April 05, 1982 12:00 PM

Faithfulness to the original is both the charm and the curse of this film version of Broadway’s longest-running comedy thriller. Ira Levin’s 1978 play has been adapted by screenwriter Jay Presson Allen and director Sidney (Murder on the Orient Express) Lumet with special care to keep all the chicanery and dastardly plot twists intact. He has not succeeded, however, in opening up the story for the camera. Michael Caine is the playwright so anxious to have a hit show he’d kill for it, even if the victim might be his wife (Dyan Cannon) or protégé-lover (Christopher Reeve). To say any more would be unfair to those who do not know the ingenious story line. Beyond the surprises are Lumet’s strenuous efforts to conceal Deathtrap’s one-set stage origins. He hangs his camera from every corner of Caine’s East Hampton home, but the tricks only heighten the claustrophobia. Sleuth, the 1972 stage-to-screen mystery costarring Caine and Laurence Olivier, suffered from the same problem but benefited from a lighter touch. Lumet has directed his actors to such a high pitch they often seem to be playing to a second balcony. Cannon and Irene Worth, as a medium who lives next door, are overbearing. Reeve does the desired damage to his Superman image by kissing Caine full on the mouth. But no matter how gamely played, his part is ill-focused. Caine, at least, allows the humor to seep through the cracks in his character. Still, the film’s artifice dulls what seemed most diverting onstage. (R)

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