The Last of Sheila (1973)

I’ve never understood this film, although preparing for this review, I have made progress. It’s a witty, complex and character-driven who-done-it. If you watch it, you need to really watch it, in other words, pay attention and keep your mind from drifting. The ending is far from the only payoff – this is a chain of scenes that payoff along the way with intricate writing and a group of fine actors, even Raquel Welch, who is more than something to marvel.

This film could be subtitled: Mind Games of Hollywood’s Rich and Famous, because it is about of Hollywood elite and their plus-ones, who are engaged in a murder mystery, with themselves as the pawns.

The film opens with the hit-and-run death of the wife of a film producer, when she angrily leaves the party on foot. Her name is Sheila, a gossip columnist, which is also the name of her yacht, where the majority of the film takes place while sailing around the south of France and trying to solve the mystery of Sheila’s death. The producer (James Coburn) announces that he is going to make a film about his late wife called “The Last of Sheila.” He then sends everyone off to begin solving the mystery game he has developed for his guests. Coburn seems to be having the time of his life in this role as his character is boisterous, domineering and full of revenge.

James Coburn

The film was written by actor Anthony Perkins (Psycho, Catch-22) and composer Stephen Sondheim (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Into the Woods, West Side Story), who were known for their legendary party games. What they have constructed is a dense story of clues, friendship and betrayal.

Herbert Ross (The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl, Steel Magnolias) produced and directed. Besides Coburn and Welch, the film stars Dyan Cannon, Ian McShane, Richard Benjamin, James Mason and Joan Hackett. A stellar cast. Cannon plays a high-powered agent, based on Sue Mengers, who represented nearly everyone in the film. She’s sexy, loud and flirtatious. Cannon is always fun. Welch has little to do, playing an actress. McShane is the talent agent. Benjamin is a screenwriter and Hackett’s character the wife. Benjamin is the film’s star, and Hackett mainly smokes as she tries to figure out her role. Mason plays a film director, the outlier in the group, who pays attention while unraveling the mystery.

As the film proceeds, we learn bits and pieces about each guest, courtesy of clues provided by the producer, and how they might tie to Sheila’s demise. The producer has each cabin on the yacht wired so he can listen to his guests and what they might know, or think. All of these guests were at his party where his wife left and killed. Hackett’s character was the lone exception, she had an excuse for not being at the party, but is not excused from suspicion.

The yacht anchors at six different French ports to send the guests off to discover the unflattering secret of each guest. The secrets are not kind

The game does not goes as planned, as you might guess, and lives are in danger.

This is an old fashioned film. Musical cues do not dictate emotion. There is no MTV style editing or CGI. Characters talk as scenes unfold, but the viewer should pay attention. Ross was accused of being a styleless director, whose films have a generic look and feel. I disagree. Herbert Ross was a versatile director with a highly successful career. While he might not have been Hitchcock or Kubrick or Hawks, his style never overshadowed the film or his actors, and his films won awards and made money.

With this film, Ross navigates a complicated story with many characters. The South of France is a beautiful place (so I hear), yet Ross does not go overboard with the locale or the beautiful people – the focus is the story. If made today, the film would be oozing T&A, endless drone shots of sun and surf, and pounding musical beats. Ross was restrained in his direction and the film is better for it.

As a bonus, here is a recent interview with cast member Richard Benjamin talking with Dave Karger of TCM on The Last of Sheila. Enjoy.

The Last of Sheila garnered mostly positive reviews, but didn’t set the box office on fire. To many, including myself, it seemed a vanity piece in search of Agatha Christie. I’m often wrong, and I was in this case.

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