Last of Sheila, The (1973)

“My mouth is so dry they could shoot Lawrence of Arabia in it.”

Synopsis:
A movie producer (James Coburn) whose wife Sheila (Yvonne Romain) was killed in a hit-and-run accident the previous year invites a group of friends and acquaintances — including a movie star (Raquel Welch) and her manager-husband (Ian McShane), a scriptwriter (Richard Benjamin) and his wife (Joan Hackett), a commercial director (James Mason), and a talent agent (Dyan Cannon) — to his yacht for an elaborate game in which each guest’s “hidden secret” will be revealed, one night at a time.

Genres:

Review:
The fact that this all-star whodunit was co-scripted by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (!) lends it an automatic curiosity appeal — and its loyal cult following makes it a movie all film fanatics will want to check out at least once. With that said, viewing it for the first time myself recently, I was surprised to find myself in agreement with Time Out’s reviewer, who refers to it as “campy stuff, [but] not as much fun as it should be”. Certainly, the clever screenplay is filled with plenty of delicious twists and turns, quickly shifting away from its nominal structure as a clue-a-day “game” to a more deadly exploration of unexpected murder; but I found myself ultimately more engaged on an intellectual level than a visceral one. This may be due in part to the fact that I find Cannon to be a singularly irritating screen presence; while that vibe is actually appropriate for her character as written here, it remained a challenge to watch her for two hours. Thankfully, she’s only one among many characters to pay attention to, and other actors (most notably Mason and Hackett) turn in fine performances. Meanwhile, the film is produced with enough visual panache to keep one solidly engaged as clues are uncovered and the complex web of motives eventually begins to make sense. Diehard fans insist that the identity of the killer is evident from the beginning, if you pay enough attention, thus making this one worth a revisit.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography and sets

  • James Mason as Philip

Must See?
Yes, for its cult status, and as an enjoyably twisty whodunit.

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2 Responses to “Last of Sheila, The (1973)”

  1. Must-see – and, yes, one that discriminating ffs will want to return to from time to time. It’s well worth repeat viewings.

    Personally, I think it just gets better each time I see it.

    This is, somewhat arguably, the best film Herbert Ross made – and so early in his directorial career. Along the way, especially in the first half of his output, Ross did achieve deserved notice for such satisfying works as ‘Play It Again, Sam’ and ‘The Turning Point’, as well as some interesting ‘failures’, such as ‘Nijinsky’ and ‘Pennies from Heaven’.

    But, for my money, Ross hit it out of the park right here.

    ~aided immeasurably, of course, by the simply remarkable one-off screenplay by Sondheim and Perkins. The two were friends; they shared a love of puzzles – and here they served up a doozy! The writing combo is a surprise indeed: a Broadway composer/lyricist and a major Hollywood actor? Well, *that* was a most singular, once-and-done deal! It’s a bit sad that they never joined forces for another brain-tease. But, in a sense, not sad at all – since, if all we were going to get was this one film, we were given a gift that just keeps giving. (It’s clear, right?; this film gets my highest praise.)

    Although written by two gay men, there really is nothing overtly gay about the film at all (though the words ‘homosexual’ and ‘lesbian’ are thrown around). However, it does reflect a clearly sophisticated gay sensibility (so the dialogue is often deliciously witty and/or razor-sharp) . This film is not at all what the Time Out reviewer refers to as ‘campy stuff’ (huh?! – ‘camp’ and ‘gay sensibility’ being in two different…camps). And, as for it being “not as much fun as it should be”…(huh?!). Seems to me the guy just didn’t like it all that much. This film is intricate from its first frame to its last (speaking of ‘last’, the title is brilliant) – and if, like its writers, you love puzzles…prepare to be teased within an inch of your life.

    The cast is marvelous! Not one weak link (not even Welch, surprisingly) – and the mix of performing styles serves to enrich. Ross gets top-notch performances from all. Mason, of course, and as always, can do no wrong. And Hackett (taken from us much too soon) delivers an ultimately shattering portrayal. I’m especially surprised by Benjamin and McShane, who each turn in some of their finest work. And Cannon (though I’m not overly fond of her elsewhere, as a rule) nails her portrait of a Hollywood agent (based on the legendary Sue Mengers). I especially like her in the latter part of the film, when she’s forced to drop her take-charge attitude and gets real.

    This film has ‘cult’ written all over it. It is somewhat unsung except in the circles that apparently embrace it unequivocally.

    I adore it!

    Fave line: “The harder you try to keep a secret in, the more it wants to get out.”

  2. You do love this film! I wanted to love it more, somehow. Not sure why it didn’t work the same magic for me as it did for you (and as it’s done for so many other repeat-viewing fans).

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