The Last of Sheila

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As namechecked by Rian Johnson while out on the promotion trail, The Last of Sheila looks like a good chunk of the inspiration for his Glass Onion: a Knives Out Mystery. Adding to its attraction are the names of the bizarre writing team behind this whodunit from 1973: Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim.

It was the only screenplay either of them would ever write and sprang from the murder-mystery evenings they used to put on for a bit of fun in New York. The director Herbert Ross, then probably most famous for directing Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam, was at one of them and suggested Hopkins and Sondheim work one of their soirées up into a film. Et voilà, The Last of Sheila.

In Agatha Christie style it starts with a bunch of people being brought together in a remote place. Later, these characters will be put through their paces. Even later there will be death followed by dénouement.

The characters are all Hollywood types – a director (James Mason), an actress (Raquel Welch), an agent (Dyan Cannon), a writer (Richard Benjamin), plus the writer’s other half (Joan Hackett) and the actress’s current squeeze (Ian McShane). The big wheel calling them all to assemble on his luxury yacht on the Cote d’Azur is a producer played by James Coburn. And he’s summoned them because a year before, at the party which opens the film, his partner, Sheila, was knocked down and killed by a car speeding away from his house. Now Clinton (Coburn) wants to make a film about the dead woman called The Last of Sheila. And the assembled talent is there to help him, or that’s the story he’s telling him.

But to keep things lively, and in a plot turn Rian Johnson will borrow 50-ish years later, Clinton punctuates this working holiday with a series of little murder-mystery games for his guests’ enjoyment (or otherwise). To get these going he hands a card to each of his guests. You are a homosexual, says one. You are a little child molester, says another. You are an ex-convict, yet another. And so on. The overall aim of the games, says Clinton, is to pin each card to its rightful owner. Clinton has dirt on all of them – each has a secret they’d rather not share.

However, in time-honoured fashion, things do not go quite the way either Clinton or his guests imagine.

James Coburn smiles roguishly
One of many roguish smiles from James Coburn

Watching The Last of Sheila the “whodunit” question naturally raises itself. Namely, which bits of the screenplay are by Perkins and which by Sondheim. The answer is: we don’t know. But there is a spectacular left-field death at one point which could have been inspired by Psycho, Perkins’s biggest role. And the dénouement taking up the entire last third of the film, when Poirot-like deduction is twisted into unusual shapes, does seem familiar from Sondheim’s playful approach to his musicals, as the players in Clinton’s game line up to out themselves as queer, bent, crooked etc, rather than be left holding the card identifying Sheila’s killer.

It’s ingenious. It’s playful. Sondheim and Perkins were probably fans of Charade.

There’s no people like show people and Hopkins and Sondheim enjoy themselves painting these Hollywooders as vain, self-glorifying egomaniacs more concerned about their hair than guilt or innocence. In a mixed cast in terms of ability, Coburn, in an array of nice jumpers, flashes his roguish smile as often as he can, though Dyan Cannon and James Mason are the best things in it, she as the world-weary agent, and he as a director whose career has been on the skids for a long time but who still has a sharp mind and an eagle eye.

Meta-referential in the days before that was even really a thing, and shot a bit more loosey-goosey and handheld than was usually the case back in the early 1970s, The Last of Sheila spins the wheels a touch in its central section but redeems itself in its last third, when reveal follows reveal, with Perkins and Sondheim saving their best ta-daa meta-joke right for the end. You have been entertained.

The Last of Sheila – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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