Neglected Films No.9 - 'The Last Of Sheila'

Christopher Fowler
There are only a handful of really successful whodunnits on film. I retain a soft spot for Sleuth (the original, not the appalling remake) even though advancements in makeup effects have ruined the plot's big reveal. Who can resist Olivier's waspish snob asking working-class Michael Caine if he lives 'above, behind or below your shop?' However, the single greatest whodunit on film is never acknowledged. It's this, made in 1973, and stars James Mason, Raquel Welch, James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, In McShane and Dyan Cannon, and was written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim. A movie producer's wife is killed in a hit and run accident. One year later, the producer invites the six people he suspects on board his yacht - 'It's the anniversary of the night Sheila got bounced into the bushes,' as Cannon puts it - and as they sail along the coastline of the French Riviera they play a murder game designed to unveil the culprit. Except that the game goes wrong, and there's a bizarre murder while everyone is dressed as monks. But others are at risk as they figure out who the killer is... Sondheim was famously an esoteric puzzle player, and apparently the first draft ran to six hours. Even now, the film is so stuffed with clues, red herrings, misinterpretations, switched identities, wordplay and wit that one viewing isn't enough. The killer is also hidden in other ways and even put up on the screen early on, for all to see, plus it's woven into the soundtrack on no less than four occasions. Yet of course we don't see it, because as Edgar Allen Poe knew, the greatest secrets are those hidden in plain sight. Also, because the suspects are all movie industry insiders, there are lots of superbly mean-spirited digs at Hollywood, culminating in a genuine fate worse than death for the killer. And it plays fair, so long as you keep an eye on the keys, the cards, the cocktails and that cigarette! Of course, the whole thing now looks very seventies, which works even more in its favour. I got an added buzz because it was filmed in my old hometown in France. If you love whodunnits, this is utterly irresistible.


Lostintown (not verified) Tue, 24/07/2012 - 11:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've always loved this film. A great blend of humour and murder not unlike some books that I could mention. It's basically an "old dark house" murder mystery that the viewer has a chance of solving!


David F (not verified) Tue, 24/07/2012 - 15:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm glad to know that there are other people out there who both know and love The Last of Sheila.

James Coburn had a habit of being in underrated films (like The Internecine Project, which has always been a favourite of mine). This one also showed how good Richard Benjamin (who never really got enough decent work) could be when given a chance.

Neil Williamson (not verified) Tue, 24/07/2012 - 15:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This is a film I've been meaning to get hold of for years. The combination of one of my heroes (Sondheim), several of my favourite actors and the whodunnit genre (in addition to Sleuth I also have a soft spot for And Then There Were None, among others), but SOMEHOW I've never managed to sit down and watch it.

Thanks for the prompt - it has now been ordered.

snowy (not verified) Tue, 24/07/2012 - 18:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sadly it appears to be unavailable in regions other than region 1. Though it can be had as a legal download from a certain large online shop. (Perhaps worse may be the news that New Line have the remake rights.)

If you like your whodunnits on the more campy end of the spectrum and if you have never seen them, then Neil Simons' Murder by Death, might appeal. It has a similarly starry cast, including the original Bride of Frankenstein. In a story that puts all the world greatest detectives in one place.

Or even Clue, set in the McCarthy era, and loosely framed in characters and settings from the board game. It starts with a straight face but spirals off in to a classic farce. It also had a novel twist in it's original theatrical release, a trick that has never been repeated.

Colin Quinton (not verified) Tue, 24/07/2012 - 21:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

An absolute gem of a film that I can remember first seeing on TV one Saturday night with my parents in the 70s. The whole murder game just seems so much fun I'd loved to have taken part (well, without the threat of being murdered myself!) but as has been mentioned, the DVD is currently only region 1. And the thought of a remake...
And I agree with Snowy and recommend 'Murder by Death' (and although perhaps not as funny as it would like to be, there are lots of quotable lines) and 'Clue', which is just a mad idea. If your French is up to it, 'Mon Petit Doigt M'a Dit' and 'Le Crime Est Notre Affaire' are fun adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. Oh, and 'April Fool's Day' (1986, not the recent remake) is a great slasher-with-a-twist film.

Christopher Fowler Wed, 25/07/2012 - 09:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Why did the French Christie films never open anywhere else? I loved them both...

Helen Martin (not verified) Wed, 25/07/2012 - 20:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You mentioned The Last of Sheila some time ago (I can't imagine meeting it elsewhere) so I borrowed it from the library. It is a wonderful film and you're right about the seventies styling making it. It was a whoop from beginning to end.