In July, 1973 a little murder mystery with a terrific cast opened with little publicity and despite terrific reviews the film vanished from theaters in just a few weeks. That’s too bad because The Last of Sheila turns out to be one of the very best films of a terrific movie year (films released that year include The Sting, The Exorcist, American Graffiti, Paper Moon, Last Tango in Paris, The Paper Chase). I cannot imagine anyone not being sucked into this terrific story trying to figure out which clues are real and where the red herrings lie before the ultimate solution is revealed. The best part of watching The Last of Sheila is watching it again to look for the clues that director Herbert Ross and co screenwriters (and avid puzzle fanatics) Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins habve subtlely layed before us.
The film opens outside the swank Beverly Hills mansion owned by filmmaker James Coburn. A party is evidently taking place, but more importantly we are privy to the sounds of an argument between Coburn and his wife Sheila. Sheila stumbles out of the house and begins walking away from the house when she is unexpectedly hit and killed by an unseen driver who leaves the scene.
Cut to one year later and the still grieving Clinton (Coburn) has invited a group of movie industry people to another party. This time the party is not at the house but on his yacht, Sheila. Clinton, also a fanatical puzzle solver and game player is devising a little game for his guests – unbeknownst to them. The guests, based, incidentally, on real life people include a faded director (James Mason) with a troubled past, an alcoholic agent (Dyan Cannon), a hack screenwriter (Richard Benjamin) and his wife (Joan Hackett), a former sex symbol (Raquel Welch) looking for a comeback and her husband and agent (Ian McShane) who can’t get going in Hollywood.
The guests arrive all thinking Clinton is going to pitch them on an idea for a movie about his beloved late wife but soon realize they are there only to be pawns in what seems to a fun yet cruel game that Clinton has devised. It goes like this: Each person is given an envelope with a secret about themselves. Clinton will announce which secret will be used on a particular night and it is then up to the guests to follow the clues and find out who belongs to each secret. But it seems that the secrets are very personal and very embarrassing. Some of them include – YOU ARE A SHOPLIFTER, YOU ARE A HOMOSEXUAL, YOU ARE A HIT AND RUN KILLER. A-ha! Let the games begin. Obviously Clinton believes the killer is one of his guests and he is going to shame them before revealing their identity. Of course things don’t always turn out they way you plan them.
If you think I have revealed too much trust me when I say that is just the beginning. But to reveal anymore would be a tragic insult to anyone willing to search out this film. I can’t say enough about the multi-layered screenplay co-written by a Broadway composer and an actor best known as Norman Bates. Everything that happens in this film has a reason that we will learn later. When the ultimate solution is revealed director Ross takes us back to see some of the clues for ourselves. Some of them. Multiple viewings is almost a necessity to pick up the little things littered about. The film is so filled with those little touches that I was picking up new clues on a third viewing.
The performances are all fairly successful. Coburn plays a man you love to hate. Cannon perfects the obnoxious drunk. Mason is his usual solid self and Benjamin was always underrated as a character actor. Only Welch, whose talent was always undermined by her beauty, comes off stiff here.
In the 1970’s there was a glut of mystery movies released, many of them based on Agatha Christie’s novels but, for my money, this was best of the bunch. The final solution is out there to figure out and the astute viewer certainly can figure it out but is likely to still miss a few pieces. Save for a slap dash final scene that starts with great suspense but pitters out too quickly, I loved this film.