Murder is afoot, and Judge George Hatch will trick the culprit into revealing himself!
The games people play can lead…to murder!
Tom thought he could beat the game, and Lee played because she had to. Anthony wanted to play the game for fun, but Alice knew it was for keeps. Philip knew too much about the game, while Christine played only because she wanted the prize. And Clinton was master of the game.
That paraphrased narration from the trailer for The Last of Sheila tells you everything—and nothing—about this terrifically shrewd and sophisticated mystery-thriller co-authored by real-life puzzle connoisseurs Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, who cunningly devised a cinematic "game" that invites the audience to play along with the characters.
Facts of the Case
Exactly one year after his young wife, Sheila, abruptly left a cocktail party and was mowed down by a hit-and-run driver, movie producer Clifton Greene invites six of the people who were present that night to his yacht anchored off the Cote d'Azur. Under the pretext of making a film about her life to be titled "The Last of Sheila," he plans to utilize the talents of this "B-group of hungry failures" to write, direct, cast, and star in her bio-flick. The yacht, by the way, is appropriately named after his dead wife, and once everyone is aboard, talk of the film project takes second place to "The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game," a vindictive and humiliating gambit contrived by Clinton to uncover the identity his wife's killer.
A brief prologue to The Last of Sheila is filled with barely intelligible background dialogue, "cloudy" overlapping images of Hollywood party people shot through multiple glass windows contrasting the sharp reflections on the highly polished doors of the car that will soon "bounce Sheila through the hedges." Referred to by stage magicians as "smoke and mirrors," it's an apt diversion, but scripters Sondheim and Perkins have only six cards up their sleeve and they lay them on the table within the first 15 minutes of the film. There's (almost) nothing to hide, everything is in plain sight (at least peripherally)—and if you pay close enough attention, you just might solve this puzzle before the characters. A second viewing, which is highly recommended, will have you kicking yourself for missing what was always right before your very eyes.
This "B-group of hungry failures" includes Tom (Richard Benjamin, Deconstructing Harry, Goodbye, Columbus), relegated to studio rewrites and his wealthy but emotionally-fragile wife, Lee (Joan Hackett, The Group, Will Penny); Philip (James Mason, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lolita), a former A-list director now shooting kiddie television commercials; Alice (Raquel Welch, One Million Years B.C., Myra Breckinridge), an actress on the downslide and her husband/agent Anthony (Ian McShane, Battle of Britain); and Christine (the scene-stealing Dyan Cannon, Deathtrap, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) an über-bitch agent who, even when she doesn't have the best lines, simply knocks everyone else out of the picture and claims it for her own. And of course, there's Clifton Greene, played by James Coburn (Affliction, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The President's Analyst), whose "game" requires that each of the participants track down and expose "a dirty little secret…a pretend piece of gossip" about another member of the group when they dock into ports along the coast of Southern France.
With each player assigned a scandalous and potentially career-destroying indiscretion such as "Shoplifter" or "Alcoholic," they are then given a clue before debarking and sent out to discover the "culprit" within the allotted time. While the listed accusations don't implicate the specific cardholder, the group soon determines that Clinton has not assigned these six secrets randomly, but that each player, at one time in his or her life, has been guilty of one of them. How they react, what they plan to do about Clinton, and their own past embarrassments take the rest of the film in so many unpredictable directions your head will spin with delight.
That's about as much as I can say without spoiling the fun, except to advise you to listen to the ironic use of Bette Midler's "Friends" during the closing credits. And while I can't really comment on the specific roles and performances either, I will say the entire cast is in top form and I would single out James Mason, Dyan Cannon, and Joan Hackett, whose career was all too brief.
Although he's directed a number of popular films (Footloose, Steel Magnolias, The Goodbye Girl), it's difficult to ascertain Herbert Ross's contribution, as I suspect he would simply have had to scrupulously follow the meticulously plotted script by Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd in Concert, Into the Woods) and Anthony Perkins (Psycho, Winter Kills). The Last of Sheila is, however, guaranteed to be the fastest, wittiest, and most enthralling two hours you'll spend in front of your TV.
The cinematography by Gerry Turpin (Seance on a Wet Afternoon) is spot on for the interiors and is effectively creepy during a lengthy scene in "the monastery of forgotten men, an 11th century refuge for perverts, onanists, catamites, and other riff-raff of the day." While the anamorphic transfer revitalized the washed colors of the VHS version, it surprisingly doesn't look that much better than the trailer, and the Dolby 2.0 Mono actually sounds worse. Using the chapter search, I was able to match several scenes fairly quickly, and the comparison was very disappointing. Since almost every word is important, you may want to use the subtitle option at times—though that presents a slight problem because while reading, even for a few seconds, you may miss one of the visual clues.
Edward A. Warschilka (13 Ghosts, Big Trouble in Little China) deftly handles the tricky editing, especially during the last half-hour when dozens of brief and compulsively organized flashbacks are used to solve the puzzle.
During the credits, I noticed that the costume design was by Joel Schumacher (Phone Booth, Batman and Robin); this was his second film in that area, after which he began writing screenplays and then moved into directing.
The extras include the original trailer and an informative commentary by Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon, both of whom obviously had a lot of fun reminiscing about the film and relating some pertinent information about the Tinseltown insider subtext of the script; and Dyan Cannon still has the best, most infectious laugh in Hollywood. Raquel Welch's contribution added nothing and was poorly edited in, ruining many of Benjamin's and Cannon's comments.
With so many films these days getting DVD releases with several alternate endings dictated by studios and pre-screening audience polls, it's a genuine pleasure to watch a film that knew where it was going from the opening shot to the closing credits. Despite a less than perfect transfer, The Last of Sheila deserves a permanent place in your collection right alongside Sleuth and Deathtrap.
Case dismissed. The Last of Sheila is free to go and continue to be the cinematic role model for classic adult-oriented mystery thrillers.
Warner Home Video, however, is hereby ordered to permanently phase out "snapper" cases immediately!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, and Raquel Welch
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