Christopher Reeve & Michael Caine Face Off in This Controversial Thriller

The Big Picture

  • Christopher Reeve’s role in Deathtrap showcased his talent as a daring actor beyond his Superman persona.
  • Deathtrap is a twisty chamber piece about a successful playwright and his plan to murder a student and steal his work.
  • The film was controversial for its same-sex romance representation, shedding light on the need for LGBTQ+ visibility in the genre.


Whether it’s his controversial resurrection in The Flash or the latest Sundance documentary on his life and career, it’s never a bad time to remember that Christopher Reeve was a much more daring actor than his most iconic role as Superman would suggest, most evident when he starred across Michael Caine in a ludicrously riotous attempt to outsmart one another in Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap. The names of Reeve, Caine, and Lumet are probably all anyone needs to hear to sign up, but what elevates this collaboration is the fact that it’s based on playwright Ira Levin’s 1978 play of the same name, one of the most twisty chamber pieces to ever hit the stage.

No disrespect to the undeniable role of a lifetime, but in spite of his tenure as the original Man of Steel, Reeve was a stage man through and through, having been brought into acting through Juilliard and Broadway, only to appear in a number of theatrical adaptations that consistently poked fun at the eccentricities of those involved in live performance. Ironically, Deathtrap bears a strong resemblance to another one of Caine’s most iconic performances as Milo Tindale in Sleuth, pitting him in a similar game of cat-and-mouse alongside the great Sir Laurence Olivier. While both make for a massive delight and probably one of the best double features imaginable, Deathtrap almost functions as Sleuth’s younger American cousin. In doing so, it took some big swings.

Deathtrap Film Poster

Deathtrap

A Broadway playwright puts murder in his plan to take credit for a student’s play.

Release Date
March 19, 1982

Runtime
116 minutes


What Is ‘Deathtrap’ About?

The plot mechanics of Deathtrap function like an M. Night Shyamalan film on steroids, in the sense that while Shyamalan’s films often build up to one final climactic twist, Deathtrap applies the same philosophy to every single scene. There’s hardly a single narrative transition that doesn’t culminate in the reveal of more mind-bending information that recontextualizes everything that its viewers have seen before it. Caine stars as Sidney Bruhl, a wildly successful playwright of murder mysteries who has lost his touch, executing one flop after another. Alongside his wife Myra (Dyan Cannon), he devises a sinister scheme to reclaim his career after reading a jaw-dropping work from Clifford (Reeve), one of the students of his workshop. Bruhl’s master plan: invite Clifford (who’s head-over-heels in admiration for Bruhl) to the house, murder him, and steal the work to produce it as his own!

‘Deathtrap’ Is Full of Plot Twists at Every Turn

This is where things start to get twisty, as nothing in Deathtrap is what it originally seems. For the first half of the film, Reeve is entirely at Caine’s mercy, primarily because he’s so starry-eyed when it comes to his idol tutor’s invitation that he just accepts it when he handcuffs him to a chair for laughs. Cannon’s Myra is consistently uncomfortable with the thought of murder only for Sidney to follow through, except that this is where the plot really begins. Like From Dusk ‘Till Dawn, the film switches things up at its midpoint, when after disposing of Clifford’s body, Myra is kept awake by mysterious sounds around the house. Fearing an intruder, she ventures into her and Sidney’s room to find Clifford beating Sidney to death. Clifford then chases her through the house, only for her weak heart to give out and die.

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This is where what’s arguably the film’s biggest twist comes into play: Sidney is alive as well! But beyond that, the entire orchestration was a plot by Sidney and Clifford to murder Myra without laying a finger on her, placing Sidney in a position to inherit her wealth without suspicion of murder. Time to call it a day? Absolutely not! Now it’s Clifford whom Sidney starts to worry about, especially after, in a moment of tense realization, he discovers that Clifford is writing the perfect play about their murder of Myra, fearful that he might be implicating him. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse like no other, with Reeve absolutely outstanding in a double role that prevents his viewers from ever deducing what he’s thinking. Remarkably, in spite of his capacity for murder, Reeve maintains his character’s lanky boyish charm, with a smile so tender it could never be mistrusted. However, when captured at the right camera angle, that same smile becomes one of absolutely devilish implications. It’s a character who constantly readjusts the audience’s perception of him to outstanding effect, eliciting sympathy for Sidney purely for the fact that, while they’re both monsters, Clifford proves even worse.

‘Deathtrap’ Was a Landmark Film in Representing Same-Sex Relationships

Thus far, there’s hardly anything in the film that would justify Deathtrap’s reception as one of the most controversial mystery thrillers ever produced, but you’re not reading this from the lens of someone in 1982. The important question here isn’t ‘what happens’ but ‘how does it happen,’ as, contrary to the source material, Lumet opted to reveal Sidney and Clifford’s romance through a tight close-up of a same-sex kiss. As forward-thinking as it is retrospectively problematic, though it was hardly the first or only film of the era to spotlight two men kissing, it did so in a film that was completely foreign to the LGBTQ+ genre of the time, meaning it was a genuine surprise that strictly heterosexual (and homophobic) audiences were exposed to. The bottom line is that you expect a movie about Freddie Mercury to feature some gay romance, but in a thriller starring the same masculine icons that portrayed Superman and Jack Carter? Not in a million years!

In his 2014 book Murder Most Queer, Jordan Schildcrout recalls an interview with Reeve in which he stated: “I heard that a preview audience in Denver booed the kiss, and that was reported in Time magazine, thus ruining the plot for millions of people. We later referred to it as ‘the ten million dollar kiss’ as an estimate of lost ticket revenue.” It’s unfathomably sad that a landmark expression of love could turn off so many audience members and prevent studios from trying anything like this for a while. And as brave as this film was for depicting such a relationship in a genre film, the representational element becomes significantly obscured when you realize that, like every other element of the film, it’s designed to shock above all. To be fair, Schildcrout also describes the affectionate ways that Sidney and Clifford speak to each other, using words like ‘baby,’ ‘dear,’ and ‘luv,’ normalizing same-sex affections. At the same time, it doesn’t help that Clifford is heavily suspected of being a sociopath, perpetuating the harmful and outdated exploitation of queer identity as “scary.” However, like any piece of groundbreaking queer cinema, every step forward only reveals how much further there truly is to go.

Deathtrap is more than just a film designed to make you feel like your brain has been possessed by a master contortionist. It’s also a stunning example of Reeve’s mettle as a performer. He was someone who could mimic the screwball perfection of Cary Grant to play the most iconic superhero of all time, but also someone who knew that with great stardom, comes great responsibility. The fact that after portraying a family-friendly icon, he would utilize his celebrity to depict a queer romance to an audience so unsuspecting of such an interaction is nothing short of legendary. In spite of the shortcomings of the depiction itself, Reeve, Caine, and Lumet knew that you can’t have tolerance without exposure. Remove that, however, and you still have an outstandingly stimulating genre piece worthy of Superman himself!

Deathtrap is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi in the U.S.

Watch on Tubi

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