When this movie was made and released, Christopher Reeve was at the peak of his fame as a result of playing the title character in Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980), and was about to appear in Superman III (1983). Reeve accepted the role of Clifford Anderson because it had nothing to do with either Clark Kent or Superman, and he wished to avoid being typecast by his superhero persona. During the making of this movie, he said, "I've had a lot of training as an actor, and I want to use it."
Director Sidney Lumet once commented on the real stage-play scenes seen in this movie: "We used the original set of 'Deathtrap' as our set for Sidney Bruhl's flop play. The Music Box (Theatre) is dark on Mondays, so we shot there on a Monday, along with six hundred dress extras as first-nighters. Thus, the opening scene is a movie of a play-within-a-play which takes place within the play on which the movie is based. If that's not completely clear, it's at least a 'first'!"
Director Sidney Lumet once said of this movie: "You know that there will be a murder - perhaps several murders. Sidney Bruhl (Sir Michael Caine) collects weapons as a hobby, and his home contains enough implements of torture and death to outfit the Tower of London. But, who will do what, to whom, and with which, keeps shifting."
The exteriors of the beautiful house of Sidney (Sir Michael Caine) and Myra Bruhl (Dyan Cannon) in this movie were portrayed by a lavish mansion on Long Island, complete with its own old-world windmill. Interiors of the house were filmed at the Pathé Studios in New York City's East Harlem. The stage scenes that bookend this movie were filmed at Music Box Theatre on 239 West 45th Street, New York City, where the "Deathtrap" stage play was still running. The play's set was used for the two theatrical stage sequences in this movie.
This movie's (and source play's) title evokes Dame Agatha Christie's play, "The Mousetrap", which like the "Deathtrap" play, was also a long-running play, in London's West End. "The Mousetrap" first opened there in 1952, and is still running, making it the known longest running play in history.
Sir Michael Caine once described his character of Sidney Bruhl in this movie: "He's a very successful mystery writer, with expensive tastes and a sick wife, whose macabre muse has deserted him. He has always assumed that committing crime on paper siphons one's hostilities. But now, after a lifetime of vicarious murder, Bruhl finds himself fantasizing the real thing. Even so, I kept asking myself - how do you explain his strange behavior? Childhood trauma? A deep-rooted compulsion? The stigma of a name like Sidney? No, that's all too simple. The answer is that he's mad - stark raving mad! It's a lovely role."
Sir Michael Caine once said of this movie: "We all swore an oath in blood, well, perhaps it was chablis, not to spoil the fun by running off at the mouth. This thing has more twists than the Grand Corniche. And there is nothing worse than seeing a mystery after some twit has told you the butler did it. That's hypothetical, of course. There's no butler in 'Deathtrap'. We're very democratic that way."
Christopher Reeve once commented on his character Clifford Anderson: "There's a certain 'gee whiz' quality about Clifford when you first meet him. But once you get to know him better, an experience that's just about as comfortable as dining with the Borgias, he's a very peculiar fellow."
The original Broadway production of "Deathtrap" by Ira Levin opened at the Music Box Theatre on February 26, 1978, with six previews held from February 21, 1978. It played for almost four years there until it closed on January 5, 1982. The play then moved to the Biltmore Theatre opening on January 7, 1982, where it played for about another six months until June 13, 1982 when it closed. In total, the play ran for one thousand seven hundred ninety-three performances at both theaters combined.
To celebrate the 1,000th performance of "Deathtrap" on the New York City stage, playwright Ira Levin bought himself a blue Mercedes-Benz like the one his protagonist Sidney Bruhl has in his play "Deathtrap".
The main poster featured its three major characters inside of a Rubik's Cube, but artistically represented as also a puzzle-box. When this movie was made, the Rubik's Cube was at the height of its popularity.
According to director Sidney Lumet, "A melodrama like 'Deathtrap' requires a different set of movie muscles. You shoot, write, act, and edit for story. The object is to have fun and, if you take yourself seriously, you're dead. The line between good mystery and good comedy is very thin, a knife edge. Both take delicate timing, and when an audience is really scared, their natural reaction is to laugh."
For playing Myra Bruhl in the play "Deathtrap" on the New York City stage, Marian Seldes was nominated for the 1978 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress. In this movie, Myra Bruhl was played by Dyan Cannon. Seldes became famous for playing Myra for the entire run of "Deathtrap"'s Broadway season of 1,793 performances, never missing a show. According to the June 8, 1982 edition of "The New York Times", Seldes "won a listing in the next edition of the 'Guinness World Book of Records' as 'most durable actress'." Seldes apparently held this record for a time before the record was eventually beaten.
This was the only time that Sir Michael Caine worked with director Sidney Lumet. Caine was originally going to star in Lumet's The Hill (1965), but pulled out to star as Alfie (1966). Caine once commented: "This is terrible, Sidney, and you may never want to work with me again. But I've been offered the role of a lifetime, and I want out of The Hill (1965)." Lumet has said: "I couldn't turn him down. The other role, of course, was Alfie (1966), and it was the turning point in Michael's career. Despite that rocky start, we became good friends, and we've been trying to get together professionally ever since."
The June 15, 1982 edition of "The New York Times" reported that stage "Deathtrap" actor "John Wood created the starring role of Sidney Bruhl, a playwright who dreams of writing a thriller that will earn him a fortune. In a case of life imitating art, Mr. Levin (Ira Levin) once said that the stage production of 'Deathtrap', and the sale of the film rights, had brought him earnings close to $2 million, although his producers have said he has earned even more."
Movie and stage director Robert Moore, who directed the "Deathtrap" stage-play on Broadway, did not direct this movie, which was directed by Sidney Lumet. Moore had, for the movies, directed the related genre movie Murder by Death (1976), written by Neil Simon, but was still directing "Deathtrap", as well as "Woman of the Year", on Broadway, when this movie was made and released.
For playing as Clifford Anderson in the play "Deathtrap" on the New York stage, actor Victor Garber was nominated for the 1978 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor. In this movie version, Clifford Anderson was played by Christopher Reeve.
Not only did Superman actor Christopher Reeve play Clifford in this movie, Kevin Conroy, who voiced Bruce Wayne/Batman in several animated works and video games, played the role in the 1979 national tour of the play.
Although in the play Clifford and Sidney are often construed as lovers, there's nothing explicitly stated in the script. An article in Variety described how the script is not overtly gay at all: "Bruhl and Anderson are implied to be lovers in Levin's play - they've conspired to get Bruhl's wife, Myra, out of the picture, after all - but that's not made explicit. Still, Imparato noted that the 1982 movie version of "Deathtrap," which starred Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, contains a scene with the two men kissing." The Ira Levin estate objected to any gay representations of the play, insisting Clifford and Sidney "were just friends, and it should be represented that way." This could be pushback from all the aggressive representations of Deathtrap over the years which have Clifford and Sidney naked or kissing, as in the Los Angeles production.
In 1980, the play won Ira Levin his second Edgar Award, from the Mystery Writers of America. It won for Best Play. Levin won his first Edgar Award for 'A Kiss Before Dying' in the category of Best First Novel. In 2003, Levin was awarded The Grand Master Edgar Award.
Some people confused this movie as being a remake of Sleuth (1972), where Sir Michael Caine gets to play the Sir Laurence Olivier role, with Christopher Reeve playing Caine's role from that movie. It can be said that Sir Michael Caine's part of Sidney Bruhl in this movie was similar to Olivier's role in Sleuth (1972). This movie is not a remake of Sleuth (1972), but interestingly, twenty-five years after this movie was released, Sir Michael Caine did appear in a remake. The Sleuth (2007) remake had the same title, and had Caine playing the Olivier role.
The actors who played Clifford Anderson and Myra Bruhl (Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon in the film) on Broadway were nominated for Tony Awards, but the part played by Michael Caine (Sidney Bruhl) was not. The Sidney Bruhl character is the central character of this piece, but John Wood was not nominated for a Tony Award for playing him on Broadway.
Sir Michael Caine was cast in this movie as Sidney Bruhl, having previously appeared in the successful related mystery-thriller genre piece Sleuth (1972), for which he was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. Caine also appeared in Sleuth (2007), playing the role played by Laurence Olivier in the original.
Names of plays that playwright Sidney Bruhl (Sir Michael Caine) had written were "The Murder Game" (a hit) and his latest, "Murder Most Fair" (a flop). Dyan Cannon appeared in a movie called The Murder Game (1965).
The source stage play by Ira Levin was nominated for four Tony Awards in 1978 including Best Play, Best Direction (Robert Moore), Best Featured Actor (Victor Garber), and Best Featured Actress (Marian Seldes). It did not win any of the awards, but the play still holds the record for being the longest running comedy-thriller play in Broadway history.
The March 29, 1978 edition of show-business trade paper "Variety" reported that Warner Brothers purchased the movie rights to Ira Levin's stage play "Deathtrap" for over $1 million. At the time, this was apparently the most ever expensive purchase of the movie rights for a non-musical play.
The October 15, 1980 edition of show-business trade paper "The Hollywood Reporter" reported that Burt Reynolds was interested in acquiring the movie rights to Ira Levin stage-play "Deathtrap", despite the fact that Warner Brothers had already purchased them about two years prior.
The January 5, 1981 edition of show-business trade paper "Daily Variety" reported that Christopher Reeve would be resigning from his stage role in the Broadway production of "July" in order to play the role of Clifford Anderson in this movie, with principal photography commencing in March 1981.
A press release from Warner Brothers announced the Charity World Premiere of this movie would be held at the Criterion Center 2 in New York City, New York on March 16, 1982, with proceeds going to benefit the New York City Police Athletic League.
Christopher Reeve appeared in Death Trap in 1982 when he was still starring in the Superman franchise. In the movie he plays Clifford; a gay man. One homophobic critic wrote, "Christopher Reeve proves he can really fly around the room in his latest movie; even without his cape!"
Many people see this as a ripoff of or a reworking of Sleuth (1972), another suspense thriller play-turned-movie starring Michael Caine. In it, Caine and Laurence Olivier are mystery authors caught in a love triangle, with a trick-for-trick showdown. Critic Leonard Maltin called Deathtrap a "second-rate Sleuth." Other critics called Deathtrap a gay Sleuth; since both involve a love triangle (in Sleuth the men are fighting over Oliver's wife and Caine's mistress; in Deathtrap gay lovers fight over a play).
This movie featured an armory of weapon props, which line the wall of Sidney Bruhl's study, as was the case with the play. These various weapons feature, in close-up, during the opening titles sequence. They include: handcuffs, guns, a morning-star/flail, daggers, broad-swords, a scimitar, battle-axes, pistols, maces, machetes, and a crossbow.
Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, adapting Ira Levin's stage play for this movie, had recently co-written with director Sidney Lumet another screenplay adapted for a Lumet-directed movie from an already existing work. This had been for Prince of the City (1981), adapted from the book by Robert Daley. Both movies were distributed by Warner Brothers. Also, Lumet and Allen had collaborated on another adaptation of an already existing work, on Just Tell Me What You Want (1980), another Warner Brothers production, but that time it was Allen adapting his own novel for the movie. Further, Allen also contributed uncredited to Lumet's next movie after this one, which was The Verdict (1982), but this time it was for Twentieth Century Fox.
Movie posters featured a Rubik's Cube as the key image in this movie's promotions, as it evoked the idea of a "puzzle", and as such, a mystery. A press release from Warner Brothers dated February 11, 1982 reported that a gigantic Rubik's Cube, with dimensions measuring twenty-eight feet (8.5 meters) wide by thirty-four feet (10.3 meters) high, was being constructed by the studio's marketing department to promote this movie, having an estimated practical completion date of February 18, 1982.
When the movie rights to Ira Levin's source "Deathtrap" stage play were first acquired by Warner Brothers, there was a contractual condition that the movie version could not be distributed until four years after the start of the source stage play's Broadway season, which had commenced on February 26, 1978, thereby embargoing the release of this movie, which world premiered on March 16, 1982. But due to the on-going success of the Broadway stage-play production of "Deathtrap", the show continued its season run into a fifth year, and the contractual stipulation not applied, as the increased publicity proved both the play and the movie were popular.
The March 16, 1981 edition of show-business trade paper "The Hollywood Reporter" stated that rehearsals for this movie had commenced, and these would run for about two weeks, with principal photography on this movie starting on March 30, 1981.
The June 1981 edition of "Hollywood Studio Magazine" reported that Patsy Kelly had been offered the part of a "tough New York lady taxi driver" but rejected the role, due to excessive amounts of swearing, with the character in the end not appearing in the finished movie at all.
The June 22, 1979 edition of show-business trade paper "Variety" reported that Christopher Reeve had had a meeting with studio executives from Warner Brothers about playing the part of Clifford Anderson in this movie.
The February 24, 2005 edition of show-business trade paper "Daily Variety" reported that writer, producer, and director Frank Pierson was planning another adaptation, which would be similarly titled "Death Trap", but this movie production never eventuated.
Reportedly, box office ticket sales from the publicity generated by this movie in turn acted as publicity for the source stage play, which was still playing on Broadway in New York City, and helped the box office ticket sales of the concurrent Broadway stage production.
Some mild controversy erupted with the on-screen gay kiss between straight actors Sir Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. This scene did not appear in the Ira Levin source play of the same name. According to the book "The Celluloid Closet" by Vito Russo, Christopher Reeve said that this scene was booed by preview audiences in Denver, Colorado. Also, apparently a Time Magazine exposé revealed the gay kiss story element plot twist cost the movie an estimated $10 million in box office receipts.
One of the main posters shows a cartoon drawing of the bottom half torsos of three characters from this movie. There is an implication that they are dead, as they are all lying on the ground and the title of this movie is "Deathtrap". They are all seen in clothing and shoes befitting their characters. The three characters that these people are implied to be (from left to right) are Sidney Bruhl (Sir Michael Caine), Myra Bruhl (Dyan Cannon), and Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve). As these three characters effectively die by the end of this movie, in essence, this poster of this movie gives this away.
According to separate interviews with Sir Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, they had hesitations regarding the filming of the infamous "kissing" scene. Once they decided to go through with it, they both consumed large amounts of alcohol in order to keep themselves calm and drunk enough that they'd do anything anyone asked them to do.
Christopher Reeve once said of the gay kissing scene with Sir Michael Caine in this movie: "We kiss on the mouth. We handle it straight on. But, I hope that audiences will not over-focus on the homosexual aspects of a thriller."
This comedy-mystery-thriller is famous for its gay plot twist. In Sleuth (2007), which also starred Sir Michael Caine, a possible gay plot twist was added by screenwriter Harold Pinter to Anthony Shaffer's story, which was not in Sleuth (1972), which likewise starred Caine.
The June 22, 1979 edition of show-business trade paper "Variety" reported that Christopher Reeve had had a meeting with studio executives from Warner Brothers about playing the part of Clifford Anderson in this movie. Apparently, Reeve wanted to "lose the homosexuality angle" in the story.
The storyline involves the murder of a playwright's wife by the playwright. Bizarrely, the April 27, 1982 edition of "The New York Times" announced that Claus von Bülow, one of the investors in the Broadway stage production of "Deathtrap" by Ira Levin, had been found guilty of murdering his wife. A movie about these circumstances called Reversal of Fortune (1990) was later made.
In this movie and Doctors' Wives (1971), the characters portrayed by Dyan Cannon were killed off during the first half of the movie. Also, Ira Levin, the playwright who wrote the "Deathtrap" stage play, also wrote the similarly titled story "The Stepford Wives", which has been filmed twice.