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; ‘And where do you live? 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 at at risk as they figure out who the killer is…
Sondheim is famously a 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. Yet of course we don’t, 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 culprit. 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.