I am a sucker for mysteries be they novels, tv shows, movies or even board games. I still have all my Nancy Drews with the yellow spines. These days the “thriller” genre has displaced the “mystery” genre, but during the 1970s-80s there was a fun cycle of old-fashioned mysteries, often with all-star casts. The crown-gem of these was Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974).
The Last of Sheila, directed by Herbert Ross came out about a year and a half before that film, in June of 1973. While it is not as luxurious and visually stunning as Lumet’s Oscar-winner, it is a fun romp with a stellar cast, wry wit, film-industry-insider-winking, and unusual artistic pedigree.
It was co-written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim. Yes, Anthony Norman-Bates Perkins and Stephen Into-The-Woods Sondheim. Not only had the two been intimate friends (rumored to be lovers), they had previously thrown several elaborate murder-mystery-scavenger-hunt parties for their friends which inspired the plot of this film. (Time Travel Destination #10 on my list.)
“Honey, would you drop me down a Tab? My mouth is so dry I feel like they could film Lawrence of Arabia in it.” (Christine / Dyan Cannon)
The film’s characters are based on actual Hollywood personalities. For starters, the agent, Christine, played by Dyan Cannon was based on Sue Mengers, Cannon’s own agent. Rumor has it they originally offered Mengers herself the part but, pro that she was, she passed the part onto her client. Cannon was apparently reluctant to take the role finding all of the characters to be mere caricatures as written. But we know what Sondheim can do with caricatures like Cinderella, so this turns out not to be a bad thing in the final film. The whole cast had wiggle room to ham it up, and Cannon is delicious as the libidinous, ever-quipping, but shrewd agent.
James Coburn plays Clinton Green, a movie producer whose wife, the titular Sheila, runs out on him at a Bel Air party. Staggering along the swank, sidewalk-less road she is hit-and-run and dies on the blacktop, all within in the film’s prologue. I don’t know who served as the basis for Coburn’s character, with his fancy yacht, neckerchiefs, and aviator shades. Coburn, of course, laps it up. His Clinton toys with his friends’ minds with the grinning sadism of a cat.
James Mason is, in my opinion, always perfect. Remember how hilarious he is as the bumbling-but-callous pedophile, Humbert Humbert, whom we should — but cannot seem to — detest? Here he plays aging director Philip Dexter whose career achievements are apparently behind him. We meet him on the set of a Boffers Dog-o-meat commercial featuring a bevy of little blond-curled girls in pink gingham and ribbons. This makes for an hilarious visual allusion when one comes to sit on his lap as he takes a phone call. Philip gets a bit overshadowed once all of the characters converge on the yacht, but don’t worry, he gets a lot more screen time in the second half.
Richard Benjamin plays screenwriter Tom Parkman who is married to an movie mogul’s wealthy daughter, Lee, played by Joan Hackett. Benjamin is always fun because he looks so straight-forward, possibly even boring and then out comes the weirdness you didn’t quite see coming. That definitely happens here, but I can say no more without spoiling. I was always a sucker for Hackett’s angelic face and cooing voice. She was a popular and accomplished actress in the 1970s but died too young of ovarian cancer in 1983.
Raquel Welch plays starlet Alice Wood and Ian McShane her ruffian manager-husband, Anthony. These characters might be based on Ann Margaret and Roger Smith or on Welch herself and husband Patrick Curtis. Apparently Welch had some nasty run-ins with director Herbert Ross during filming, and co-star Mason had nothing nice to say about her. Her part is fairly thankless, but she does look flawlessly stunning. In one of my favorite moments, Coburn’s Clinton reaches over and gives her a tickle-poke in her exposed naval. Her horrified recoil makes me think this was an improvisation, and the satisfied grin on Coburn’s face is all the more hilarious for that. McShane’s part is also, alas, limited, but you will stare agog at how young and unscarred ol’ Blackbeard/Swearengen is. Also, he does have this great moment…
The premise: a year after the death of his wife, Sheila, producer Clinton gathers his friends who had been at the fateful party to his yacht for a week of sailing in the south of France. The trip includes a mystery scavenger hunt game which resumes every night at 8:00 PM on shore. On the first day he gives them each a card with a “dark-secret” identity: “You are a Shoplifter,” “You are a Little Child Molester,” “You are an Ex-Convict,” “You are a Homosexual,” etc. Each night’s scavenger hunt leads players to a spot where the “true” identity of one of these alter egos is revealed. We soon surmise that these alter egos are real, albeit they have been assigned not to their “rightful” owners. That is, the real shoplifter has the homosexual card, etc.
(Yes, given the film’s background, it is very interesting to see how matter-of-fact the “homosexual” label is tossed around and aside. This is before the term “bisexual” became a distinction; here “homosexual” refers to both.)
Shot (mostly) on location along the French Riveria, these scavenger hunts are where the rollicking gets going. For example, on the first night they are each given a silver, skeleton key. As Christine walks through the streets of Nice she is repeatedly mistaken for a prostitute advertising the key to her hotel room.
As you can see, The Last of Sheila is well worth a viewing, maybe even two if you like puzzle films. Even if you guess who is who and what is what, this cast is entertaining to end. And there are some really fun underwater shots in the scene in which Christine and her inflatable raft become imperiled. These are so fun, one has to wonder if they didn’t influence Spielberg’s Jaws.
Additionally, Sheila is interesting for being released during a turning-point era in Perkins’s life. A mere two months later he married Berry Berenson and became, thereafter a family man. (Whatever his love life was or wasn’t thereafter, he was devoted to his wife and two sons). He would also have began shooting Murder on the Orient Express as one of its many stars.
The trouble with Sheila is that Herbert Ross was not really the right man for this job. Ross excels in character-motivated dramedies such as The Good-bye Girl, The Sunshine Boys, and Steel Magnolias. You can see why, as a director with a background in theater, he was among Sondheim’s friends and must have seemed a natural (he participated in at least one of their mystery parties). These are not terribly deep characters however, and this kind of ensemble mystery really needs a much larger dose of visual grandeur and atmospheric panache — à la Lumet the following year and again with Deathtrap (1982), or Guy Hamilton’s Evil Under the Sun (1982). Instead it has that even, bright lighting that looks like a 70s made-for-tv-movie which it is not. (It was independently produced by Ross and distributed by Warner Brothers).
That is why this is one of those rare films that really screams be remade which — supposedly — it will be or is being. The development of a remake was announced by New Line in 2012… but then… no word. Where is it? Who’s on it? Imdb ominously has the title listed with a 2015 release date but gives no other information at all. Turner Classic Movies just played it (it is still on www.tcm.com/watchtcm as I write), which often happens when a remake is nigh, so I am getting my hopes up.
(Available on DVD but not Netflix)