The Last of Sheila
February 17, 2020
tephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins threw great parties. Every so often the oddly paired friends would team up, organize an elaborate scavenger hunt-slash-whodunit game, and then corral some of their mutual friends to solve their creation as they looked on. Only a select few — mostly celebrities — got to experience firsthand Sondheim and Perkins’ live puzzles, which were most prolific in the 1960s and '70s.
No need to feel left out: us members of the general public have access to the next best thing — a similarly plotted mystery movie called The Last of Sheila. The movie, released in 1973, was written by the party hosts themselves, and was directed by several-time guest Herbert Ross.
Be warned: The Last of Sheila isn’t as playful as the hunts on which it’s based. In the movie we see not a harmless party pastime but a revenge plot resembling a harmless party pastime. As the film opens we see the title character, a gossip columnist, get run down by a drunk driver after she prematurely departs a get-together. The driver, whose face isn't shown, pulls over, inspects the body, then drives off. A year passes. It still isn’t known who’s responsible. Or, to use classic whodunit parlance, so it seems.
Sheila’s husband, a toothy movie producer named Clinton (James Coburn), actually does know. But since going to the police with his guess isn’t so
satisfying (he's a jester at heart), he decides to invite six people who were at the party the night of Sheila’s death on his yacht — named Sheila — for a one-week cruise on the Mediterranean. There’s Alice (Raquel Welch), an actress; her talent-manager husband Anthony (Ian McShane); writer Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett); an aging director named Philip (James Mason); and a guileless agent, Christine (Dyan Cannon).
They all think they’re there for seven days of sightseeing and socializing. But when at the beginning of the vacation Clinton gives them each a card with a supposedly fake piece of gossip on it (they say things like “You Are An Alcoholic” and “You Are A Little Child Molester”) and announces that each night, they will be making a stop in a certain city to play a whodunit-style game where the object is to discover a certain person’s “secret,” they realize that won’t be the case. Morbidly, Clinton calls the ambitious amusement “The Sheila Greene Memorial Game.” It’s hinted that on Saturday, Sheila’s killer will be revealed, though the guests don’t realize this at the outset.
The Last of Sheila at first seems like an homage to the works of Agatha Christie, whose murder-mystery novels had a similar too-clever knottiness to them. By its third act, though, the film has proven itself too outlandish to be a mere Christie clone. By then I thought less about Christie and more, for example, about the underrated 1972 thriller Sleuth, in which Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine play a game of mental, gamelike one-upmanship at a secluded mansion that brims with so many twists that to say you didn’t see a certain twist coming is a trivialization. Like Sleuth, The Last of Sheila is so obsessionally sneaky it’s as though each character and narrative development has embedded in them a trapdoor — which collapses into another trapdoor, which collapses into another trapdoor.
The mystery here is prismatic. Nearly everything, pardon the cliché, isn’t what it seems, and what gets us going in The Last of Sheila is the way little of what it throws our way feels like a contrivance. With increasing force, the revelations push us down and leave us knock-kneed. Yet never does a particularly joltish twist unnaturally stick out. Sondheim and Perkins’ puzzle-making is a strange hidden talent from both of them. One doesn’t expect the psycho of Psycho
(1960) linking up with a master of the chatty stage musical to, for a single movie, temporarily oust Christie as the paragon of the whodunit, yet they oust away.
Rarely in a movie is a narrative-over-character situation anything other than a problem. But in The Last of Sheila it doesn't bother us much if the people here are in the caricatured Clue (1985) vein. (To be fair, Ross, Sondheim, and Perkins lean more into cynicism and realism than into parlor-room cartoonishness — though Cannon, a total hoot based on real-life agent Sue Mengers, comes close with her life-of-the-party spunkiness.) In store here is an assiduously crafted, maze-like narrative that has to be endured to be believed. Most whodunits are an effectively fun pastime whose details are to be forgotten, perhaps like one of Sondheim and Perkins' parties. The Last of Sheila doesn't want to be a pastime — it wants to knock the wind out of us. A