Movie: The Last of Sheila (1973)

We barely get to see Yvonne Romain as the title character of 1973’s The Last of Sheila before she is run over by a mysterious driver.  Most of the movie takes place a year after this, aboard Sheila, a yacht owned by Romain’s widower, played by James Coburn.

Sheila (the person, not the boat) had been a malicious gossip.  Coburn has invited some of her victims to spend a few days on Sheila (the boat, not the corpse) playing a mystery game.  Each person receives a card specifying a role they are to play, which is not supposed to be disclosed to the others. 

Coburn plays a movie producer.  His guests are also involved in the industry.  Richard Benjamin is a writer and Joan Hackett plays his wife.  James Mason is a director whose career appears to be in ruins, as we first see him directing a dog food commercial.  Dyan Cannon is an agent.  Raquel Welch is an actress who appears to be a bit of an airhead.  She is well matched by Ian McShane, as her boy-toy and possibly manager (?).  I wasn’t clear on what he does, exactly.

Each day, the guests will go ashore to try to solve a puzzle that pertains to one of the roles from Coburn’s cards.  That day’s game ends when the puzzle is solved by the person in that particular role.  Among the roles are “alcoholic”, “shoplifter” and “little child molester”.  Hmm…might each of the roles apply to a different guest? Needless to say, it would be highly preferably to be some of the roles inscribed on the cards than others.

The screenplay is from Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, the only time the actor or the composer worked in this capacity.  They were apparently inspired to do this per accolades they received for the elaborate scavenger hunts they organized to amuse their friends.  As one who hates scavenger hunts, I really think they were amusing themselves. They also felt that were amusing themselves with this script, which is a hair too pleased with itself.

That said, it is surprising how complex the script is.  Perhaps unfairly, I kept thinking about the mysteries Rian Johnson has done to date.  This picture doesn’t feel as airtight as Knives Out, though I couldn’t detect any plot holes or cheats.  I was reminded more of Glass Onion, Johnson’s inferior second Benoit Blanc movie.  Like that movie, I walked away from Sheila with the impression it was not as clever as it seems to think it is.

The feature lets you know from the beginning it is going to be messing with the viewer as much as Coburn is toying with his friends.  When the guests arrive, the main gathering room on the yacht is filled with various board games.  One character remarks, “Who decorated this room?  Parker Brothers?”  You see what I mean by the cleverness—that line scans as the slightest bit forced.

Another line that felt phony to me still made me laugh out loud: “My mouth is so dry, they could film Lawrence of Arabia in it.”  But then there’s a line that accurately summarizes the stage for the next night’s entertainment: “It’s all rather like a Hammer film, isn’t it?”

That is said when the guests, all wearing monks’ robes, try to solve the next puzzle, searching for the clue somewhere in the ruins of an ancient monastery on a rocky little island.  It is here the movie takes a turn I definitely did not foresee and which completely changes the direction of the film.

And so, with that, I can’t say anything more without incurring some major spoilers.  I suspect The Last of Sheila, in its original release, irritated some of the fans of more conventional mysteries.  Modern viewers, however (especially those who enjoyed the Benoit Blanc movies), will find much to enjoy in this post-modern thriller.

Dir: Herbert Ross

Starring…look, all the stars in this are in the review, so just read that, you lazy bastard

Watched on Warner Archive blu-ray