The Last of Sheila (1973): A Mystery Missing Its Columbo

Last_sheila_movieposter“That’s the thing about secrets. We all know stuff about each other; we just don’t know the same stuff.”

The Last of Sheila is an intricate murder mystery with origins in real-life parlor games put on by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim for some of their socialite friends in New York. While these mapped out scavenger hunts did not involve actual murder, they are easily adapted to fit such a storyline. Because all we need are a group of folks thrown together, some friendly competition involving misdirection, and a boatload of lies, and we are on our way.

James Coburn takes up his position as the grinning master of ceremonies inviting a group of his closest “friends” aboard his yacht. In the wake of his wife’s death from a hit-and-run driver, he plans The Sheila Green Memorial Gossip Game in her honor. Aside from being rather facetious, it becomes obvious it’s a chance to get some wicked revenge.

The rest of the cast reads easily enough. You have Dyan Cannon playing a bubbly talent agent modeled after Sue Mengers (her real-life agent), Richard Benjamin as a struggling screenwriter, and Joan Hackett as his well-off but generally sincere wife. Raquel Welch is her typically alluring self and Ian McShane fills in as her husband/talent manager. James Mason is our final guest bringing his gravitas as a veteran director, probably in the mold of Orson Welles.

Soon enough, they are all thrown together on the yacht, floating off the coast of France. The ever-conniving Clinton (Coburn) develops quite the complex ordeal to throw them into with each obliging player given a specific card because this is a game with double meaning. It is part leisure and the other more sinister aspect is meant to unveil deep dark secrets.

The first clue is a sterling key that sets them off exploring the local digs like giddy school children out for a lark. This is the fun and games portion. Then, the following afternoon, someone turns on the turbines causing a near-traumatic accident or a very insidious murder attempt.

The next locale for the escapades is a deserted island monastery meant to be the showcase for another clue or personal secret. But the frolicking goes awry when our master showman is found dead, brutally bludgeoned to death by a stone column. It becomes obvious one of our company is a murderer. It’s just a matter of deciphering who it might be.

Since this is a type of parlor game, it’s fitting everyone gets gathered together for the obligatory convening to begin sifting through the facts and slipping the pieces together. These new conjectures don’t keep another member from being left for dead in the bathtub. Our number of suspects is beginning to dwindle.

If it’s not exactly a false climax, it does feel like the picture peaks too early, and it kind of peters out. Because there are still some variables to plug in, but there’s nothing astonishing about the final resolutions.

What’s most important to the architects is the stalwartness of the story, making sure all the pieces fit together into a fundamentally sound puzzle. Unfortunately, the characters are then pushed to the fringes and become of lesser importance. When you’re boasting such a wide-ranging and potentially intriguing cast, it does feel like a bit of a waste.

The Last of Sheila is a tantalizing prospect with less than stellar results. The mysteries feel mostly compartmentalized, and they string us along without ever completely gripping us. This is no Agatha Christie who-done-it nor does it have the intriguing characterizations of a Columbo episode holding it together.

The star power is there but not the actual concern in the story. Because there is no Columbo to hold it together with levity and groggy charm. In fact, it’s as if the whole cast is filled out by Mystery Movie guest stars. Any of these players might have easily crossed over. Cannon does the most admirable job of bursting out of a ho-hum characterization to leave a real living, breathing impression.

But again, it is a story of first world problems, of Hollywood glamour, feuds, scandals, and ultimately, excess. Somehow the murders of such people in the context of this film, where we never truly get to know anyone, feels relatively pointless and blase at best. Because these are icy cold individuals. There is no emotion (only Hackett shows a sensitive side); everyone else feels hardened or fickle, made callous by the world and the lives they have chosen.

If it had dipped more deeply into the cynicism earlier, it might be different. But this is hardly a commentary. It’s merely a decent excuse to exercise some mental ingenuity for the benefit of an audience. This narrative could have been so much more, but we are forced to settle for something gleaming with star power and only moderately compelling as a mystery drama. Sometimes high expectations can sour an experience. The Last of Sheila would be another prime example of this phenomenon.

3/5 Stars