The Last of Sheila (1973)

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Inside Hollywood dirt, parlour games, egos and a murder mystery.

The Last of Sheila is a fine whodunit with a top flight cast, a twisty plot with well placed clues, and some fascinating names behind the scenes. The story revolves around Hollywood insiders and has-beens, so you get characters with neuroses and hangups, huge egos and bigger secrets. James Coburn plays a man whose wife Sheila (Yvonne Romain), a gossip columnist, is killed in a hit and run accident. One year later, Coburn invites a circle of industry friends to vacation aboard his yacht in the Mediterranean, ostensibly to discuss his idea of making a movie about his late wife’s death and the mystery surrounding it. It soon becomes clear that he’s really invited them all to participate in a puzzle, a role playing game, a scavenger hunt/what’s my secret/musical chairs hybrid that he believes will expose his wife’s killer, with the added thrill of exposing other scandalous details that will wreck these peoples’ careers and lives. The folks he invites are screenwriter Richard Benjamin and his wife Joan Hackett, director James Mason, super-agent Dyan Cannon, starlet Raquel Welch and her husband Ian McShane. As you might expect, that combo and caliber of actors nicely fulfill these juicy parts and do a lot of scene stealing besides. The game soon goes off the rails and completely out of Coburn’s control as the guests start to realize why they’re there and try to keep the others from digging up their dirt. Murders ensue.

Everybody (well almost) does a great job with the acting, totally putting across their shallow self-interest, and clearly having so much fun, which is always great to watch. The one weak spot is Raquel Welch who plays it SO concerned and preoccupied that it goes beyond what’s fitting for her character’s secret and just makes her look absent and detached most of the time. She brings nothing much to the role and reads her lines in an whispery, breathy voice that feels like a caricature of Marilyn Monroe. On the flipside, Dyan Cannon veers into the histrionic a couple times, mostly in her breakdown scene right after she almost gets murdered by the yacht propeller, but in her case being mean, uninhibited and high strung totally fit the character. Joan Hackett is sweet and sensitive, probably the only decent person there, but even so, seems to be hiding something huge.

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The highlights are the two James. Coburn’s wide gleeful grin is perfect accompaniment for the maniacal torturing and teasing of his guests. He’s like a kid, filling the yacht lounge with every board game available, planning his scavenger hunts, sauntering about the settings he’s picked out (like an abandoned monastery on a remote island) planting clues and props which are practically art installations, they’re so complicated and ingenious. He even cross-dresses to look like Raquel at one point, and is just devilish fun to watch. James Mason is just wonderful playing his serious role, in which he tries his best to remain distinguished and above this whole mess, but when he gets ruffled or attacked he gives us some laugh out loud moments. We’re introduced to him as he’s directing a dog food commercial while talking to his wife on the phone: “I am sorry dear but I must hang up, a cast member is peeing on my leg.” You later get to see him in an intellectual standoff with the killer that involves darts and hand puppets.

The movie was cowritten by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, who were known to hold parties where famous guests would play these type of gossip/identity games. Their inside knowledge adds fun layers to the script, so that you not only get a bunch of well written characters but thinly disguised versions of real Hollywood people as well, plus incisive and revealing humour. The clues are intelligent and well placed so the solution makes sense and seems obvious once it’s explained. Fun end credit to spot is wardrobe by Joel Schumacher, and we’re talking some gloriously 70’s colour schemes, the wicked sisters Poly and Ester, and flowing bell bottoms. The film was directed by Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl, Footloose, Steel Magnolias) and features the ironic use of the song “Friends” by Bette Midler. Yes, friends who mostly can’t stand each other, are either trying to stab one another in the back professionally or murder each other literally, whether they think the reward is just top billing in Coburn’s movie or their very careers and reputations. The Last of Sheila is a very fun and smart film that piles loads of entertainment industry skewering on top of a fun puzzle and a clever mystery and satisfies on many levels.

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15 thoughts on “The Last of Sheila (1973)”

  1. Glad you got round to this one, and it sure seems like you enjoyed it too. I first caught it by accident on late night TV years ago and thought it was fantastic – the locations, the cast, the look and the general smartness of it all. Later, I was delighted to get it on DVD – a terrific movie, and a fine enthusiastic write-up.

    1. I did enjoy very much, just happened to come on tv and I didn’t want to pass it up. I didn’t mention how funny was that moment was after Mason is in the brawl, he’s picking himself up off the floor and says “we had a difference of opinion” haha. Such a gent. Very nice locations, yes, and clever but fair clues and solutions, which I always feel is key for an enjoyable whodunit. Thanks Colin.

      1. Mason was such a class act, a great favorite of mine. Just watched him the other day again in The Man Between and he played wonderfully off Claire Bloom in that.

        And yes, a mystery that doesn’t play fair is poor form.

        1. Another one I can look for! Haven’t seen it. I’ll have to borrow Mike’s idea and do a ‘5 days of Mason’ sometime. Sure has enough films for many times that.

    1. Me too! I just think he’s one of the coolest dudes that was ever on screen and is so fun to watch as he plots all these games. Agree on the cast and even with my complaints about Raquel here she still fills that role (ahem so to speak) for what it’s supposed to be, I guess. Thanks!

  2. I looooove this movie! I did not know that about Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim having these kinds of parties. I’ve always wished we could see more of the game before the killer struck. It was so cool.

    They keep threatening to remake it every once in a while. On the one hand, it’s a horrific thought, but it’s also fun to fan cast with current actors (as Dyan Cannon’s character does at the end of the movie).

    Thanks for the great review and reminder that it’s way past time for me to watch again!

    1. I know, would be tricky to remake because it could be brilliant as long as kept the smart and witty stuff that mocks moviemaking egos. Can you imagine these real life parties? I would want to be a fly on the wall. Yes on that ‘scoreboard’ there were still 3-4 games to go in the story, they would’ve been fun to see. I’m glad I discovered this and not surprised to see it has a lot of fans. Thanks for reading!

  3. I’ve never even HEARD of this one. Sounds terrific – must see!

    I love it when all the clues actually make sense at the end of the film. When they don’t make sense, I tend to drive fellow movie-goers crazy with after-movie questions such as “But what about…?” “How come they said…?” “And why didn’t…?”

  4. My hubby came across “The Last of Sheila” on TV the other night just as it was beginning and pressed the recorder. His words: “Dear, I’ve just done us a favour.” We’re now just waiting for a quiet moment to enjoy the movie. Your tasty review has me salivating for the treat.

    1. Perfect! Never before have I been more glad to have a ‘no spoilers’ policy! It was tough to even talk about the plot without ruining something. Hope you enjoy it!

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