Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Last of Sheila (1973)

The Last of Sheila is a movie I’ve been tempted to watch at various times but I’ve always been put off by the negative things I’ve heard about it. A glowing review at The Invisible Event persuaded me to change my mind. It was described as “one of the few examples of a fair-play mystery in long format” which was more than enough to pique my interest.

It has an all-star cast of very 1970s stars some of whom I definitely regarded as unfairly underrated performers, notably Richard Benjamin, James Coburn and Raquel Welch. And it has James Mason as well, always a big plus in my book. It was written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, an interesting combination. Of course both Sondheim and Perkins were notoriously gay which may or may not explain their interest in murder but it almost certainly does explain their interest in secrets and game-playing.

And this is a movie all about game-playing.

Sheila is Hollywood gossip columnist Sheila Green and when the movie opens she is dead, the victim of a hit-run driver. Foul play is clearly a possibility. A year later her husband, Clinton Green (James Coburn) invites a group of people to spend a week on his yacht. These people were all present at the party which preceded Sheila’s death. Clinton explains that they will be playing games. This surprises no-one since Clinton loves games, and manipulation. So why would they agree to put themselves into a situation that is likely to be embarrassing and uncomfortable? The answer to that is simple. These are all show business people and Clinton Green is very very rich. Show business people will do anything for someone with lots of money (which is a fact with which Sondheim and Tony Perkins were doubtless very familiar).

The game is to be a game of secrets.

This is the classic setup familiar from countless mystery novels of the 1920s and 1930s - a small group of people cut off from the outside world, knowing that among them is a killer.

Each person will be given a card which contains a secret about one of the others. Every day the yacht will stop at a different port and the players will be given clues that will allow them to discover one of the secrets. It doesn’t take long for movie star Alice (Raquel Welch) to figure out that this is more than a parlour game, that the secrets are all genuine secrets which Clinton has uncovered. This is going to be a rather nasty game. But they all knew that anyway. Clinton wouldn’t be interested in a game that was lacking in cruelty. But he is very rich and all of them are languishing career-wise and they are prepared to be humiliated if there’s the possibility of a career revival. And Clinton has been talking about doing a movie about Sheila’s death, and they’re all interested in that.

I must admit that the first major plot twist took me completely by surprise.

More twists will follow and they’re pleasingly devious. They’re fairly clued but there’s enough misdirection to make it a real challenge to unravel the solution. Almost everything is a clue of some kind.

I always thought that Richard Benjamin could have been taken more seriously as an actor at this point in career if only he’d shaved off that ridiculous moustache. But it was the 70s and people didn’t know any better then. He was always good playing slightly neurotic characters and in this film he’s playing a writer whose career has tanked. He’s reduced to doing rewrites. It’s obvious casting and it works perfectly.

Dyan Cannon is very good but it has to be said that her diction is not always good - her dialogue is at times not quite understandable. James Mason is James Mason so of course he’s very good as the has-been director Philip, now reduced to making dog-food commercials.

I’m not sure that I’d call James Coburn a great actor but he really excelled at this sort of rôle. If you wanted someone to be smart, cynical, cruel and manipulative then James Coburn was your go-to guy.

I like Welch’s performance too. Welch could have given us a fun but obvious portrayal of a glamorous movie star but she makes Alice somewhat vulnerable and needy. In her first scene Alice talks airily about having just made a picture in Rome with Kirk Douglas but we immediately get the impression that she’s trying to convince herself that her career is still on track.

Raquel Welch makes the point (on the commentary track) that her wardrobe for the movie was very much an attempt to avoid a 70s look - the aim was to go for classic glamour and that was the right look for the film. While the film as a whole does unavoidably have a rather 70s look it actually does try not to overdo this - it seems to be trying to achieve a feel of timeless glamour, of taking place in exactly the kind of imaginary world of wealth and opulence which provided the setting for so many of the classic detective stories of the interwar years. So many 70s movies now seem to have such  embarrassingly dated visual styles but The Last of Sheila to a large extent avoids this.

It was a lavish production, shot in the south of France, and it looks great.

What I particularly like about this film is that it does not have the feel of being a pastiche of golden age detective fiction or of being an ironic take on the genre. In fact it’s a movie mercifully lacking in irony. It not only obeys the conventions of the genre, it also respects them. Sondheim and Perkins clearly had a deep understanding of the puzzle-plot detective story genre, According to Richard Benjamin (another interesting bit from the audio commentary) Sondheim and Perkins were quite obsessive about game-playing. And therefore they take that aspect seriously. They try to play fair with the viewer but also, very cleverly, they make it clear that Clinton is playing fair with his guests. He already knows who killed Sheila and he’s offering them the clues they need to solve the mystery. So you have the viewer invited to play the game along with the writers and also the characters playing the game ling with the game-master.

The Warner Archive DVD-R offers a very fine transfer and also, a pleasant surprise for this series, an excellent audio commentary track featuring Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch.

The Last of Sheila is an unusual movie. There wasn’t thing else quite like it at the time and even though it was successful there hasn’t really been anything since either. For me it works admirable. Very highly recommended.

3 comments:

  1. Saw this years ago on UK TV and have been meaning to watch it again . All I really remember is the last section of the movie, with the explanation and then the twists. Frankly, the rest of the movie could be complete dross, as that section is so good it's been stamped on my brain for about 30 years!

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  2. This does sound very interesting, and I had not heard of it before. Thanks for featuring it.

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  3. The movie was not successful. Too inside, too many unsympathetic characters.

    Sondheim and Perkins did throw the kinda games depicted.The line "Who does your decorating, Parker Bros?" was actually said to them..

    If the movie had been successful, they had another script ready.Set in the thirties.

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