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The Last of Sheila

The Last of Sheila
Warner DVD
1973 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 120 min. / Street Date April 20, 2004 / 19.98
Starring Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Ian McShane, Raquel Welch, Yvonne Romain
Cinematography Gerry Turpin
Production Designer Ken Adam
Art Direction Tony Roman
Film Editor Edward Warschilka
Original Music Billy Goldenberg
Written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim
Produced by Stanley O'Toole, Herbert Ross
Directed by Herbert Ross

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Perhaps inspired by Shaffer's Sleuth, Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim dreamed up this complicated "game movie" cleverly saturated with show-biz inside jokes. As a whodunnit it's fairly successful; most viewers will be too entertained to begin to guess the solution to the puzzle, even when the jolly jokester screenwriters lay all their clues right out in the open.

Still, The Last of Sheila was far from a breakout hit when new. The characters are supposed to be has-beens and mid-career underachievers, a cruel assessment that uncomfortably might describe some of the cast. The story is plenty cold around the edges, but it is a precisely plotted mystery thriller and a favorite of puzzle-movie fans.


Wealthy producer Clinton Green (James Coburn) invites a group of hungry Hollywoodites for a week on his yacht and then announces that the week's activities will be a series of games. He assigns them all supposedly random personal secrets - "shoplifter,""informer" - to hide from their fellow players. With all the guests eager to curry favor with the powerful Clinton, the suspicion arises that there is a serious purpose behind the complicated entertainment - that Clinton is trying to discover if one of his guests was the hit-and-run killer of his wife Sheila, at a party exactly one year before.

"Sheila got bounced through the hedges." Cynicism is the first requirement of Clinton's ambitious little group. As in pictures like All About Eve and The Bad and the Beautiful, the basic starting point is that the worst ambition is show-biz ambition, and the glamorous and successful guests have just as many guilty secrets as the hungry and talentless. Clinton's so-called friends come to the Riviera to court his goodwill and he tells them he wants to make a mystery movie about his wife's death called The Last of Sheila. In reality, he's shaking them down to find out if one of their secrets isn't "hit & run manslaughter."

The first scene on board Clinton's boat shows a room covered with various kinds of games. Clinton puts his guests through a couple of complicated treasure hunts that reveal suspicions and secrets - or hints of guilt. Struggling actress Alice (Raquel Welch) has a hidden lover among the other guests. Unhappy wife Lee (Joan Hackett) is an unacknowledged alcoholic. Sarcastic agent Christine (Dyan Cannon) is sleeping with Clinton for idle recreation. Alice's manager-husband Anthony (Ian McShane) makes an unsuccessful bid for an associate producership on Clinton's proposed film. Director Philip (James Mason) once worked with Garbo but now shoots TV commercials starring little girls. Writer Tom (Richard Benjamin) has been relegated to re-writes on foreign films and must endure Clinton's cruel derision: "What was that last thing you worked on? Fistful of Lasagna?"

Sondheim and Perkins' clever plan is of course to hide mysteries within mysteries, and it's mostly successful. The average viewer (me) is going to need more than one viewing to figure it all out. Clinton's teases his guests as hungry failures, and the same uncomfortable feeling extends to the cast of The Last of Sheila. None is actually a has-been but at the time most weren't exactly the hottest properties in town. Raquel Welch was probably the biggest name but her career was at its nadir after the bigtime deflation of Myra Breckinridge. She wouldn't be redeemed as a gifted comedienne for another year. Great actor James Mason was in a stage where he'd seemingly take any role for the paycheck, which is a shame. Some of Sheila's biggest laughs are his effortless throwaways, yet the self-consciously clever dialogue still seems below Mason's potential. Dyan Cannon had been in a hit or two but was still better known for her association with a famous movie star. Joan Hackett was considered another pretty face from The Group with unrealized movie potential. Only Ian McShane's past was not brighter than his present, unless one considers Battle of Britain a memorable role. Fistful of Lasagna is supposed to be a merciless put-down, yet James Coburn was then starring in lowercase thrillers and unsuccessful Italian Westerns, one with the title Fistful of Dynamite.

Since all of the cast were actually accomplished actors or stars of unrecognized quality, perhaps Perkins and Sondheim were trying to fashion a smash hit that would revive their careers. But the cynical story makes them more the butt of the joke. Raquel Welch plays a shallow starlet and Cannon a selfish user. Are they willingly "playing themselves," as Dean Martin had in Kiss Me, Stupid? Then what do we make of James Mason, who squirms when his character is accused of being a child molester? The trouble with writers as clever and intellectual as Stephen Sondheim is the tendency to look for angles that might not be there.

The show ends with a sardonic affirmation of Hollywood values. For a chance to make another movie, all the survivors are more than willing to overlook everything they've experienced, including murder. Only a trifling justice is meted out - the guiltiest have to take demeaning roles. No longer the pawns in trickster Clinton's games, they turn out to be more corrupt than Clinton ever was. The Last of Sheila goes beyond earlier showbiz exposé pictures by equating Hollywood with "criminal conspiracy." The writers are the star here and the only damper on their accomplishment is the relative obviousness of their target - it's no surprise that showbiz people are shallow and crass. 1973's mass audience went to The Sting instead, another puzzle picture that was less cerebral and more conventional.

The stars function as a fine ensemble under Herbert Ross' slick direction, with Joan Hackett endearingly pathetic and Dyan Cannon attractively amoral. The writers wisely give the smart-aleck dialogue only to the sharpies, while literal thinkers like Ian McShane and Raquel Welch speak like the ordinary types they are - this isn't a battle of the one-liners.

The yacht setting is unusually un-claustrophobic, as Ken Adams' interior sets don't exaggerate the sizes of rooms. The tight layout of cabins becomes an important issue in the story, and we believe we're on a boat until we think of how camera crews could never fit in some of those rooms. Clever art direction makes Clinton's scavenger hunts so much fun that we forget to look for clues to the movie's bigger game.

The central murder mystery takes place in an old monastery. Ian McShane discribes the caverns as being like something out of a Hammer film. It's the only time I've ever heard a mainstream movie acknowledge Hammer. Coincidentally, Hammer star Yvonne Romain (The Curse of the Werewolf) has an almost invisible bit here as Sheila, seen for a fleeting ten seconds or so in the film's violent opening. She was married to Leslie Bricusse and in the commentary is identified by Dyan Cannon as "Edie Bricusse."

Warners' DVD of The Last of Sheila is a fine presentation. The enhanced picture is flawless, which is a good thing considering that the film has only been out on video flat and the only opportunity I've had in seeing it in the last 30 years was cut up on commercial television. With good sound and color only peripheral details - no cell phones or computers, board games instead of computer games - keep it from looking like a new movie. Bette Midler's ironic rendition of Friends is used over the end titles and seems a joke in itself.

Besides the original trailer, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch come together for an amusing commentary track. Benjamin and Cannon appear to be recorded together and Welch separately. It's a good, light track of chatty memories. It was Sam Speigel's yacht (the first choice sunk); the interiors were shot in Nice and the monastery was real. Cannon was doing an imitation of agent Sue Mengers, who got her the job. Welch is in good spirits and self-effacingly describes this period of time as a trial, trying to drop her sex-symbol image without throwing her whole career away.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Last of Sheila rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 16, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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