns to come. As promised, I won’t give away all the good spoilers. But I can assure you that one way or another, everyone gets what they deserve in scenes to come.

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Michael Caine is superb as selfish Sidney. He’s always been the master of vulnerable charm meets naughty villain. This performance proves that. Christopher Reeve excels in this role that requires quite a range from naive student to calculating sociopath. Quite a bold move, and a smart one, for Reeve when he was at the peak of popularity in the ongoing Superman series. As for Canon, she was actually nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for “Worst Supporting Actress” for her performance here. I must say I found her constantly jumpy, screeching and submissive behavior incredibly annoying. But to her credit, that’s exactly what the role needed to further support credibility to Sidney’s motivation and dominant personality.

Here are some imdb tidbits of trivia:

-The name of the psychic ‘Ten Dorp’ is an anagram for ‘portend’ which means a phenomenon that is believed to foretell the future.

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-The exteriors of the beautiful home of Sidney and Myra Bruhl in the film was portrayed by a lavish mansion on Long Island complete with its own old-world windmill. Interiors of the house were filmed at the Pathe Studios in New York’s East Harlem. The stage scenes that bookend the film were filmed at Music Box Theatre on 239 West 45th Street, New York where the ‘Deathtrap’ stage-play was still running. The ‘Deathtrap’ play’s set was used for the two theatrical stage sequences in this film.

-According to director Sidney Lumet, “A melodrama like ‘Deathtrap’ requires a different set of movie muscles. You shoot, write, act and edit for story. The object is to have fun and, if you take yourself seriously, you’re dead. The line between good mystery and good comedy is very thin, a knife edge. Both take delicate timing. And when an audience is really scared, their natural reaction is to laugh.”

– Film and stage director Robert Moore who directed the ‘Deathtrap’ stage-play on Broadway did not direct this film version which was directed by Sidney Lumet. Moore had for the movies directed the related genre piece Murder by Death (1976) written by Neil Simon but was actually still directing ‘Deathtrap’ as well as ‘Woman of the Year’ on Broadway when this movie was made and released.

-Michael Caine once described his character of Sidney Bruhl in this movie: “He’s a very successful mystery writer, with expensive tastes and a sick wife, whose macabre muse has deserted him. He has always assumed that committing crime on paper siphons one’s hostilities. But now, after a lifetime of vicarious murder, Bruhl finds himself fantasizing the real thing. Even so, I kept asking myself – how do you explain his strange behavior? Childhood trauma? A deep-rooted compulsion? The stigma of a name like Sidney? No, that’s all too simple. The answer is that he’s mad – stark raving mad! It’s a lovely role.”

-Christopher Reeve once commented on his Clifford Anderson character he plays in this movie: “There’s a certain ‘gee whiz’ quality about Clifford when you first meet him. But once you get to know him better – an experience that’s just about as comfortable as dining with the Borgias – he’s a very peculiar fellow.”

-Michael Caine once said of this movie: “We all swore an oath in blood – well, perhaps it was chablis – not to spoil the fun by running off at the mouth. This thing has more twists than the Grand Corniche. And there is nothing worse than seeing a mystery after some twit has told you the butler did it. That’s hypothetical, of course. There’s no butler in ‘Deathtrap’. We’re very democratic that way.”

This review was my tardy submission to the CMBA Spring Blogathon: Words! Words! Words! And while it may be debatable as to whether this is a classic, it was made over thirty years ago, and something about this film has always had a classic-era feel to me. I love all the twists and turns, not unlike a fun Agatha Christy mystery, but here the murdering mayhem keeps us guessing for most of the film.

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Comments

  1. I remember watching this movie years ago, at least twice. Thorough and accurate review. I agree, Death Trap does feel like a classic. Really enjoyed this Kellee!

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  2. Oh how I love Michael Caine in this film. So wonderful that he is still out there giving us great performances.

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  3. This sounds like so much fun. Thank you! Twists & Caine?:)

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  4. This really is an under-appreciated gem by Sidney Lumet and cast. Showed it to my kids a couple of years ago and thought it a kick! Sorry I’m late to the party, Kellee. Wonderful write-up.

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