When it comes to the latest film, there are directors who fail at their release, with a blemished ending that doesn't do justice to the rest of their career. And then there is Joseph L. Mankiewicz who, with The Hound, marks one of the summits of a filmography that was not lacking in it, between Eve, The Barefoot Countess, The Adventure of Mrs. Muir, Suddenly last summer or even Cleopatra, which is better than the stories of financial abyss which made its reputation.
Worn out by his experience on this Dantesque epic, and by its failure in theaters, the director then declared that he would only be able to film with two actors, in a telephone booth. A joke that he put into practice in the early 1970s, nevertheless opting for a large residence, disturbing and labyrinthine, the unique setting of this implacable closed door.
After exploring different genres throughout his career (his previous film was a western, the one before that a comedy), Joseph L. Mankiewicz returns to the thriller, which he had already tackled in The Dragon's Castle or The Cicero affair.
Except for one detail: The Hound is one of the rare feature films in his filmography for which he did not write the screenplay, leaving this task here to Anthony Shaffer, author of the play with 2,359 performances whose story is inspires, self-adapts.
It retains the three-act structure. And the starting premise: a wealthy author of English detective novels, Sir Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), invites Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a London hairdresser of more modest origins, to visit him in his sumptuous residence, furnished and decorated with a consummate art of trompe-l'oeil.
A maniac of enigma and mystification, poorly hiding his contempt for this upstart whose affair he knows with his wife Marguerite, Andrew suggests that he fake a burglary to collect the insurance money.
Manipulation, love of theater and words that hit the mark
Milo accepts… and that's the tragedy. Obviously. Given Wyke's reputation, explained in the synopsis, he is not there to play cards, but to kick off a gigantic game of lying poker.
Which it's best to know as little as possible before the opening credits roll. The better to be surprised by the twists and turns, which only come through the dialogues.
As in Eve, where a monologue does not require a flashback to illustrate the words of its heroine, Mankiewicz believes in the power of words. Those of Anthony Shaffer, who exchange tit for tat with a precision worthy of that of the clocks which adorn the house, and where the tension can rise several notches with a simple turn of phrase.
Manipulation, love of theater and words that hit the mark: the key motifs of the director's work are found in this Hound, which also orchestrates a class and style struggle. Between the bourgeois Wyke and the commoner Tindle.
Between Laurence Olivier, a great theater figure (who gave his name to an award, that is to say), and Michael Caine, with a more naturalistic style and whose cockney accent reflects his popular origins well.
This is also why The Hound is a little gem of precision with infallible mechanics, which keeps us in suspense until the last second, and which supports several visions without seizing up. Even though the viewer knows its twists and turns. If the main thing lies in the plot, this is not 100% responsible for the success of this Hound, which also shines thanks to its actors, its direction and its different reading levels.
Proof of this is the remake by Kenneth Branagh in 2008. Written by Harold Pinter, another big name in the theater, the scenario remains generally the same. Entrusting the role of Wyke to Michael Caine (opposite Jude Law) is a nice wink. But nothing or almost nothing works in this rereading, where the staging is too focused on games of distorting mirrors which underline the duplicity of the characters, to which it fails to give the depth and ambiguity of its models.
As is often the case, prefer the original. One of its author's best films (but not the best rated, which sets the level of the others) coupled with a relentless and thrilling thriller. A game of cat and mouse that is difficult to put down, and which can now be (re)watched in theaters since January 24. To better feel the effects of being behind closed doors, in this face-to-face meeting which could make you want to discover the filmography of the brilliant but little-known Joseph L. Mankiewicz.