Thursday, March 19, 2015

Blogorium Review: The Last of Sheila

 The Last of Sheila comes from an auspicious collection of talent to be as obscure as it is. Directed by Herbert Ross (Footloose, Funny Lady, Play It Again, Sam) with a screenplay by Steven Sondheim and Anthony Perkins(!), and starring James Coburn, Racquel Welch, James Mason, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, and a very young Ian McShane, the film is a whodunit of sorts, framed as a "revenge" story. It's relative obscurity - I only discovered it existed when it played as the second half of a double feature with Murder By Death and a friend mentioned it - might be credited to its length, or the cavalier way it dismisses a serious revelation about one of the main character (when it really shouldn't). The Last of Sheila never quite gels into a great murder mystery, but as a lark among friends or as a curio of 70s cinema, it's a fun curio.

 Clinton Green (Coburn) has invited his friends to join him on a yacht for a European tour and a "game." Many of his guest haven't seen each other since the Hollywood party one year ago that ended with the accidental death of Sheila (Yvonne Romain), Clinton's wife. However, they're lured back in by Clinton's promise to sell them the rights to her story as a film. Assembled on the yacht are the combination of screenwriter Tom (Benjamin), agent Christie (Dyan Cannon), director Philip (Mason), and actress Alice (Welch), along with Lee (Joan Hackett) and Anthony (McShane), Tom and Alice's significant others'. Green, known for his pranks, has designed The Sheila Green Memorial Gossip Game, wherein each player is assigned a card with a "secret" on it. As they travel around the south of France, Green will give them a clue that leads the players to a location with one of the secrets, and the person who finds it first gets a point. As his motley crew of contestants learn, each "secret" refers to another player, and one of them may, in fact, be Sheila's killer.

 (SPOILERS from here on out, unless otherwise noted)

 We only see two of the scavenger hunts based on the clues, because at the end of the second stage of the game, Clinton winds up deceased, with the perpetrator almost certainly back aboard the yacht along with the other contestants. Was it the Shoplifter? The Hit and Run Driver? The Homosexual? The Ex-Convict? The Little Child Molester? Wait... did I say Little Child Molester? Alas, I did, and while every other person involved in a secret crime has a monologue and subsequent conversation to address the shaming of their deed, somehow Ross, Perkins, and Sondheim sidestep the fact that a major character - in fact, the person who solves the mystery - is a child molester. A Little child molester, in order to fit into Green's scheme (the "secrets spell out S-H-E-I-L-A), and it's abundantly clear who it is when you remember how the character is introduced. It's no wonder his daughter is an alcoholic (the original card, which is replaced by a different one via Clinton's killer). See how quickly I transitioned away from it? I wasn't even trying to, because one of the main characters is a child molester, and it's handled no more delicately than by pushing it aside as though that's not important to the mystery.

 And, okay, it's not central to the mystery of who killed Sheila (which Clinton already knew), or necessarily who killed Clinton, but it's such a weird thing to gloss over when everybody else is raked over the coals because of having been in prison or being in a loveless marriage. It's even weirder when the discrepancy of why it's Little Child Molester and not just Child Molester: that turns out to be another part of Clinton's game. I don't even want to venture a guess how the "Little Child Molester" scavenger hunt would have played out, given how the first two were structured. Basically Clinton all but gives away who the card refers to when the first person arrives.

 His death happens through an unnecessarily elaborate search through a monastery, culminating in a disguised Clinton hiding in a confessional booth. Even if you're paying close attention to the scene when it happens, odds are you won't be able to figure out who the real killer was, and it isn't until you've had three flashbacks or so that everything adds up, and that's while the Child Molester is explaining it to the killer. Sorry, his first scene in the movie involves a little girl sitting on his lap! But, you know, no big deal. At least he wasn't the Informer. The ending is actually clever and more than a bit cynical, but The Last of Sheila spends nearly an hour sussing out who murdered Green, even if you noticed the murder weapon and got past the red herring(s). Much too much time is spent being suspicious of each other, while no real investigating happens. And then there's a fake-out "drawing room scene," resolution, and a second, actual "drawing room scene" followed by the ending. I'll give The Last of Sheila this: it has a great closing line, but it takes far too long to get there. Once Coburn exits the film, Mason and Benjamin do most of the heavy lifting, with the rest of the cast just hanging around.

 (SPOILERS mostly done)

 Sondheim and Perkins based Clinton Green's game on scavenger hunts they hosted in New York, and the film has the quality of something created as a lark. The mystery within a mystery, and the way they toy with the expectations of audiences is inventive, to a point, but it's a detour-heavy affair that gets more mileage from its cast and location. The Last of Sheila is a nice looking film, but it would be hard not to when set in the south of France. Having watched it, I can understand why I wasn't aware of its existence until very recently, but if you don't mind investing two hours for a debatable payoff, it's worth checking out. Fans of Coburn, Mason, or even McShane who are curious to see if he ever looked young (short answer: nope), will get a kick out of seeing them together, along with 1970s "That Guy" Richard Benjamin (if you've seen Love at First Bite, he's the romantic foil for George Hamilton).

 If you're a real trivia buff, also note that Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever) was the costume designer, and the closing song is performed by Bette Midler. Again, it's an impressive assemblage for a film that maybe ought to be better than it ultimately is. Then again, as a lark, it's a star-laden affair, in front of and behind the camera. Save it for a dark and stormy night, and kick back with a bottle of wine.

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