Straight outta Scranton Wilkes-Barre came Joseph Mankiewicz in 1909. Probably best known as the director of All About Eve, Mankiewicz put out a lot of other classics including The Barefoot Contessa, Sleuth, and Suddenly, Last Summer. 1967’s The Honey Pot, featuring a devilish Rex Harrison, feels very much like a warmup for that 1972 classic Sleuth. While The Honey Pot is a lot of fun it’s overlong, its lead actors can’t stand up to the Michael Caine/Laurence Olivier pairing of Sleuth, and Shaffer’s play far outclasses Knott’s play-within-a-play structure where The Honey Pot vocally references Volpone.
Nonetheless, Mankiewicz turns this into an Agatha Christie-like “gangs all here” scenario with the very familiar beginning: eccentric millionaire (Harrison’s Cecil Fox) invites former lovers Lone Star (Susan Hayward), Princess Dominique (Capucine) and Merle McGill (Edie Adams) to his mansion where, under the watchful eye of his newly hired servant and “master of ceremonies” William McFly (Cliff Robertson) they take part in a sort of twisted inheritance whodunit game.
There are countless predecessors and I’m only going from memory here: Deathtrap, And Then There Were None, Clue, House on Haunted Hill, etc.
What The Honey Pot does well is play it straight. There aren’t any out-and-out gags, and each individual character plays his or her turn to the hilt as though life and death really is the game at hand. Mankiewicz’s camera is very fluid and he makes nice use of the 1.85:1 frame, stretching it so much that it almost feels wider at times. The blocking is classic and built largely around frequently useless, but not-stagnant moving – circling a piece of furniture ala a Sidney Lumet picture, pacing while talking out a plan, locking doors, pouring drinks and spying. The set’s main hallway, with multiple doors opening as the camera finds one closing, reminds of Blake Edward’s Pink Pather flicks (I’m probably already thinking of them because of Capucine’s involvement in both), but oddly enough, though introduced early-on, this set piece is also never played as joke as much as it is spatial setup.
The comedy – and there is comedy – in The Honey Pot is therefore a) situational and b) character. The small absurdities and inside jokes of a false illness, the ludicrous contrast in former lovers (Texas affluence versus haughty fragility versus Hollywood actress), and Cecil’s unabashed excitement at his unnecessary plotting make for small chuckles. What really drives the film is its mystery, and though this film is genre-listed as both comedy and suspense, it’s really a thriller at heart. Mankiewicz directs his actors well to keep the suspense intact throughout and is wise to hide intentions behind cloaks of seeming senility, greed, and subservience.
I’m a sucker for nearly any film that, at some point or other, sets up potential suspects, kills someone off, and then narrows down the list of said suspects. Everyone has a motive in The Honey Pot and the fun is as much trying to figure out whodidit before the reveal as it is watching each character wriggle under the spotlight of the obligatory police inspector, Rizzi (Adolfo Celi).
Where The Honey Pot fails is mostly in its ending, which drags on for about 20 unnecessary, self-reflexive minutes. A voiceover is suddenly introduced and a film that could have ended quite strongly at the 110 minute mark drags on for random joke and twist after joke and twist.
Though I’m usually a fan of Cliff Robertson (I like his turn in the oft-campy de Palma film Obsession), his McFly is too dry and monotone to bring it the full wit and life it needs. Instead he’s a lifeless counter to Harrison’s maniacal and childlike Cecil. Robertson plays the part straight, but it’s almost too straight to the extent that he seems bored. A little extra verve in there would give this light film more suspense: if we suspect that he’s in on the game it’s more interesting in this scenario than the out-of-the blue solution offered.
But in the end Mankiewicz gives us some nice clues via subtle sound design, a well placed time-cut, and some not-so-obvious foreshadow. His career-long obsession with bourgeoise/arrogant charlatanism is certainly echoed here, though it’s not as pinpoint a satire as say, All About Eve (but really, how many films are?).