Tuesday, July 25

Good 70s Films: The Last of Sheila

1973 Murder Mystery
From Warner Bros
Directed by Herbert Ross

Richard Benjamin
Dyan Cannon
James Coburn
Joan Hackett
James Mason
Ian McShane
Raquel Welch

Let's open this up with who the writers are... actor Tony Perkins and Broadway lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim.  It was the only screenplay they ever wrote.  These boys loved games. As longtime friends they were often involved in parlor games, truth games and scavenger hunts that they played with other friends. The games were always intellectual, often cruel and frequently dealt with murder.  Clues would be provided and guests had to come up with the murderer.

While the games changed a bit from time to time, at one of them was director Herbert Ross who encouraged the duo to write a screenplay which became the sassy and urbane The Last of Sheila.

The film opens at the Hollywood home of a wealthy movie producer (Coburn) where a party is in full swing.  His wife, Sheila, walks drunkenly down the street after a fight with her husband and is hit and killed by an unknown person.  That person gets out of the car, looks over Sheila's crumpled body and drives on.

A year later the producer invites the people who were at the party on a week-long holiday on his yacht in the south of France. They are a screenwriter and his wealthy wife (Benjamin and Hackett), an actress and her talent-manager husband (Welch and McShane), a movie director (Mason) and a movie agent manager (Cannon). Once on board and after warily eyeing one another, their host announces they will spend the week playing a game to be called The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game.  

The game involves the six guests getting index cards with a word or words written on them... secret crimes, as their wily host suggests... such as shoplifter, homosexual, ex-convict, informer, child molester and hit and run killer and they are given a clue to get them started on their discovery process.  No one is given his or her own secret and the point is to uncover everyone else's secret while keeping your own under wraps. Hmmm, where will this all lead?.  

Our host has decreed a crime a day will be uncovered in six different Mediterranean ports.  But almost before the elaborate game can get fully underway, our congenial, smiling host is dispatched in an old monastery in a most untidy way.  Back on the yacht, the others rather cavalierly decide to continue on their paid vacation... and besides, they didn't like their captain much anyway.

As they frolic, they decide to continue playing the game.  As one person gets the ball rolling with a confession, another is found murdered.  It seems that Sheila isn't the only one we'll see the last of.

Oh how will it all end?  I won't tell you that because, c'mon, isn't the worst kind of finale-divulging the one where you find out who the killer is?  Why, I just couldn't.  But I will tell you there is a mighty fine, bristling, mystery-solving (and let's throw in urbane again here) finale that is just such fun.

I found more fun in trying to figure out for myself who had which secret and wondering why each actor was assigned that particular role.  Let's face it, any of them could have been the hit and run killer.  "Homosexual" rather than "lesbian" I assumed meant a man and of the three men, Benjamin, Mason and McShane, who might have been cast in this role?  Surely one of them is also a child molester.  Do we think Raquel Welch is playing one?  On and on I went, scoring well and not so well and even so, what did it all mean?  Exactly.

A pre-boarding photo is actually a clue

This is not a film to pay any kind of attention to except close.  The exposition comes fast and furious and knitting or playing games on your phone while watching this will gift you with a crippling blow to understanding the numerous bits of chicanery.

Perkins, apparently, took great delight in using real people as his models for a number of characters.  It's been said he used himself as the model for the screenwriter and Ross actually wanted him to perform it but he wasn't interested in acting in the film so he gave it to his friend, Benjamin.

Perkins used his frequent costar, Orson Welles, as the model for Mason's director character.  He apparently told Welch that she and McShane were playing a version of Ann-Margret and her manager-husband Roger Smith when, in fact, Welch would be playing someone based on herself and her then manager-husband, Patrick Curtis.  There was a loudmouthed, vicious agent at the time named Sue Mengers and Cannon and Perkins were two of her clients. It seemed a given that Cannon would portray the agent.  

Originally set on a snowbound Long Island estate, it was changed to the south of France aboard a yacht.  Cannon would gleefully say she signed on as much as anything because who wouldn't want to get paid for lolling around the south of France for a few months.
But the truth is it wasn't an easy shoot.  

For one thing the first yacht the company used sank.  Bummer. Everyone tanned on the beaches while a new yacht was summoned. But legendary party-giving producer Sam Spiegel lent his yacht, almost saving the day.

The days often couldn't be saved because of this cast... it was a frisky group... lots of big egos, big paychecks, big attitudes, big temperaments and as it turns out, a yacht too small for this troupe of tortured thespians.  Mason told a newspaper that Welch was the most selfish, ill-mannered, inconsiderate actress that I've ever had the displeasure of working with.

The first cameraman was fired and the weather was a constant problem.  There was often too much rocking and rolling on the sea for any filming and a number of folks got seasick. When it became increasingly apparent that filming on the yacht was too confining, everyone got to work on those tans again while the interiors to the yacht were specially-constructed at Studios La Victorine in Nice. 

If all this weren't enough, during the shooting of an outdoor cafe scene involving Welch and McShane, an anti-Semitic terrorist group known as Black September sent word that a bomb had been planted near the set.  Although another unpleasant disruption, at least it turned out to be a hoax.

It's difficult to speak of how these actors performed because it might give away some plot points but I thought they all nailed it. Of course I liked just about any movie James Mason did.  I have always had the highest regard for him as an actor and he and the mystery theme are why I saw The Last of Sheila. I have never been a Richard Benjamin fan but this is my favorite role for him.  

The first time you may have heard Bette Midler singing Friends might have been at the end of this film.

Enjoy a preview:

Next posting:
Movies Made in the
70s about Movies

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