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, would make 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 is 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)