Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Last of Sheila (1973)


The Last of Sheila isn’t really a horror movie; it does, however, have an impressive horror pedigree. It was conceived and written by none other than Anthony ‘Norman Bates’ Perkins abetted by composer Stephen ‘Sweeney Todd’ Sondheim, starred James Mason (as seen in Salem’s Lot) and even gave us Joel Schumacher (Lost Boys) as costume designer.

I find it somewhat surprising that The Last of Sheila isn’t better known; it boasts a terrific all star cast, has an intriguing and fascinating storyline, beautiful locations shown to advantage in every shot and at its heart it is a well-crafted, sophisticated whodunit.

In The Last of Sheila the protagonists are assembled under the ruse of Mediterranean pleasure cruise aboard the yacht of movie producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn), the specially selected guests include Christine, an agent (Dyan Cannon), struggling screenwriter Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin) and Lee Parkman (Joan Hackett), his wealthy wife, actress Alice Wood (Raquel Welch), Anthony Wood, her manager/husband (Ian ‘Lovejoy’ McShane) and film director Philip Dexter (James Mason). We soon learn that the event is, in fact, a macabre reunion as all the guests, with the exception of Lee Parkman, were together at a party at Clinton’s home one year before and on that night his wife the titular Sheila was killed in an apparent hit-and-run accident.

Once the cruise is under way, Clinton, who is a well known game enthusiast, informs his guests that he arranged as entertainment for the week ‘The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game.’ Naturally almost everyone is more that a little perturbed by this somewhat tasteless turn of events but all of the guests have their own ulterior motives for endeavouring to stay on Clinton’s good side so feign enthusiasm at the prospect. The six guests are each assigned a specially prepared index card containing a secret that each must hide from the others. The object of the game is to discover everyone else’s secret while protecting one’s own.


Each part of the game is played on a different night with one secret being disclosed to the group as the yacht arrives at different picturesque location. The guests are then given a clue pertaining to the secret and sent ashore to find the proof of whom among holds that particular secret card.

When the first ‘secret’ is revealed to be ‘YOU are a SHOPLIFTER,’ the participants begin to grow more uneasy as it is beginning to become apparent that these cards are not the harmless ‘pretend pieces of gossip’ Clinton proclaimed them to be but, in fact, actual dirty little secrets personal to each player.

Things quickly take an even more sinister turn when wacky japester Clinton does not return from the second evening’s game installment hunting for proof as to who is the holder of the ‘YOU are a HOMOSEXUAL’ card, and the guests soon discover his absence to more than justified when they run across his dead body back on the island. The game now appears to be over, but, while waiting for authorities to arrive, one of the guests reveals that his card reads, ‘YOU are a HIT-AND-RUN KILLER.’ It is then seemingly apparent that Clinton had motives beyond the airing of embarrassing and/or potentially damaging secrets and, in fact, there is a more elaborate game going on, one they didn’t even know they were playing that involves culpability for the death of Sheila Greene, and now Clinton Greene. As the game cards continue to be revealed and the essence of the secrets become darker the guests are left to contend for the lesser secrets while becoming increasing more paranoid that the implication is that one member of their party is a double murderer.


I am particularly thrilled by the fact that the movie was inspired by a series of elaborate, real-life scavenger hunts Messers Sondheim and Perkins arranged for their showbiz pals (said to include the likes of Lee Remick, George Segal and Roddy McDowell) in Manhattan in the late 1960s and early 1970s where the glitzy participants would maraud through the streets of Manhattan for clues to a ‘mystery’ it is said that the winners prize was typically champagne on ice. How unspeakably glamourous! I was also rather thrilled to note, purely for the delightful mental image it conjures, that James Mason reportedly said of his experience of working with Ms. Welch on The Last of Sheila that:

“Raquel Welch is the rudest, most unprofessional actress I’ve ever had the displeasure of working with, and if I could, I would spank her from here to Aswan.”

Thank you, Mr. Mason!

While the plot may sound convoluted it is, in fact, beautifully crafted and realised and The Last of Sheila really is a delightful little thriller with a glorious cast of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells that I would heartily recommend you make the effort to view if haven’t done so already. And, as an added bonus, it is also so deliciously seventies that you could easily spend the entire run time simply marvelling at the array of magnificent hair and outfits on display. Or you've always got the mental image of James Mason spanking Raquel Welch.

7 comments:

  1. Never heard of this, but your write up makes it sound interesting. I shall have to track it down.

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  2. They really don't make whodunnits anymore, do they? Just added this to my netflix queue. They have it on instant play.

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  3. I've heard the play-cum-film Sleuth was also based on the exploits of Mr. Sondheim. It does all seem terribly romantic, doesn't it?

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  4. Richard Benjamin also adds to its horror pedigree - I'm assuming that everyone around during the video rental boom in Britain got suckered into watching 'Saturday the 14th'. Also in the genuinely excellent 'Love at First Bite' - the first film we ever time-recorded, ITV, 1983 and watched a gazillion times thereafter - my sister and I can still recite the whole thing from start to finish.
    As for the James Mason quote: get to the back of the queue, old fella.

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  5. Oh, I'm so pleased you're all going to try to see it. It really is an underrated movie. And delightfully camp too. You should all review it so more people will see it. As, Tim, rightly said, they don't make whodunnits anymore and I for one think that's a shame.

    Mr. G, you're totally right about Sleuth (haven't seen that for ages either). I too am quite enamoured with the whole treasure hunt concept, there’s something just so deliciously frivolous and glamourous about it, like the idle rich in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, I want to revive it.

    Thanks for adding to the horrorness of it, Matthew. I've said it before and I'll say it again: you do know everything!
    Saturday the 14th, hey, it's quite remarkable what you can blank out of your memory. Got a funny feeling I may watch it again soon though.

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  6. Last of Sheila is a great mystery movie! It is definitely not very well-known, but all fans of '70s cinema should see it. I only recently discovered it and have watched it twice; upon second viewing everything becomes clearer. Great post!

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  7. I'm a bit late to the party here but thanks for a great review of a great movie. Very smart and very enjoyable. But am I the only one creeped out by the fact the film seems to treat child molestation as a 'secret' on a par with shoplifting or alcoholism? Most people would think it far more serious than that. Was it a sign of the times, of the writers, or was it intended as a dark joke about the Polanski-style activities of figures in Hollywood? Very strange.

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