The Last of Sheila (1973)

This Edgar-winning murder mystery challenges a group of Hollywood players to solve a series of riddles while on the French Riviera – but just what is the prize and who is playing who? This fabulously elaborate movie was co-written by the unlikely team of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim and movie actor Anthony Perkins, who shared a passion for wordplay, acrostics and murder games. This film certainly offers plenty of those and at the same time also takes ironic potshots at the movie community. James Coburn is the manipulative mogul who, one year after the mysterious death of his gossip columnist wife, invites some ex-colleagues to stay on his yacht. But is one of his guests her murderer ..?

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“This is rather like a Hammer film, isn’t it?”

Before Murder on the Orient Express (1974) launched the combination whodunit-cum-disaster movie into orbit into its own mini-genre, this film was that comparative rarity: a play-fair mystery that used big names to sell it in the cinemas. Raquel Welch was probably the biggest name as, well, a glamorous movie star, with Ian McShane as her lame, tag along husband/manager; Coburn plays Clinton, the nasty movie mogul (are there any nice ones?); James Mason is film director Philip, now doing TV adverts; Richard Benjamin, later a terrific director himself and here still playing clean-cut young urban men out of Philip Roth stories, is Tom, a screenwriter who seems doomed to work on soul-destroying re-write jobs while Coburn refuses to film the one original script the author is most proud of; pride being a central issue as his wife Lee (Joan Hackett) is wealthy but he won’t use her money. Dyan Cannon is Christine, the vulgarian agent (based on the late Sue Mengers) who is also sleeping with Clinton. They arrive for a week’s holiday on ‘Sheila’, the yacht named after the producer’s late wife, in the hope that Clinton will want to employ them. When they arrive he explains the rules of the holiday as he sets them a series of murder game challenges. This begins with them all being assigned a secret piece of fake gossip, an identity typed on a card, and the object of every night’s game will be to discover what the secret ‘identity’ of each of the players is.

All the guests on the yacht (which incidentally belonged to real-life movie producer Sam Spiegel), with the exception of Tom’s wife Lee, who is also the only one not working in the movies, were present at the party exactly one year earlier at which Clinton’s wife (seen briefly in the prologue and played by the glamorous star of many a Hammer movie, Yvonne Romain) was killed in an unsolved hit-and-run accident. This can’t be a coincidence, so is this the producer’s attempt to trap the killer or just to toy with the possible suspects? Various nasty little secrets start to emerge, such as the fact that Lee drinks and that Welch’s character was convicted of shop-lifting in her youth. Things start to take a nasty turn when the yacht’s turbines are switched on while some of the guests are in the water, leading Dyan Cannon’s into a spectacular fit of hysterics after she barely survives the ‘accident’.

That night the ‘murder game’ is set in a monastery, which provides production designer extraordinaire Ken Adam (he worked for Kubrick and the Bond films as well as several other Herbert Ross movies as well as John Frankenheimer’s Dead Bang) the chance to show off his skill in the candlelit setting. With Clinton providing fake thunder and other sound effects, this is the setting for the second act climax with all the cast dressed as monks and thus indistinguishable with their hoods up. So when Clinton turns up dead with his head bashed in we don’t know who to suspect. This is the most visually interesting part of the film and as an extended set-piece is the most arresting. Otherwise, director Herbert Ross and cinematographer Gerry Turpin use a fairly straightforward approach which, along with the score by practised TV composer Billy Goldenberg, this can feel like a small-scale TV project, were it not for the big names and the occasional bit of slight naughtiness, though there us nothing here in terms of foul language or nudity. But the characters are a little darker and blunter than would have been acceptable on TV at the time. So now we have a death but there are many contradictory clues.

Tom and Philip are the ones that notice a number of physical clues pointing to the fact that Clinton’s death was stage-managed and eventually Tom unearths some of what Clinton had planned, proving that the ‘fake gossip’ he had given them at the start of the holiday was in fact true, but assigned to the wrong people. As one of the cards reads ‘hit and run killer’, he assumes that Clinton must have planned to reveal who he thought had killed his wife and so was killed before he could do so. This leads to an unexpected confession and another death. But this is not the end of the story – indeed, the dénouement, back on the yacht at night, is remarkably long and detailed as a phalanx of extra information is unearthed as a number of tiny clues suddenly, from a squashed cigarette and a smooth piece of paper to an innocent seeming-photograph left in plain sight from the beginning, all take on a strange and much more sinister significance. You’d have to be a genius to get even half of the clues, though the script is actually pretty fair – the best comparison I can make is to the great Ellery Queen mysteries of the early 30s with their ‘challenge to the reader’.

“Where’s the bloody ice pick?”

Sondheim’s musicals are often accused of being a bit too cool and clever for their own good, and one could perhaps throw the same accusation here – certainly there is an underlying cynicism at work, with none of the characters coming out of the story particularly well. but this does lend it a mordant, satirical edge and combined with the sheer dazzling complexity of the script really does make this film a bit of a must for fans of the traditional whodunit. My hat goes off to anyone who could solve it in advance of the ending, especially the cleverness of the pun built-in to the title itself. The sheer range of complications make it worth revisiting a second and even third time, which lets face it is unusual for a whodunit. A remake has allegedly been on the cards several times over the years – it could easily be done and would probably work quite well though I wonder if younger audiences could sit patiently through the convoluted plotting and explanations that follow. But I loved it.

DVD Availability: Released several years ago as a nice region 1 DVD with a commentary featuring Benjamin, Cannon and Welch, this has since become part of the Warner Archive On-Demand service. If you can, get hold of the original release.

The Last of Sheila (1973)
Director: Herbert Ross
Producer: Stanley O’Toole
Screenplay: Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins
Cinematography: Gerry Turpin
Art Direction: Ken Adam
Music: Billy Goldenberg
Cast: James Coburn, Raquel Welch, James Mason, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Ian McShane, Joan Hackett, Yvonne Romain (as Sheila)

*****(4 fedora tips out of 5)

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20 Responses to The Last of Sheila (1973)

  1. Sergio – A fine discussion of this film for which thanks. It’s funny you would mention the reaction modern audiences might have to it. You’ve probably got a good point there. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot to recommend it though. And thanks for the background on its genesis. I didn’t know that Sondheim and Perkins had worked together on it.

    • Thanks Margot – in his most recent volume of memoirs, Stephen Fry describes getting all excited in the 1980s when his agent said that Sondheim would be calling him. With dreams of Broadway he waited, only to discover that the great American songwriter was hatching another complex weekend game for his guests and Fry was the only person he knew of in the UK who had a fax machine, which was part of the soluetion to an elaborate clue …

  2. Rod Croft says:

    Certainly an interesting film and a mystery in itself that it was not the success at the box-office it was expected to be. Perhaps you have addressed the reasons in the pentultimate paragraph of your review. I always thought it to be a sort of “in joke” between Sondheim, Perkins, and Hollywood, in particular the Dyna Cannon/Sue Mengers role. It would be most interesting to quiz Sondheim on this subject.

    Sergio, as you have stated, “Sheila” is “a must for fans of the traditional whodunit”. Thanks.

    • Thanks very much Rod – Sondheim’s other attempt at a murder mystery was the play Getting Away With Murder which flopped. Intriguingly, his main librettist in the 1970s was Hugh Wheeler aka mystery novelist Patrick Quentin.

  3. Colin says:

    It’s a great movie Sergio, one of the few examples of a fair play mystery on the big screen. Coburn, Mason and Benjamin are very good and the Mediterranean setting is extremely attractive.
    On the subject of a remake, I have my doubts as to the chances of its success. I reckon that either the gore quotient would have to be upped significantly (turning it into a thriller/horror type thing) or the plot would be dumbed down and simplified. Either way, the script is just too tame and time consuming to find much of an audience among modern cinema goers. The film has a certain charm, and that’s a good deal of its appeal, which would be hard to replicate while mixing in the the necessary ingredients to score a hit these days.

    • Cheers Colin – remakes are always a bit of a vexed question. On the one hand, if they literally just shot the exact same script but with a different cast it would be like going to see a new stage production of an old favourite and could be fun. Before the advent of TV this was even fairly common in Hollywood but as you say, this rarely happens in the age of home video. I quite like remakes as long as the original remains available but I know what you mean about it probably being turned into a Scream style story. It would make more sense to turn it into a stage play really, which is hardly a surprise given the pedigree.

      • Colin says:

        I don’t necessarily have an issue with remakes on principle, though the reality is more often disappointing. It is essential that something new, a different perspective, is offered for a remake to have a lot of point these days. With a movie like The Last of Sheila, I honestly can’t see much of a market for that style of story right now. I’d imagine the scale of changes the script would have to experience would be enormous.

        • On re-watching the film I was suddenly struck by how theatrical the final section on the boat is. Of course it’s straight out of an Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh (copies of their books are littered throughout the cabins) type novel as well. It holds your attention because of its ingenuity and is very much that equivalent you get in books of a false solution followed by a long-drawn explanation of the real one. That is the kind of thing can work on stage too but as you, in today’s cinema would be impossible to imagine. And if you can’t get that right it is hard to see the point, though the scavenger hunt for the keys and the monastary sequence could easily work well. What it did remind me too was the Levinson and Link TV-movie, Rehearsal for Murder starring Robert Preston and Jeff Goldblum – ever seen that one? I have planned a post on it but never quite seem to get round to it …

  4. I loved this at the time it was released but have never seen it since. What ever happened to Dyan Cannon. This and BOB AND CAROL and I can’t remember much more. She had a certain presence. And Joan Hackett died way too soon.

    • Absolutely true about Joan Hackett – I remember Dyan Cannon as a regular on Ally McBeal a little while ago … Mind you, she’s done OK if you consider that her first TV credit goes back to episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel from 1958 (when she was billed as ‘Diane Cannon’).

  5. Skywatcher says:

    I saw this for the first time only recently and absolutely loved it. It is a strange mixture of charm and cynicism. Despite the star names, this is not a film that is going to grab a big audience, feeling more like a private game than a money-making project. I do wonder likely a remake is. It would take a film-maker with some commercial clout to get it made.

    • Glad you like it as well Skywatcher – it will be interesting to see if a remake is forthcoming. A lot are getting made these days of course, but it’s not like they’ll start a franchise with this one! If they do, I’ll certainly be very curious, but I dare say we can all manage very well without it!

  6. steve says:

    Now this is a blast from the past. It must have been sometime in the 80′s when i last saw this film and since then it has fallen off the radar and out of my memory. But reading your review has brought it all back to me and how much i enjoyed watching it. I now need to get myself a copy of this film and watch it again. Great review. Thanks.

    • Thanks Steve – I really enjoyed watching it again and was pleased that, even while remembering ‘who did it’, I still had a great time following the complicated unravelling of the plot. And it’s a great cast too of course …

  7. Good one, Sergio. I can picture James Coburn as the “manipulative mogul” or whatever so long as it’s a negative role that kind of suits him. He was pretty active until his death a few years ago. Your review of this film brought back memories of Agatha Christie’s DEATH ON THE NILE which had a more or less similar storyline though the actual plot was very different. Peter Ustinov acted as Hercule Poirot in the film version that also starred David Niven. I’m going to have to see THE LAST OF SHEILA to draw some comparison though the latter might possibly have been influenced by the Dame’s on-board mystery.

  8. Piero says:

    Il mio commento non c’entra nulla col post. E’ solo che avendo letto solo ora, nel post precedente, che il 4 ottobre scorso era il tuo compleanno, gli auguri te li faccio ora.
    E’ vero che “passato il santo, passata la festa”, ma..per stavolta fà che il santo non sia ancora passato. :-)
    Ciao.
    Piero

  9. John says:

    I flat out love this movie. I remember I had a pen and paper while watching it on TV back in my teens and writing down all the clues and trying my best to figure it all out. I solved two of the many puzzles but missed so much of it. The photograph with all the characters posed in a certain way was once of the best parts of the solution. The movie is chockfull of stuff that would appeal to any puzzle lover. Utterly brilliant and fun to watch. Though I guess some people who don’t care for “unpleasant” characters would probably have a problem with the overall story. How anyone can NOT know that Sondheim and Perkins worked together on this is beyond me. Any article about this movie ALWAYS mentions they wrote the screenplay. And if you saw the movie you’d notice the screenwriting credit immediately and most likely remember.

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