They say they don't make 'em like they used to. "The Last of Sheila," from 1973, had a big budget, a big-name cast, and location shooting in and around the south of France. But it did poorly at the box office, and producers have been wary of such productions ever since.
This should not put you off the movie, though. It's a topflight mystery that probably deserves more credit than it's gotten over the years. If you're the kind of person who likes Agatha Christie novels, this little Christie-like enterprise may be just the thing you're looking for. But like any good mystery, it requires some attention. Miss a word, and you miss half the story. The value of DVD or tape for these things is being able to put things in pause while you leave the room for a moment.
Interestingly, the movie was written by songwriter Stephen Sondheim (who also wrote "Sweeny Todd") and actor Anthony Perkins (who wrote only this single screenplay). The movie was directed by veteran filmmaker Herbert Ross ("The Sunshine Boys," "The Seven Per Cent Solution," "The Goodbye Girl," "California Suite," "Pennies from Heaven," "Steel Magnolias"). Right away, you know you're not dealing with the ordinary here.
"The Last of Sheila" is one, big, two-hour puzzle. We know it's supposed to be a puzzle from the very outset when not moments into the film we see one of the main characters surrounded by games and puzzles. He loves them, and he creates one for the rest of the movie's characters to solve, a puzzle that turns out to have deadly consequences.
Obviously, I can't say too much about the film's plot, but I will give you an idea of the setup. The wife (Sheila) of a big-time movie producer is killed by a hit-and-run driver one evening after a party at her house. The culprit is never found. One year later, the widower, Clinton Green (James Coburn), invites the principal guests at the aforementioned party to spend a week on his yacht in the Mediterranean. The yacht's name is "Sheila." Once aboard, Green introduces his guests to a bizarre and intricate game, or puzzle, he's concocted. He calls it "The Sheila Green Memorial Guessing Game."
He gives each of his six guests a card, which they are to keep to themselves, with a secret written on each one: "You are a shoplifter," "You are an informer," "You are an ex-convict," etc. Then the guests are to stop at a different port each night, where they will look for clues in town that Green has planted in order to determine the identity of each secret.
It's obviously just an elaborate game, the guests think. But why does Green go to so much trouble with it, we ask. Before long, the game turns deadly with first an attempted murder and then a serious death. "Is this game only a game?" asks one of the guests. Whodunnit?
The fun of the movie is for the audience to try to piece together the clues along with the characters in the movie. And everything in the movie is a clue, including the title. It requires a bit of concentration on the viewer's part, but it's a worthwhile undertaking. The action may sometimes be slow, but the dialogue is witty, and puzzle fans will enjoy it.
Another part of the fun in 1973 when it was made was trying to guess what real-life people each of the movie's characters were based on. It's all very Hollywood inside stuff, written by Sondheim and Perkins as a gigantic in-joke. Today, however, most younger viewers probably wouldn't know who the real-life people were even if they were told, so much of the amusement of the game is lost.
The guests include, first, Tom (Richard Benjamin), a young screenwriter who is struggling to get a script sold so he can stop doing mere rewrites of other people's work. His current project is a story about Sheila's death. Next, there is Tom's wife, Lee (Joan Hackett), the daughter of wealthy parents with her very own trust fund. Third, there is Alice (Raquel Welch), a glamorous movie star now facing something of a down turn in her career. Fourth, there is Alice's husband, Anthony (Ian McShane), a fellow evidently living off his wife's money. Fifth, there is Christine (Dyan Cannon), a theatrical agent always on the lookout for a good client. And, sixth, there is Philip (James Mason), a second-rate movie director reduced to filming TV commercials. None of them likes Clinton Green, but they are all more than willing to accept his invitation for a week's luxury vacation. It's a bit like the old board game, "Clue," where everyone is a suspect.
I love these kinds of things, especially when they're done as well as this one. Of course, we can't believe a word of it, it's all so preposterous, yet it seems believable enough as it's unfolding. And it's interesting that despite its cast of well-known stars, no one actually "stars" in the movie. It's a wonderful ensemble cast where everybody is equally important, equally amoral, and equally suspicious. I admit that I didn't know what was going on a lot of the time, but I knew I'd find out soon enough, and I did. "The Last of Sheila" is a crackerjack brainteaser, even if you forget it two minutes after you see it..
The movie's video is presented in a 1.74:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen, capturing most of its original 1.85:1 ratio theatrical size. At one point in the film, a message filled with writing across the screen is cut off slightly at the right and the left, leading me to believe that a small degree of TV overscan and an additional bit of fudging by the studios went on. In any case, the picture quality is pretty good, the colors bright and the definition reasonably sharp. Grain is not an object here, either, but some very minor age marks are noticeable from time to time.
Unfortunately, the film's monaural sound does not serve it well. Even reproduced via Dolby Digital 1.0 processing, it sounds below par. In a film almost entirely dialogue driven, where every word counts, it's a shame so much of the audio is so poor. At the beginning of the film, the sound is muffled, hollow, and even a bit noisy, giving it a faraway feel. Sometimes it can be hollow as well, sometimes raspy, and sometimes flat and dry. At no time does the sound fully open up to anything like the transparency or range of many of its movie contemporaries from the same era and before.
As one of WB's standard catalogue items, "The Last of Sheila" gets very few extras. The only thing of note is an audio commentary with three of the film's stars, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, and Raquel Welch. They are a chatty trio and provide some interesting if lightweight reminiscences on the subject. Beyond that, there are twenty-seven scene selections and a theatrical trailer. English is the only spoken language offered, but there are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
I liked "The Last of Sheila" quite a lot. Despite my having been familiar with its title, I had never actually seen it until it showed up on DVD, and then I was delightfully surprised. I figured the story would have dated by now, but it hadn't. Because most of the action is aboard ship and because most of the plot is dependent on the actors talking and explaining things to one another, watching the movie is much like watching a play. In fact, I'm surprised the script hasn't been adapted for the stage. For all I know, maybe it has. In any case, "The Last of Sheila" is a splendid puzzle picture that kept me engrossed and guessing from beginning to end.