Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Last of Sheila

The Last of Sheila is a1973 whodunit film that has achieved cult status. It’s not currently available on DVD in the UK, and I’d been searching for it for some time when, by chance, I spotted it on a TCM schedule. And I found that, if not a masterpiece, it is at least very watchable. And, unlike some films of its type, it improves as it goes along, rather than the reverse, since the build-up is lengthy before the plot elaborations really kick in (though you might think otherwise if you are better at spotting in-jokes than me.)

The screenplay was written by the very unlikely but rather wonderful pairing of Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Sondheim in particular is a mystery and puzzle fan, it seems, and has dabbled more than once in the crime genre. On this evidence, it's a pity he hasn't devoted more time to mysteries. The cast is impressive, and includes James Coburn, Ian McShane, James Mason, Dyan Cannon, Richard Benjamin and Raquel Welch. Mason is an actor I've long admired; in a rather different way from Raquel, he is always very watchable. Joan Hackett was the only suspect I wasn't familiar with; it seems she died sadly young of cancer. Here, she puts in a good performance in a rather tricky part.  

Coburn plays a movie producer whose wife Sheila was killed in a hit and run accident. A year later, he invites a group of friends – which includes, he is sure, Sheila’s killer – to join him on a yacht called “Sheila” which is sailing around the Mediterranean.  He proposes a series of games that will reveal his guests’ secrets – but events take an unexpected turn, with a murder followed by a suicide.

After the apparent climax of the movie, there are further twists, and I felt these compensated for the slightly laboured start to the film. There are not many truly successful whodunit movies, but I’d say this is one of them. I’m sure I missed many 70s in-jokes in the script, but that didn’t really matter. Good fun.


Sarah said...

I love old films that have quietly been forgotten. TCM used to be treasure trove of these but recently their standards seems to have slipped. Glad you found something good to watch. I will keep my eye out for it (they do repeat stuff.

Christos G. Makrypoulias said...

Thank you, Martin, you took me back many years with this post! I was a teenager when I saw this film on TV. I vividly remember that the end was twist after twist after twist. The scene where the villain (well, one of them, anyway) wants to strangle his victim without leaving fingerprints and, lacking gloves, attempts to use puppets still haunts me to this day!

Martin Edwards said...

Sarah, I think you'll enjoy it.
Christos, good to hear from you again. The twists are numerous, as you asy, and that's a big part of the film's appeal.

John said...

This is one of my all time favoirte mystery films. It's utterly ingenious. And the acting is top notch which makes it all the more enjoyable. The title alone - like one of Helen McCloy's books - is a huge clue to the solution to the mystery. I think this movie and GREEN FOR DANGER are two of the best fair play movie mysteries ever made. A clever and astute viewer can figure out the seemingly convoluted plot simply by paying close attention. Speaking of Raquel Welch --who tends to be dismissed as an actress-- I think her role in this movie and her delightful portrayal of Constance in the remake of the The Three Musketeers and its sequel are her finest acting performances. Thanks for bringing this movie to the attention of the mystery reading fans you have. They should all track down the film and watch it. Highly recommended without question!

Deb said...

I've read somewhere that the TCM schedule in England is not the same as the TCM schedule in America--certainly, I don't remember them showing "Sheila" here in the last few weeks. However, our family watched it on a DVD from Netflix a few months ago and thought the story was well-plotted and loved the little twists throughout. (Bonus: The first wide exposure for Bette Midler, who sings "Friends" on the soundtrack.)

Joan Hackett--who excelled at playing nervous types--died tragically young. I think her best role was in "The Group," but she was also great in "Will Penny" and, in a rare comedic turn, "Support Your Local Sheriff."

Sondheim's gift for wordplay is incredible. Have you read either of his memoirs, FINISHING THE HAT and the sequel, LOOK I MADE A HAT? Both are wonderful "dipping into" books.

Martin Edwards said...

John, very good points as always, thank you.
Deb, very interesting. I haven't read the Sondheim memoirs, I must admit. Though I do like some of his musicals.
I think we're agreed it's a very watchable movie that deserves to be better known.