Vintage Cable Box: “Deathtrap”

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“I want a short-cut, Sidney. And I really don’t care whose yard I cut through, if you understand me.”

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“Deathtrap”, 1982 (Michael Caine), Warner Bros.

Michael Caine’s Sidney Bruhl, a successful playwright who specializes in the macabre is livid over the terrible reviews for his latest play, “Murder Most Fair”. His somewhat dizzy, weak-hearted but wealthy wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon), cannot understand his anger. Protégé and fan Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve) sends him his latest manuscript, “Deathtrap”; the unqualified genius of which drives Caine to the breaking point as he contemplates murdering him and claiming the work for his own. He invites Reeve out to his house in Montauk.

After “killing” Reeve and covering up all evidence of the crime, Caine attempts to soothe his distraught wife. Reeve recovers, obviously not dead, attacks Caine and drives Cannon to have a heart attack. It is then revealed that Reeve and Caine were co-conspirator’s in Cannon’s death, in order to take her vast fortune. Weeks pass and Reeve and Caine collaborate on another play. Cannon has left her fortune to Caine. Paranoia and suspicion sets in as Caine begins to convince himself (with the aid of his lawyer played by Henry Jones) that Reeve is looking to take his money, or planning to extort him. He discovers that Reeve has written a play about Cannon’s death and the machinations involved, and he has titled it “Deathtrap”.

Caine’s world-reknowned psychic next-door neighbor (whom had previously foresaw the death of Cannon) arrives on a stormy night and informs Caine that Reeve will attack him, fueling his panic further. In a scene filled with baited anticipation, Reeve and Caine are working out stage blocking when Caine pulls out a gun and tells him he can’t be permitted to finish the play. Caine has set up Reeve, leaving all the proper clues to implicate Reeve in his wife’s death. Of course, Reeve sees it coming and removes the bullets, turning the tables on Caine.

As deliciously convoluted as this stage play-turned-suspense-thriller is, you can see that this is a playwright’s own murder fantasy. It was originally written for the stage by Ira Levin, and played a record 1,793 performances; the longest running thriller on Broadway to this day. With the exception of a few short scenes in the city and on the grounds, the entirety of the movie takes place in Bruhl’s house, the living room specifically, so visually the palette is limited, but Sidney Lumet, the film’s director, cut his teeth in studio television production, so he knows how to get the most out of his limited sets.

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Writers are a bitchy group. With enormous egos and leanings toward a kind of creative psychopathy, they live in fear of a lack of originality. I know I’ve been through that myself. I’ll write a million pages and then toss them, flagellating myself for not being “original” enough. It’s hard enough to negotiate, but even harder when I see that originality is a limited and precious commodity in today’s creative marketplace. Writers often accuse each other of plagiarism because they know they can only be creative for so long. Writers live and breathe the construction of their characters, so it’s only fitting that Sidney Bruhl have murder on his mind.

In one particularly tense scene, Caine outlines the definition of a sociopath to Reeve as “one who has no sense of moral obligation whatsoever”. Reeve can only gloat, and his performance in “Deathtrap” conjures up images of what could have been. He is so confident, so assured, and so human, it makes me wonder what turn his career would’ve taken had he not put on the big red cape. He was a brilliant actor, forever typecast as Superman, and as such, serious work was hard to come by.

Sidney Lumet’s first foray into pictures was “12 Angry Men” and every few years, he would make a masterpiece like “The Pawnbroker”, or “Serpico”, or “Dog Day Afternoon”, or “Network”. Incredibly prolific, he book-ended “Deathtrap” with “Prince of the City” and “The Verdict” in the space of three years. In 1970, he said, “Every picture I did was an active, believable, passionate wish.” Lumet died in 2011.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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