Its title is as awkward and unusual as its story, but the 1973 mystery thriller “The Last of Sheila” maneuvers through its clever twists and red herrings before finishing in a much different place than where it started. Clever is a good word to describe it. It paints itself as something routine and predictable only to pull the rug out from under the audience over and over again. And the best part is it works really well.
The film was produced and directed by Broadway choreographer Herbert Ross. This was only his third time in the director’s chair and several years before his most successful movie “Steel Magnolias”. Equally intriguing is the writing team of actor Anthony Perkins and composer Stephen Sondheim. It’s a surprisingly impressive collaboration. I wasn’t expecting such an intelligent, crafty, and unpredictable picture from such a unique creative trio.
The story opens with six people in the film business receiving invitations to join wealthy movie producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) on his yacht for a weekend on the French Riviera. The group includes screenwriter Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett), a washed up director Philip Dexter (James Mason), talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), movie starlett Alice Wood (Raquel Welch) and her manager/husband Anthony (Ian McShane).
There are two common threads that link the group. One is the pungent arrogance that surrounds each of these spoiled individuals. There is a haughty sense of self-importance and entitlement that makes them feel a bit like caricatures but it’s intentional and it makes more sense as the story plays out. Another common thread is that they were all together the night Clinton’s wife was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Needless to say that plays prominently in where the story goes.
To tell any more would be doing a disservice, but lets just say Sondheim and Perkins put together one heck of a parlor game involving both the characters and the audience. For the characters it is an intricate game put together by the enigmatic Clinton with his guests being his snooty and self-serving players. For the audience it becomes a dense and mesmerizing puzzle that takes one unconventional turn after another. It was hard to muster sympathy for these characters, but the slow and revealing leaks of information made each of them pretty fascinating. It also makes the story’s twisted and unexpected turns all the more satisfying.
“The Last of Sheila” will instantly strike you as a movie from the 1970s. That decade’s styles and sensibilities are all over it. But once you get to what matters – good characters, good concept, good storytelling – the movie sparkles. It does have subtle things to say particularly about the entertainment industry, but for me it was about the story and the way Ross, Perkins, and Sondheim deliver it. I’ve never heard many people speak of this film which is a shame. It is a thriller worth talking about.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS