It’s such a cliche to say “they just don’t make them like that any more”, but with The Last of Sheila, they didn’t make them like that then, either. That’s what makes this mystery puzzle film such a gem.
Now, the DVD is back in print from Warner Archive, and bless them for doing so. When I went looking for a copy last year, it was regularly going for $40-80, but now, it’s yours for under $20. I recommend the purchase (and have just ordered myself a copy).
Where to start in talking about its charms? How about the outstanding cast? Everyone in it is just great. James Coburn is a powerful, malicious Hollywood producer who’s just invited a group of six people onto his yacht for a getaway. They’re going to play a scavenger hunt-style mystery game while docking in exotic ports like Cannes. (I believe the film was shot on location, too.) However, there’s a disturbing undercurrent with Coburn’s determination to reveal a lot of dirty secrets. His beloved wife was killed by a hit-and-run driver a year ago, you see, and he’s convinced one of his guests knows more about it than they’re saying.
The six pawns are Richard Benjamin (a failing writer bitter about living on his wife’s money); Joan Hackett (his wife); Raquel Welch (a bimbo starlet); a young Ian McShane (as her “manager”); James Mason (a director); and Dyan Cannon (as a super-agent). The roles allow for plenty of pointed commentary about the movie business and entertainment as an industry, coming out of an era (1973) where that kind of criticism was just gaining steam.
Then there’s the plot. The movie was written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, who ran these kinds of games at real-life parties. It definitely rewards attention, and one of the benefits to owning the film on disc is the ability to rewatch once you know the twists. The clues all fall together cleverly. It’s a pleasure to play along with a mystery film that relies on intellect instead of tricks for its suspense.
The DVD also has a commentary track (recorded by Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, and Raquel Welch sometime before the disc was first released in the early 2000s) that’s fun to listen to, as the stars recollect the filming experience. If you enjoy Hollywood self-examination and/or classically styled mystery movies, you should definitely order The Last of Sheila.