A year ago, tragedy struck when Sheila (Yvonne Romain), the wife of Hollywood big shot Clinton Green (James Coburn) stormed out of a swanky party there one night and set off to walk home in high dudgeon. However, she never got there for a speeding car hit her, killing the woman instantly and the driver did not stop to take the blame, it's a mystery that has not been solved though Clinton doesn't seem to have let it change his manipulative personality any. As his circle of friends find out when he invites them aboard his large yacht in the South of France, somewhere they are all eager to visit since he has great influence in showbusiness and could theoretically secure them major deals - but it's not deals he has in mind.
The Last of Sheila could have been such an act of self-indulgence that alienation in the audience may well have been the only result, based as it was on a complex parlour game of whodunnit played by celebrated composer Stephen Sondheim and movie star Anthony Perkins which was designed as a treat for their friends, also in the entertainment industry, when they were over for socialising. This led some commentators to ponder just who the star-studded cast were intended to represent, if anyone, and you could tie yourself in knots without specialist knowledge attempting to second guess Sondheim and Perkins, whose only screenwriting collaboration this was. Better to sit back and enjoy a movie that did its level best to outdo Agatha Christie.
And to an extent if it didn't beat the Grand Dame of mystery fiction, it came very close to equalling her as while movies of her books and stories had been successes, as were various television shows, none of them could ever be regarded as all-time classics in comparison with the text they sprang from, they were at best merely very good facsimiles. In this case, there was no such original book to compare it to, and thus it felt far more like a movie even if it shared various aspects common to the Christie adaptations, such as the starry actors or picturesque locations. But what this had over what could be rather stuffy versions of Christie was an acid wit coupled with a sense of glee: Clinton may be playing games with his guests, but the script was playing games with the audience too, and if anything the latter were more willing participants.
By all accounts this was not the easiest of shoots, with personality clashes and poor weather - not to mention a bomb threat - all grinding down the production, which made it all the more remarkable that something as light on its feet was the result. You might be able to detect that Raquel Welch (as movie star Alice) was not enjoying herself, yet that translated into a rather haunted quality contributing quite nicely to her character, though as far as the actresses went everyone was acted off the screen by a rampant Dyan Cannon, relishing her trashy agent persona and garnering most of the biggest laughs: it was probably her best role and proof she could really attack her work with great aplomb when given the chance, a chance Sondheim and Perkins generously gave her.
Of the others in the party, Richard Benjamin was the writer's block-afflicted screenplay author Tom who is married to Lee, played by Joan Hackett, both of them convincing as a married couple whose relationship is feeling the strain, and Ian McShane was Anthony, Alice's overprotective husband and agent. Adding a touch of class was James Mason as a director down on his luck (he's first seen at work on a dog food commercial), though when you find out what his secret is you may be surprised about how blasé the tone was, not only about the secrets all the guests share, but the fact murder was involved into the bargain. Yet for all the breezy surface, there was a garnet-hard centre to the movie where the whodunnit conundrums Clinton sets up for them to solve barely disguises a streak of sadism in that he is getting everyone where he wants them, just one step away from grovelling for his assistance, and you had the impression The Last of Sheila was more observant about Hollywood connections than it might admit. It has rightly become a cult film, it really is rather splendid. Music by Billy Goldenberg.