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THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973)
Directed by: Herbert Ross. Screenplay by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim.
"Any number can play. Any number can die."
"A marvelous murder puzzle written by Broadway and Hollywood Legends."
"An elaborate murder game with Mediterranean
ports-of-call is the itinerary.
Making up intricate group games was a hobby of very successful film producer Clinton Green (James Coburn), that he greatly enjoyed on several levels. Clinton always went to a lot of trouble to set up clues and details and create the sets for his often complex group games, which usually contained a practical joke or two, at the expense of guests, designed to make the participants uncomfortable. So, not one of the Clinton's and his late wife's friends were surprised when they received an invitation to spend a week on Clinton's yacht to enjoy / endure / experience another one of Clinton's group games.
It had been a year since the tragic death of Clinton Green's wife, Sheila Green by a hit and run driver, which happened at the end of one of the Greens' parties in Hollywood, where all of the 6 friends now invited to the current vacation aboard Clinton Green's yacht had attended. It was obvious that their friend, wealthy film producer Clinton Green had recovered from his loss and wanted to amuse himself with another one of his games and have company of old friends as well.
All 6 of the people accepted Clinton's invitation, volunteering to endure and/or enjoy Clinton's idiosyncrasies with hopes that Clinton was planning to make a movie about his late wife, Sheila. They all could use the work. Through some well-written / nicely directed plot development short scenarios with these various people, the screenwriters, Anthony Perkins (Psycho) & Stephen Sondheim, do a great job developing the characters' situations, before they go to Clinton's yacht.
Philip (James Mason) is a has-been film director now reduced to directing little girls in a commercial. Tom (Richard Benjamin) is a struggling, frustrated screenwriter, doing script rewrites for others, to eek out a living of sorts, while resentfully living off his wife Lee's considerable inherited estate. Lee (Joan Hackett) wants Tom to be successful from his own scripts. Christine (Dyan Cannon) is a conniving, "progressive" Hollywood talent agent, who represents Alice (Raquel Welch), a rather shallow, self-centered actress who is looking for another project to rev up her career. Alice's husband, Anthony (Ian McShane) is shown to be a bit of a rough clunkhead but later proves to be brave, and not so stupid, just blind.
After meeting on the dock in southern France, and taking a picture, the group goes aboard the yacht and settle into their assigned rooms. Clinton assembles them in the main deck room and gleefully explains to them his newest creation, the Sheila Green Gossip game. Each person is given a "made up bit of gossip" on a 3x5 card, not to be shared with the others. The game was that each night, Clinton would give them the same clue and then set them loose at another location to find the illustrated set of this bit of gossip, and who has the card. The game continues until the person who was given this card finds the illustrated set, which showcases the bit of gossip for that night of the game. Those who figure out the prize are given points.
However, like all of Clinton's games, there is an element of uncomfortableness to bother the participants, which rears its ugly head during the first onshore game night. The audience suspects that this element added to the game by Clinton, may be at the heart of an attempted murder and a real murder to happen, putting the entire group, under the leadership of Philip and Tom, into a real murder mystery, as they try to sort things out and figure out who the killer is among them, and why the guilty party did it. Was it something about the game itself or someone using the game as an excuse to accomplish his or her own goals or both?
Although made in 1973, THE LAST OF SHEILA is still a terrific, well-paced "Who dun it" which holds up very well, and still keeps the viewer riveted and entertained, with its complex plot and twists and turns. The audience would do well to pay attention to the events and scenes shown them before the murder, to want to sleuth along with Tom and Phil. The film features an imaginative script by Anthony Perkins (Psycho) & Stephen Sondheim ( an award-winning music Composer), great direction by Herbert Ross ( known for his direction of Neil Simon films, The Sunshine Boys & Steel Magnolias) and a stellar cast who obviously had a great time acting together in this enjoyable ensemble effort.
All the characters are portrayed as real, mostly likable people, complete with flaws and character weaknesses, adding spice to the main plot. While most of the story is told via the total ensemble group, various actors stand out in a few scenes throughout the film.
The late best supporting actor Oscar winner, James Coburn, who is well known for his edgy and colorful characterizations, excels as the fun-loving but annoying Clinton Green, a kind of fellow that the normal person wouldn't necessarily count as a friend. In Hollywood, things are different; Friendship and the business often are bedmates, figuratively and in reality for some of the characters.
Dyan Cannon is most entertaining as the gregarious, assertive talent agent, Christine, whose character was modeled after a real life talent agent. Her strongest performance is when she nearly drowns from suspicious circumstances.
Both James Mason (Philip) and Richard Benjamin (Tom) are wonderful in their scenes together as sleuths as they try to piece all the clues together.
Joan Hackett gives a strong performance as Lee, a troubled woman with a secret or two, who loves her husband, Tom, and feels like she needs to hang on to him or she'll loose him.
The film is rated PG. The one sex scene is only inferred, the one murder scene that is eventually shown to the audience after one of the main characters figures it out, is violent but short and bloodless. Young children won't be able to follow the complex plot, and kids that are scared easily or sensitive probably shouldn't see this film either. Highly recommended for lovers of murder mysteries with a twist or two.
Philip: "I like games where I don't have to move."
Clinton Green: "You don't have to move - .if you're smart enough."