Deneb does The Last of Sheila

“Get me a glass of water and a couple of lesbians.”

The Scoop: 1973 PG, directed by Herbert Ross and starring James Coburn, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welch.

Tagline: The next move is murder.

Summary Capsule: Ah, what could be better than a yachting trip in the Mediterranean? Complete with swimming, sunbathing, appropriate diversions, a murder or two… Wait, what?


Deneb’s Rating:
3 ½ vaguely creepy puppets out of five.

Deneb’s Review: You know, most of the reviews I’ve done so far have been fairly premeditated. I mean, there’s a list in my head of ones I want to review, and a number (three) I’m required to do each month, so I generally try to plan ahead a bit. Even my more spontaneous choices are generally more along the lines of ‘oh, hey, I’ve just gotten this on Netflix and it’d be perfect for a review!’ than just randomly out-of-the-blue deciding to review something.

So you all know where this is going, right? Yep, I’ve just seen a movie that I’ve out-of-the-blue decided to review. Hadn’t been planning on it, but hey, why not? Here’s my review of The Last of Sheila.

The movie starts out at a lavish party thrown by Hollywood producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) and his wife, Sheila. The two of them have a bit of a tiff, and Sheila storms out to take a walk and clear her head.

All well and good, but what isn’t so well and good is the car that comes out of nowhere and runs her down. Whack! Goodbye Sheila.

Cut to one year later, where Clinton is planning a little pleasure cruise on his yacht (which is also called ‘Sheila’). He’s not going alone, though – he’s invited six friends of his to come along.

These friends, naturally enough, are made up of people from the movie business. There’s screenwriter Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett), actress Alice Wood (Raquel Welch) and her manager husband Anthony (Ian McShane), ditzy talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), and director Philip Dexter (James Mason).

Just to what degree any of them are actually friends of Clinton’s, by the way, is pretty unclear. Clearly, most of them are only on board because he controls their careers – Clinton may have a certain charisma to him, but given that he’s basically a smarmy, self-satisfied jackass and a bit of a control freak, it’s a little difficult to picture him having any real, genuine friends.

Be that as it may, off they go to the Mediterranean for a week of sun, fun and frolics. They won’t be idle, though – Clinton has a little game planned for them, something he calls the “Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game”. Sounds fun! How do you play?

Well, it goes something like this. Each of the guests has received a card with a secret on it, a “pretend piece of gossip”, as he puts it, which is for their eyes only. Each night the yacht will dock at a different spot along the coast, where they will all engage in a sort of scavenger hunt, the purpose of which is to figure out who has a certain card, a different one each night. Those who figure it out within a set amount of time get points, and a winner will be declared at the end of the week – with, it is implied, roles guaranteed for all of them on a movie he’s dreaming up about his wife’s death. (OK, the guy’s got a bit of a complex.) Something like Clue, really.

Now, this is all fine so far as it goes, but a sinister element quickly becomes apparent here. You see, these “pretend pieces of gossip” consist of the words “YOU are a”, followed by things like “SHOPLIFTER”, “INFORMER”, and “EX-CONVICT”. Surprisingly strong stuff for a party game, wouldn’t you say? And then there’s the fact that each one of the guests was also present at the party Clinton threw a year back – and that one of the cards reads “HIT-AND-RUN KILLER”.

Ye-ah. This game just got serious. It becomes apparent pretty quickly that this “gossip” is not pretend at all – that, in fact, each of the cards refers to a secret that one of the guests is hiding (although they’ve each gotten someone else’s secret, not their own). Which means that one of the guests is the one who ran down Sheila Greene – and given the way things are going, the identity of this person will most likely be revealed before the week is out.

Now, whether Clinton is pulling this stunt to bring his wife’s killer to justice or just to see them all squirm is unclear – like I said, he’s that kind of a guy. Regardless of the reason, he’s playing with fire here, and, as the saying goes, that most often results in someone getting burnt. Before this little jaunt is over, expect at least one death, and for no one – no one – to come out completely unsullied.

Man, Hollywood really loves to take digs at itself, doesn’t it? I mean, this film may technically be a whodunit on a yacht, but at heart, it’s one big long critique on the movie-making power structure.

Or so it seems, anyway, because the parallels actually start to break down a bit if you look at them closely. I mean, yeah, the characters are all involved in the movie industry, and they’re generally a pretty sleazy bunch, but other than movie-making being referenced quite a lot, and having a sadistic producer playing games with everybody, the plot really has very little to do with Hollywood.

So why are they all from Hollywood? My guess is that the writers (who, by the way, were Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim – holy crap!) were basically saying that only movie-business power-players like this lot would accept such a twisted little diversion for as long as they do. Going by that logic, this is indeed a critique of Hollywood and its ilk; it’s just a much more subtle one than at first it seems, mixed in with a heaping helping of black comedy and old-style locked-room mystery.

Naturally, a movie that spends two-thirds of its time on a yacht does not lead to particularly innovative visuals or set design (although there is one nicely atmospheric sequence set in an abandoned monastery). Seen one overpriced rich guy’s yacht, seen ‘em all (not that I personally have seen many, but… you know what I mean). The onus is laid squarely on the backs of the characters, and a more decadent, self-absorbed crowd you never did see. Basically, just about every other scene not involving game-playing or murder features them either sunbathing, chain-smoking, drinking like fishes, or all three at once. Yep, it was the ‘70’s, all right. (Seriously, if you put all the smokes and booze consumed in this flick in one place, you would have a small marsh of mushed-up alcohol and tobacco. And if you added in all the combined UV radiation the group is exposed to, it would instantly be flash-fried into a huge, foul-smelling pancake. Well, let’s be fair, maybe it would smell delicious if you like the smell of alcohol-and-tobacco pancakes. There must be some people who do, and I’d like to see what their kitchens look like. Presumably they get all their recipes from back issues of Unhealthy Living, and AAARRGH! Must… finish… tangent!)

Anyway. What was I saying? Oh yes, the characters.

Going by the above, you might think the characters were a bunch of callous, vaguely repellent sophisticates who are only concerned about themselves. Not to mention that, as mentioned above, they spend almost the entire movie in one place. Sounds boring as all hell, right?

And perhaps that’s exactly what it would have been, if it weren’t for two factors. Number one is the writing, or rather, the writers. Those two know their stuff, and they spin a mean yarn here. The characters may not all be the most relatable, but they all have hidden depths, and all of them get their chances, however brief, to shine. As the game and its repercussions go through Machiavellian twists and turns, you get to see both the good and bad sides of these people, and while some of them do indeed remain relatively two-dimensional, all those who need to develop do, and you find yourself rooting for them.

This is to some degree due to factor number two – the actors. Take a look at that cast, will you? I don’t pretend to know all of them, but James Coburn? James Mason? Raquel Welch? That was some serious star power back in the ‘70’s, and they all sink their teeth into the characters with relish. This is not to say that some aren’t better than others – Welch, for instance, doesn’t do much beyond look sexy – but these were talented people, and they give their characters that little extra something. Coburn is particularly memorable as Clinton – he makes for a nicely dislikable villain. And I liked Joan Hackett as Lee. She’s probably the most sympathetic character on the yacht, and just basically seems like she’d be a nice person to hang around.

So, do I like it? Do I recommend it? With qualifications, yes. Last of Sheila is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s well-written, well-acted, and there’s some genuine suspense in the second half, when the action is ramping up. It moves slowly, and the first half is a tad sedate in parts, but the set-up pays off nicely. If you’re a fan of whodunits, or are in the mood for a bit of a blast from the past, then Sheila’s your baby. If you’re in more of an action movie mood, well, watch one of those instead.

And hey, it seems spontaneity ain’t that bad. I should try it again every once and awhile.

The treatment prescribed for Billy's crippling phobia of clowns was later described as 'unusual, but effective'.

Intermission! 

  • Perkins and Sondheim apparently got the idea for the movie from complex murder-mystery party games they played with their friends.
  • The Sheila flies the Panamanian flag.
  • Dyan Cannon based her portrayal of her character on Sue Mengers, her own agent at the time.
  • During the sequence in the Roman airport, Alice and Anthony pass by a kiosk selling (among other things) hand puppets. Two of them later appear onboard the yacht.

Groovy Quotes:

Clinton: Hidey-hidey-ho, gamesters! Everybody on the decky-wecky!

Philip: Darling, I must hang up now. One of my cast is peeing on my leg – something Garbo never did, even at her moodiest.

Christine: Just enough time for me to get dressed as a catamite – if I knew what it was.

Clinton: Tiny, tiny islands fascinate my ass; I’ve got this crazy broker in London that sends me brochures on all the islands for sale, all over the world. Little, impoverished islands; a few thousand dollars cash and you’re practically king to six shepherds and their families! …or whatever. I read every word on every island, and you know what I do? I tear them neatly in half, then drop them in the wastebasket. Then I say to myself…
Christine: (interrupting) I’m still weak, Clinton, but I’m eating solid food.
Clinton: I say to myself, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s to have my island speech interrupted! I say to myself ‘no. You poor people. You don’t deserve a good king like me.’ That’s what I say.

Lee: I don’t know you were coming.
Christine: You’re thrilled about it, I can tell.
Lee: I’m delighted; Clinton can take his frustrations out on you.

Clinton: All right now, smile, or whatever you people do for a living.

Christine: Well, hell, I think we can agree that none of us did it, can’t we? Well, I mean, who would? Well, I really mean who wouldn’t, but I mean, who really would?

Tom: You’re an incurable romantic.
Lee: Oh, it’s curable.

Christine: (to her female secretary) Call Haber and give her the dish. Disguise your voice as a woman.

Clinton: (dressed as a monk) Piss off, my son.

Lee: Guess what?
Tom: Your father has his body defrosted into life and he wants his house back.
Lee: Almost.

Clinton: Don’t touch the dummy, dummy!

Christine: Get me a glass of water and a couple of lesbians.

Clinton: Oh, if you could direct as fast as you catch on to games, you’d never be a has-been again.

Christine: All I know are ‘Scuzi’ and ‘Pronto’.
Lee: ‘Pronto’ will be enough.

Clinton: See, that’s what gave me the idea for the game – because the harder you try to keep a secret in, the more it wants to get out.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • Hollywoodland
  • Just about any old-style whodunit
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