#467: Seven—And Death Makes Eight – The Game’s Afloat in The Last of Sheila (1973)

Last of Sheila, The

I’ve not reviewed a movie here on The Invisible Event before, but then The Last of Sheila (1973) is not your average movie.  I first became aware of it at the Bodies from the Library conference in 2017, when it was recommended as one of the few examples of a fair-play mystery in long format, and that was enough for me.

Plot-wise, for the six of you reading this who have not seen it, we’re in fairly classical territory: opening with a party from which Sheila (Yvonne Romaine) flees following what appears to be an argument with her husband Clinton (James Coburn).  Walking away from the party along darkened streets, Sheila is struck down by a car and, after a moment of hesitation from the unseen driver, left to die at the side of the road.

TLoS1

The last of Sheila

Cut to one year later, and Clinton — “emerging from my year of mourning” — is busy organising a social gathering for a week on his yacht, the Sheila, to which are invited movie rewrite man Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett), movie star Alice (Raquel Welch) and her manager-husband Anthony (Ian McShane), Hollywood agent Christine (Dyan Canon), and director Philip (James Mason) — all of who, with the exception of Lee, were present at Clinton’s party on the night Sheila died.

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Clinton (James Coburn) is obviously planning something.

Each invite bears the legend THE GAME WILL BEGIN EVERY NIGHT AT 8PM SHARP, and the guests are told on the first day that the ‘game’ will take the following form: each is to be assigned a ‘secret’ — YOU ARE A SHOPLIFTER, YOU ARE AN EX-CONVICT, etc — and when they make port each evening clues will be given which will lead to the identity of the person with that secret.  When the person whose secret it is untangles the clues and discovers their own identity, the game is over for the night and anyone who has not discovered their identity will no longer have the chance to do so.

TLoS3

Alice (Raquel Welch), Philip (James Mason), Lee (Joan Hackett), and Tom (Richard Benjamin) learn something about themselves…

The motivation behind their willingness to engage in this is a little handwaved away — Clinton wishes to produce a movie about his late wife called The Last of Sheila, and all these movie-adjacent folk are competing to be involved, sure, but none of them are competing for the same role, so I feel I missed something there — but it soon becomes apparent that more is at work here.  The card someone bears, and the secret that is ‘theirs’ in the game, is something that is true of another of the players in real life.  And one of the cards says YOU ARE A HIT-AND-RUN KILLER…

TLoS4

One of the in-game clues from the first night of play.

From here, the script by the to-me unlikely pairing of impressario Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins, turns the screw ever-tighter on a delightfully labyrinthine and yet pleasingly simple problem: someone has a secret to hide, so it’s only a matter of when the murder takes place and who dies, and then how it all unfolds from there.  The first attempt is aimed at someone I think most viewers will be surprised to find targeted, and everything builds with pleasing momentum and a very engaging setup from there.  It’s tremendously enjoyable stuff, very intelligently wrangled, and enough to make you wish Sondheim and Perkins had written another seven of these for us to kick back and play along with at home.

TLoS5

Someone arrives too late.

Because, well, it is pretty darn fair-play.  We know films have issues with continuity and presentation of events, but the overwhelming majority here is presented as it needs to be.  Sometimes you don’t know whether it’s simply the slightly less advanced movie-making standards at the time — we’re presented with two dead bodies, the second of which is simply the actor with a greyed-up face and couldn’t look less like a corpse if it tried even though that character is, in the film, dead — or whether you’ve legitimately spotted something telling (several parts of this, including one very fair moment of clue-dropping, I caught and then had to wait to find out I was correct about), but most of the time it will be the latter.

TLoS6

Always assuming, that is, you have eyes for anything besides McShane’s outfits.

The cast is clearly having a blast, too, and who can blame them with a script this lithe?  For all the camaraderie on display, there’s a lovely archness at times, such as Christine refusing to put any suntan lotion on Alice because she’s busy sunning herself having spent the previous night in Clinton’s cabin.  “I have to do 25 minutes on my front today,” she demurs.  “Oh, to make up for the 25 minutes you spent on your back last night,” comes the reply.  And I don’t think I’ve ever seen Coburn — all fabulous dentistry and an impressively beanpole figure for a man well into his fifth decade — quite this delighted, as he goads and taunts his guests, and makes them jump through his game-playing hoops, while also investing Clinton with vestiges of neuroses behind the showman (the stuck door, in particular, reveals a little more than may be suspected of him).

TLoS7

Christine (Dyan Canon) hunts for clues…

I felt pretty smug about getting most of the clues and solidly 80% of the solution, but there’s going to be something here that even the most watchful armchair detective will overlook, and consequently joy in having spelled out in the (remarkably stagey — you could adapt the second half of this for theatre most faithfully) final summation.  It’s here that the classical detective roots come closest to the surface, with some shots reframed to show telling actions but mostly featuring the events we’ve been watching for 90 minutes themselves reframed in the steady establishment of someone’s guilt.  And there’s something about the campy delivery of the line “I don’t have any gloves” that sums up the entire enterprise gorgeously — fun, inventive, a little chilling, and promising so much potential that we never got to see again.  If you get a chance to see this, grab it.  I understand a remake has been toted for a while now, which would probably be awful, but maybe between Branagh’s Poirot movies and this some new appetite for detective movies could emerge.  If the new Golden Age of detection doesn’t happen on the page, maybe it will happen on the big screen instead…

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See also

Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora: This Edgar-winning murder mystery challenges a group of Hollywood players to solve a series of riddles while on the French Riviera – but just what is the prize and who is playing who? This fabulously elaborate movie was co-written by the unlikely team of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim and movie actor Anthony Perkins, who shared a passion for wordplay, acrostics and murder games. This film certainly offers plenty of those and at the same time also takes ironic potshots at the movie community. James Coburn is the manipulative mogul who, one year after the mysterious death of his gossip columnist wife, invites some ex-colleagues to stay on his yacht. But is one of his guests her murderer…?

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Particular thanks to Ryan for furnishing me with a copy of this — and for saving me from spoilers! — as well as to John Grant, whose fabulous Noirish site I belatedly realise I’ve shamefully ripped off in the structure of this post.

52 thoughts on “#467: Seven—And Death Makes Eight – The Game’s Afloat in The Last of Sheila (1973)

  1. Thanks for the shoutout. Love this movie. Films that are this elaborate are often arid and uninvolving but SHEILA is a great exception. Calling Sondheim an impresario is a bit of a stretch thougj! His musical COMPANY is probably the best show in the West End at the moment.

  2. This is indeed a wonderful fair play mystery film, and one of extremely few such films not based on an Agatha Christie story, which is very disappointing. Glad to see you enjoyed it as much as you did.

    As I understand it, there wasn’t so much camaraderie behind the camera as you seem to imagine. One person infamously infuriated the rest of the crew to extremes… 🙂

    • The audio commentary on the DVD is good fun in terms of detailing some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Ross and Welch seem to have been not as relaxed as they might have been … 😉

    • Oh, I didn’t mean camaraderie behind the cameras, I meant on-screen in how every humours Coburn’s character and suffers through their fates with a sort of wearied good humour. I mean, of course one of the cast was a complete diva — that’s what actors do, daaahling.

  3. The film is a delight and still entertains even when you know the solution, which is a very good sign indeed.
    Great to see you adding a piece on a movie on here too!

    • I’d love to be able to explore any other movies that do the clue-dropping as well or as cleverly, the difficulty remains that there seem to be so few of them.

      Maybe I should head to TV, there’re bound to be some shows that did this sort of thing on a regular basis, right? Monk perhaps, thought I imagine that’s been dissected to death over the years. And there’s always Banacek as Rusty reminded us recently, but my budget doesn’t strecth to the £40 I’m currently required to pay for that… 🙂

      • There’s also a made-for-TV movie starring James Franciscus titled One of my Wives is Missing. It was later remade as Vanishing Act, starring Mike Farrell. I’ve only ever seen the latter version, but it has some wonderful fair-play mystification.

      • I suppose you’ve seen ”Sleuth”? And by that I mean the original, with Sir L.O. and Michael Caine, not the recent-ish remake.

      • I am not sure banacek is fair-play but actually I wouldn’t know because I found the episodes to be pretty boring and only watched the opening/ending after suffering through a couple of episodes in their entirety. Definitely wouldn’t recommend the series for 40

        Anyway the answer to the question lies in Japanese TV. There is at least one new fair-play series every year and a lot of series are actually translated by fans.

        Thanks for this movie. Sounds really nice!

        • Oh, ah, well, in that case I might slide Banacek slightly further down the list, eh?

          Ad, yes, you could well be onto something with the Japanese TV shows. Mind you, I’ve had to take a break from The Perfect Insider because the pacing of that show drives me insane. When I do eventially return to it, I might just skip the first part of each story, since the initial episode establishes it all so damn slowly, and the second one recaps it anyway. It’s maddening!

            • Thanks for the mention of “Brokenwood Mysteries”, I will certainly check this series out.

          • I have to enter a dissenting opinion on behalf of Banacek – there is one episode in the second season that contains a dirty rotten bit of cheating (and I’ll get to it when I cover that season on my own blog) – but apart from that lapse, I feel the episodes were always fairly clued, and often quite cleverly.

            • I don’t deny the cleverly part (the solutions were indeed nice, although most were pretty easy to figure out). What I meant to say is that the episodes -at least the couple I’ve seen in their entirety- really could not hold my attention, as much as I wanted to. It was simply too slow for me. Perhaps I would have liked it more if the episodes were 40 mins. That is why I wouldn’t spend 40 pounds on it.

              A few days after “finishing” Banacek, I started The Brokenwood Mysteries which has 90 minutes per episode and I found myself enjoying it much more, so it’s not like the episodes of Banacek were simply too big for me.

              BTW The Brokenwood Mysteries is also a wonderful series. The plots are a bit obvious, but it’s sooo much fun

            • This is the first I’ve ever heard of The Brokenwood Mysteries — I shall do some research and then…let’s be honest…probably never watch it.

        • Yes, my joyous and issue-free relationship with Ellery Queen makes that the next logical place I’lll definitely go. Right after I wash these dishes.

          • I detect sarcasm. The Ellery of the show is much more the Wrightsville Ellery than the early Ellery. Jim Hutton is very *likeable* as Ellery!
            I assume you know the Nero Wolfe series with his son. Deeply uneven but well worth seeking out.

            • Not sarcasm, that would be too broad; more a sort of po-faced facetiousness. I’m so bad at taking the time to watch anything — I’ve had this DVD of Sheila for probably the best part of a year — that even if I commit to the EQ series in spite of misgivings and rush out and buy it right now, no-one would hear anything about it on here until 2020. I’m not even exaggerating. I’m just…disinclined to watch things.

              I don’t know the Wolfe series, either. Man, there is a lot out there, huh? Maybe I should give up books for a year and just revert to a movies and TV review site, to plough through some classic detection.

              Or, er, having just thrown a casual glance at my TBR — which seems displeased with that suggestion — maybe I’ll do that in a year. Or five. In fact, say ten. No rush.

            • The Ellery Queen series is a real mixed bag. A few gems, a lot more so-so ones and stinkers. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend looking at movies and TV shows, there are a lot of things I’d advise you to get to first… and I say that as someone who loves him some printed Queen.

            • I think that, at the time it came out, the EQ series was manna to the GAD starving! It was great fun to see so many stars, some from the golden age of Hollywood, appear on a show that was built each week around a classic-stylewhodunnit. But Justice is right about it being uneven; ultimately it was pretty formulaic, and most of the “fair play “ clueing was, to say the least, simplistic. But it was great fun, better at the technical aspects of mystery than Murder She Wrote, and I highly recommend it – to normal human beings from the planet Earth who occasionally watch television. But not to you, JJ.

  4. I’m sure a remake would eliminate most of that tiresome clueing and include several car chases and some implied booty in order to entice its target audience of 15-year-old boys.

    I miss Joan Hackett. She was a wonderful actress, and her depiction of neurotic fear was put to great use here and in many surprisingly effective made-for-TV mysteries and horror films in the 70’s. As for Sondheim and Perkins collaborating . . . well, you are a youngster!

    Check out the play Sondheim wrote with George Furth called Getting Away with Murder. It’s not as good as TLoS, but it confirms the man’s love of mysteries and puzzles, and his willingness to “go complex” in mediums that demand simplicity. Bravo!

    • Well, yeah, but then we can’t be surprised. I went to movies a lot as a 15 year-old and virtually never go now. And this could obviously use a car chase or two. And a robot. And someone in a backwards baseball cap who says “Radical!” a lot. That’s what the teens pay to see: a baseball cap-wearing teen teaching his radical robot to race cars.

      This idea (c) me, Hollywood, so come knocking only with serious offers…

        • I know you’re making a joke here, but there’s a case for the defence of train timetables…and I say that as someone who — as a rule — isn’t at all a fan of timetables and tabulation (the one in <a href="https://theinvisibleevent.com/2018/11/15/460/&quot;)Dead Men Don't Ski is particularly aggravating in an otherwise-enjoyable book).

          The timetable is like anything in fiction: yes, it can be done badly and invoke tedium, but timetabling as a narrative device can — can, mind, and it take great skill — be done very well, and is arguably one way the genius amateur trope extended into the “humdrums”.

          Hmmm, I might even do a post on this at some point, though, lawks, when I’ll have the time is another matter. Watch this space…

    • Oh, hey, I’ve finally gotten round to perusing my CADS 79 and I see there happene to be a piece in it on the crime fiction of Steven Sondheim! Do I have the flukiest timing, or what?

      • “…the crime fiction of Steven Sondheim”

        What?! Apart from this screenplay and the lyrics to Sweeney Todd what on Earth does that consist of? Has he written short stories?

          • Well, Sondheim and Perkins wrote at least one other screenplay together, though it was never produced or published. And I believe they did quite a bit of work on a third.

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