[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
Little can be said of this film’s elusive plot without spoiling the excitement for the viewer. A movie producer invites six friends to spend a week aboard his yacht off the French Riviera, playing a six-day, port-to-port detective game. Each accepts the invitation in hopes of winning some favor from the powerful film magnate. It is a year since his wife Sheila was murdered by a hit-and-run driver; and as the producer’s skillfully devised game begins to reveal hidden secrets about the lives of the players, it becomes evident that one of them is the murderer. Suddenly there is much more at stake than the outcome of a game. Or is there? For as the film twists and turns along increasingly cerebral passageways, each new revelation becomes simply a part of a larger game. Unlike its predecessors in the “game” film genre—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, Sleuth—The Last of Sheila is not based on a stageplay, and its plot never reaches a point at which the game-playing stops, gives way to reality. Quite the contrary, as the film ends the next move is left to the audience, filled with the discomforting sense that everything that happened onscreen was merely part of a still larger mystery game that remains for them to unravel.
The mechanics of the action are so well worked out and so absorbing that one almost loses sight of the fact that games and murder are here employed as caustic metaphor for the shallow, mercenary, cannibalistic lifestyle of “movie people.” As mystery, the film never cheats: everything is precisely thought out, perfectly timed, executed with subtlety, integrity and attention to detail. The twists and revelations are always consistent with even the most minute points of plot and dialogue. There are no red herrings. As metaphor, the film succeeds beyond even its own ambitions, leaving a profoundly disturbing sense of the bitter harvest of personal and professional jealousy. The burden of making the whole thing work is admirably borne by the oddly heterogeneous cast, all turning in uncommonly fine performances. Gerry Turpin’s darkly rich photography contrasts the superficially carefree sunny Riviera with the murky atmosphere of personal evil. The film’s only weak spot is the overly resonant soundtrack, which occasionally has the viewer straining to catch a line or figure out one he’s missed. But it’s worth the strain. The Sondheim-Perkins screenplay abounds in mental gymnastics and in-jokes which draw the viewer, now delightfully, now insidiously, into the subterfuge. We are all games-players on one level or another, and the willingness with which we recognize and accept the challenge of the Sondheim-Perkins game is the measure of our appreciation and enjoyment of the film.
THE LAST OF SHEILA
Direction: Herbert Ross. Screenplay: Stephen Sondheim, Anthony Perkins. Cinematography: Gerry Turpin. Art Direction: Ken Adam. Production: Ross.
The Players: Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, Joan Hackett, Ian McShane, James Mason, Raquel Welch.
Copyright © 1973 Robert C. Cumbow
Postscript 2016: A recent second look at this film, 40+ years later makes me revise my earlier estimation of this film downward. What excited me (then and now) about the film arises mostly from my enjoyment of puzzles. Always an enthusiastic fan of cryptic crosswords, I was then an avid follower of the puzzles that Richard Maltby and Stephen Sondheim set for The Atlantic, and the film was and is a big-screen celebration of the joy of that kind of wordplay. But Ross does not manage his actors or Turpin’s camera particularly well, and the script runs off the rails a lot, especially in the last couple of reels. The wordplay is still fun, but the film now strikes me as inconsequential and occasionally annoying.