Deconstructing “Deathtrap”: A magical, metafictional movie.

deathtrap-poster

This is the final article in the Sidney Lumet Blogathon. Big thanks to all who participated in analyzing the work of this fascinating director.

Deathtrap is my favorite Sidney Lumet film. It’s also one of my favorite films, period; I took it with me, for example, to Boston on my research trip as one of my “comfort movies.” In a career studded with successes like Serpico and Network (or even the notorious bomb The Wiz), it may seem strange to pick this fairly small-scale, light-hearted, not-too-serious picture as the standout. I love Deathtrap not just because it’s a rollicking good time, but because of the fascinating games it plays with the conventions of storytelling. A “metafictional” work is a story where the creation of the story is part of the story itself. Novelists and Hollywood have toyed with metafiction for decades. Don Quixote is an early example of a metafictional work; the 2002 movie Adaptation is a more recent one. I’ve used metafiction in my own writing. Life Without Giamotti is metafictional, as is The Valley of Forever. My favorite author Umberto Eco loved metafiction. However, the convention is not always as pretentious as it seems. Deathtrap toys with it in quite a funny and light-hearted way but is still thought-provoking.

Deathtrap begins on Broadway. At the Music Box Theater, veteran playwright Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) is watching the disastrous opening performance of his new thriller Murder Most Fair, which he hears someone in the audience describe as “the worst play I’ve ever seen.” After drinking himself into oblivion while watching the scathing reviews, Bruhl returns home to his estate on Long Island, which is a converted windmill. He and his wife Myra (Dyan Cannon), who has a heart condition, argue about their worsening financial situation, which has been exacerbated by Bruhl’s recent string of flops. “To add insult to injury,” Bruhl has just received a manuscript for a thriller, called Deathtrap–which he believes is a sure-fire money-maker–from a first-time author named Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve). Bruhl comes up with the idea of inviting Anderson to the house to collaborate on the play, then murdering him and passing off Deathtrap as his own. He reluctantly enlists Myra to help him in this murderous plot despite her fears that the stress will give her a heart attack. As the audience begins to question whether what they see is really what happened, a deadly cat-and-mouse game begins between Bruhl and Anderson, which of course itself makes for the plot of a sure-fire Broadway hit…called Deathtrap!

Deathtrap, the movie, is based on Deathtrap, the play, written by veteran playwright and novelist Ira Levin, who wrote the original novels Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. The real Deathtrap, the play, premiered at the Music Box Theater on Broadway in February 1978 and ran for a stunning 1,793 performances, making it the longest-running comedy thriller on Broadway. Ironically the play’s production history and its success are not only part of the story, but make the audience part of it too. The whole reason why Deathtrap (the fake play over which Bruhl and Anderson are fighting) is worth killing over is because it’s a sure-fire hit. When Broadway audiences made Deathtrap (the real play) a hit in real life, they were validating this premise and participating in the story in a unique way. This is narrative genius as well as commercial success. The film Deathtrap, released in March 1982, was also a success though not a blockbuster, and it was another solid pillar of Lumet’s career, though nowhere near as influential as some of his other films.

music-box-theater-2016

The original play Deathtrap premiered on Broadway at this theater, the Music Box, in 1978. The theater itself also appears at the beginning and ending of the film. I took this photo in 2016.

Deathtrap (the film) works in part because of the wonderful chemistry of its cast. Aside from bit parts like cab drivers, bartenders and a few Broadway critics who play themselves in brief scenes, there are only five characters in the whole movie: Bruhl, Anderson, Myra, the Bruhls’ befuddled and supposedly psychic neighbor Helga Ten Dorp (Irene Worth), and Bruhl’s laywer Porter (Henry Jones). The central trio of Caine, Reeve and Cannon carry most of the picture, and Lumet, as usual, knows exactly how to direct them so their thespian talents come through as strongly as possible. The long scene in the film’s first third, where Bruhl, Anderson and Myra banter and argue over the terms of the collaboration on Deathtrap, is some of the strongest acting I’ve ever seen from these players, especially Christopher Reeve, who was relatively young at the time and was just coming off his success and popularity as Superman. The scene is very play-like, blocked and shot in a way that seems to put the audience on the stage of a live production rather than as a viewer of a filmed one.

Of course there’s one element for which Deathtrap is remembered in cultural history: the infamous kiss. The plot explicitly involves a sexual relationship between Bruhl and Anderson–the story wouldn’t work without it–and establishes Bruhl as bisexual and Anderson as most likely gay. The film doesn’t hit the relationship that hard, but at one point in the story, Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve kiss. Supposedly this is the first same-sex kiss ever to appear in a mainstream Hollywood film. I’m not sure if that’s true, just as it is not really true (though widely believed) that the kiss between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek in 1969 was network TV’s first interracial kiss, but it’s close enough to go down in the history books. Supposedly this scene, in homophobic 1982, cost the film $10 million in ticket sales, but I tend to doubt that as well. Nevertheless, Deathtrap is a milestone in the depiction of bisexuality on film, and while its kiss is not the climax of the picture (as is the same-sex kiss in Y Tu Mama Tambien, made in 2001), it managed to draw a gasp from the audience in 1982.

The infamous gay kiss from Deathtrap was a shock to some audiences in 1982, though by today’s standards it’s pretty unremarkable. That’s a good thing.

Even beyond these main points, Deathtrap is delightful right down to its details. The production design is stunning. Taking place almost entirely on the central set, the converted Long Island lighthouse, the ground zero of the story is perfectly designed and very atmospheric with its brick fireplace and wood-paneled study, its walls conveniently lined with oodles of antique weapons. The film’s music is by Johnny Mandel, most famous for writing the “Suicide is Painless” theme for M*A*S*H, and consists of a series of etudes for oboe and harpsichord that totally get stuck in your head after one or two listens. The film’s costume design and physical look is surprisingly contemporary and rarely looks “early 80s” at all. In coordinating all these pieces, some big, some small, Lumet showed his brilliance not just as a director or a creative mind, but a technician and an administrator. Deathtrap hums like a well-maintained machine.

I love Deathtrap. I love its narrative structure, its intellectual audacity, its performances, its LGBT fearlessness, its twists and turns, its music, everything. It’s just one of those perfect movies you can watch over and over again and never get tired of. Few directors could put together such a perfect movie. Sidney Lumet is one of them.

Another wonderful scene from Deathtrap showcases the talent of the actors as well as Lumet’s brilliance in directing them.

Thanks again to everyone who participated in the blogathon!

The poster for Deathtrap is copyright (C) 1982 by Warner Brothers Pictures. The photo of the Music Box Theater is by me, copyright (C) 2016 by Sean Munger, all rights reserved. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Announcing the Sidney Lumet Movie Blogathon! – www.seanmunger.com
  2. A lifetime of cinema: a favorite film for every year I’ve been alive. – SeanMunger.com

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