Murder mystery maven and puzzle provocateur extraordinaire Stephen Sondheim collaborated with actor Anthony Perkins on The Last of Sheila, a twisty if ultimately overly verbose whodunit.
The Production: 3.5/5
Murder mystery maven and puzzle provocateur extraordinaire Stephen Sondheim collaborated with actor Anthony Perkins on The Last of Sheila, a twisty if ultimately overly verbose whodunit. Set among the show business types that both knew so well and directed by another show business baby Herbert Ross who had worked his way up from Broadway chorus dancer to now film director, The Last of Sheila hooks the viewer early on and offers a satisfactorily complex puzzle to solve before its leisurely pacing and overly wordy execution dilutes some of the fun of its unassailably intelligent plotting.
On the first anniversary of his wife Sheila’s (Yvonne Romaine) hit-and-run murder, movie producer Clinton Green (James Coburn) invites six of his show business chums on board his yacht named after his wife for a week of scavenger hunting mystery games in the south of France hoping to uncover some clues that might lead him to the identity of his wife’s killer. His suspects include screenwriter Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his delicate wife Lee (Joan Hackett), fading movie director Philip (James Mason), high-powered agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), and international screen star Alice (Raquel Welch) and her less well known manager/husband Anthony (Ian McShane). During the second night of the games, however, a murder is committed, and the spotlight of blame begins to shine on the remaining players, each hiding some guilty secrets.
Screenwriters Sondheim and Perkins have many tricks up their sleeves (little surprise they won that year’s Edgar Award for Best Mystery Screenplay presented by the Mystery Writers of America), and for much of the film, not everything is as it seems at first glance. The murder game they’ve devised with its cards filled with real-life secrets passed among the players lends a palpable air of tension to the proceedings, and despite the Riviera setting, the first two sites for solving the mysteries are rather eerie and nerve-jangling. Once the murder occurs and the game proper stops, however, the unraveling of that latest murder begins to hold center stage, a clever bait-and-switch but the moment where the film’s momentum comes to a dead halt. From then on (approximately halfway through the movie), talking replaces action giving director Herbert Ross precious little to do to improve the film’s increasingly laggard pacing and sedentary stars. Before then, in addition to the activities surrounding the scavenger hunt, we get a murder attempt at sea filmed provocatively from under water as the ship’s engine is suddenly started churning up the water and bringing all those in the sea ever-closer to the murderous whirling blades of the engine. A later tussle between accused and accuser snaps some vitality back into the film, too, but it’s over within seconds. Ross punctuates the accuser’s denouement with flashbacks to show us earlier clues we likely missed (Sidney Lumet was to handle this far more adroitly the next year in the brilliant Murder on the Orient Express), but it still amounts to a great deal of rather monotone chatter.
The all-star cast is appealing on paper, but only four really deliver the goods: Dyan Cannon is playing a variation of agent Sue Mengers for all its worth, and she’s hilariously animated and loads of fun. Richard Benjamin’s screenwriter always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else and has a firm handle on his character’s flaws. James Mason plays the unruffled director (now reduced to shooting dog food commercials) with his own patented unflappable ease while Joan Hackett’s loving wife always on the edge of losing her control is probably the most appealing of the players. James Coburn’s toothy producer is a bit over-the-top while Raquel Welch walks through her role with stilted line readings and a real lack of authority. Ian McShane brings nothing memorable to the underwritten role of Welch’s manager.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Though the transfer is perfectly clean with no age-related artifacts, sharpness is not consistent throughout the presentation. Apart from soft-focused close-ups of the ladies, other scenes likewise don’t dial in the detail as we might expect though there are great portions of the movie that are perfectly sharp and most ideal. Color hues are nicely saturated without going overboard, and skin tones are very lifelike. The movie has been divided into 27 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is unremarkable and often underwhelming. The volume levels are such that dialogue is sometimes hard to hear without cranking up levels that throw other parts of the soundfield out of balance. Billy Goldenberg’s background score and the sound effects are blended professionally, but the dialogue levels need to be adjusted somehow for better overall effect.
Special Features: 2/5
Audio Commentary: stars Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon sit together and reminisce about the making of the film pointing out things they remembered with fondness or regret. Raquel Welch adds additional comments edited in later. As the film runs, the stars get involved in the story and forget to talk making the latter half of the commentary rather lackluster.
Theatrical Trailer (3:01, HD)
Herbert Ross’s The Last of Sheila gives the murder mystery genre a jolt of new blood with its screenplay by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, but its cleverness and nastiness notwithstanding, the film could have been better with faster pacing and tighter storytelling.
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