Cast & Crew
An eccentric movie producer-gamester invites six film industry friends to his yacht to play out one of his games, the goal of which is to reveal which of them killed his beloved, Sheila.
Edward A. Warschilka
The Last of Sheila
Anticipating this development by a year, The Last of Sheila (1973) offers a template for the genre's reinvention and even its self-parody with a complex whodunit set among the California jet set. A year after the death of a gossip columnist named Sheila Green, her widower, movie producer Clinton Green (James Coburn), assembles a sextet of friends at the Riviera aboard his yacht, naturally named Sheila as well. The guests include a washed-up director (James Mason), a blowsy agent (Dyan Cannon), a bombshell movie star (Raquel Welch), her swarthy husband (Ian McShane), a struggling screenwriter (Richard Benjamin), and his heiress wife (Joan Hackett). Clinton announces an elaborate scenario of game-playing involving the dispensation of a series of secret cards containing gossip items to be revealed one day at a time. However, murder strikes again and casts suspicion on everyone, all of whom - except for one - were present at the party prior to Sheila's death.
The Last of Sheila was born out of the fondness for game-playing shared by Broadway golden boy Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins, who would throw intricate puzzle parties for their well-heeled guests. Together they decided to write a murder mystery, originally setting its homicidal and scandal-drenched "truth games" at a snowed-in Long Island estate. However, everyone involved soon realized that a Riviera location would afford a much more pleasurable movie shoot, and the two men continued collaborating, often by long distance while Perkins was shooting Play It As It Lays . It would prove to be the sole original film screenplay for either of them, though both had enough experience to make this script an understandable compulsion. At the time of writing the film, Sondheim was beginning to develop his revolutionary "concept musical" ideas on Broadway, which had begun in 1970 with Company and was about to take an evolutionary leap forward with A Little Night Music  which also featured a love for sophisticated wordplay. Sondheim's avid love for crossword puzzles and games was enough to inspire playwright Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, which was partially written at Sondheim's home, and 22 years later, Sondheim tried unsuccessfully to pull off a stage whodunit with Getting Away with Murder, which closed after 17 performances.
Once a heartthrob of teenage girls, Perkins had made an increasingly unusual series of career choices after his iconic, shocking turn in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), including a pair of urbane thrillers for French suspense director Claude Chabrol, The Champagne Murders (1967) and Ten Days Wonder (1971). In the Perkins biography Split Image, the film's producer, Howard Rosenman, noted that Perkins "had the Olympian contempt of a really smart person for the kind of skullduggery and nightmarish obviousness of the business... I think [Tony and Stephen] both had a delicious time satirizing Hollywood." Interestingly, the book also notes an elaborate sequence scripted for the film but scrapped from filming in which Richard Benjamin's character is outed at a gay dance club courtesy of "a pornographic film projected on the disco wall," which would have surely jeopardized the film's PG rating. (Lest one worry that the film had been scrubbed of gay references, it closes with the song "Friends" by Bette Midler.) Not surprisingly, one of Perkins' first screen roles after the release of The Last of Sheila was, of course, as a twitchy American passenger in Murder on the Orient Express. Though nothing else was ever actually produced, Perkins and Sondheim did collaborate again on two screen treatments, including a Tommy Tune vehicle called The Chorus Girl Murders.
As unique as the co-scenarists of The Last of Sheila might be, the director, Herbert Ross, seems almost as unlikely. Herbert Ross made his feature film debut helming the widely criticized but rather charming musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1969, followed by two witty New York comedies (The Owl and the Pussycat  and Play It Again, Sam ) and the forgotten 1971 drama, T.R. Baskin. His gift for capturing verbal repartee is his greatest strength for The Last of Sheila, and he would only flirt with the mystery genre once again for another tricky bit of narrative gamesmanship, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution .
The filming of The Last of Sheila proved to be highly problematic, beginning with the sinking of the first yacht slated for the film's location en route to Nice near Mykonos; the smaller replacement ship then necessitated a complete overhaul of the cabin interior sets. Then the Arab terrorist organization Black September issued death threats against the production because it employed several Jewish actors, though no violence came to pass. Finally, Raquel Welch caused a public stir by walking off the film; accounts differ for her reasons, ranging from her desire to publicize the opening of her film Kansas City Bomber  to claims that Ross had attacked her. In either case, her collaborators were less than flattering, with Mason excoriating her in print as "the most inconsiderate actress" he had ever worked with, and Perkins offering the snarky comment, "She really should have done it closer to when the picture actually opens" to garner some useful publicity.
Despite its impressive pedigree, The Last of Sheila received mixed reviews and was a box office disappointment for Warner Bros.; Roger Ebert gave the film one of the most positive notices, hailing it as "a devilishly complicated thriller of superior class... comes out of a grand tradition of murder puzzles from such as Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr." Likewise, its screenplay won the Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay from the Mystery Writers of America, and it remains a cult favorite among mystery buffs as well as loyal TV and home video fans.
Producer: Herbert Ross
Director: Herbert Ross
Screenplay: Anthony Perkins, Stephen Sondheim
Cinematography: Gerry Turpin
Art Direction: Tony Roman
Music: Billy Goldenberg
Film Editing: Edward Warschilka
Cast: Richard Benjamin (Tom), Dyan Cannon (Christine), James Coburn (Clinton Green), Joan Hackett (Lee), James Mason (Philip), Ian McShane (Anthony), Raquel Welch (Alice), Yvonne Romaine (Sheila Green), Pierre Rosso (Vittorio), Serge Citon (Guido)
by Nathaniel Thompson
The Last of Sheila, DVD Audio Commentary with Richard Benjamin, Raquel Welch, and Dyan Cannon. Warner Bros., 2004.
Morley, Sheridan. James Mason: Odd Man Out. Harper & Row, 1990.
Winecoff, Charles. Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins. Dutton, 1996.
The Internet Movie Database
The Last of Sheila
Released in United States 1973
Released in United States March 1979
Released in United States 1973
Released in United States March 1979 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (FilmEssay: Misappreciated American Films) March 14-30, 1979.)