Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Trailer Tuesday: THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973)

Directed by: Herbert Ross.
Written by: Anthony Perkins & Stephen Sondheim..
Starring: Richard Benjamin, Raquel Welch, James Coburn, Ian McShane, Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Joan Hackett.
Produced by: Herbert Ross .
Music by: Billy Goldenberg, with the song “Friends” by Bette Midler.
Production Design by: Ken Adam - all of the great James Bond films.



THE LAST OF SHEILA is one of my favorite films, and arguably the best mystery film ever made (and if you want to argue about it - head to the comments section!). Mystery films are a dead genre now, and even in those years when they were popular, they were not that popular. This film comes from a point in the 1970s where MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and CHINATOWN were hits on the big screen (with a bunch of Agatha Christie films popping up afterwards), and shows like ELLERY QUEEN on the small screen. Whenever I say that Mystery Films Are Dead, a bunch of people chime in with the titles of cop shows... which are not mysteries. Mysteries are an audience participation genre - and the best example of that is probably the ELLERY QUEEN show, where just before the final commercial Ellery or the announcer would tell the audience that they have all of the clues to solve the crime - all of the evidence - and during the commercial break you were supposed to be the detective and explain to your family who did it and why and what all of the evidence that *proves* that they are the killer before the commercials are over and Ellery Queen brings all of the suspects together and does his version. You didn’t *guess* who did it, you *deduced* who did it using the evidence you were shown. Your job as a reader or a viewer in a mystery is to pay attention to the clues and motives and knowledge of means and each suspect’s opportunities and figure out who done it...



Which is why the genre is either dead or back for a few years and then dead again. The audience has to *work at it*... and most people don’t really want to think in the cinema. In fact, most development executives don’t want to have to think while reading a script. Every time I sell a mystery script, the first thing that happens in rewrites is a “mysterectomy” where the mystery and clues are removed and it is turned into a straight thriller. That way the director and prop guy and everyone else doesn’t have to worry how many martini glasses on the table have lipstick marks in every scene. But for some reason, in the 1970s, the genre was hot and people *wanted* to solve the puzzles... and THE LAST OF SHEILA was made.

It’s an original Screenplay by Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates) and Stephen Sondheim (a bunch of Broadway musicals like WEST SIDE STORY) who may have been a couple at the time, and if you look at the relationship between the Richard Benjamin character and the James Coburn character, you might wonder if there may be some autobiographical elements in there. I have no idea, but Sondheim *was* a puzzle nut - and so is Coburn’s character. The film was directed by Herbert Ross, FOOTLOSE, GOODBYE GIRL, PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, and a million other big hits... And the cast is amazing - you may not realize that Richard Benjamin was a *huge* movie star at the time, he was the lead in WESTWORLD! The *star*! You know who James Coburn and Raquel Welch and James Mason are, Dyan Cannon was a star - and once married to Cary Grant - she is still alive and *hot* at 81!, Joan Hackett played the “nice girl” lead in a bunch of movies like SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF, and the fairly young new face was some intense British actor named Ian McShane... The plot is clever, the dialogue is clever and it’s a blast to watch. And it’s a movie industry story as well as being a mystery!



Egomaniacal and cruel big shot film producer Clinton Green (James Coburn) has a party at his mansion in the Hollywood Hills... he is probably the most hated man in Hollywood, and lives to make people squirm. There’s a great shot where we start in a luxury car where the driver is smoking a joint, and it is passed from Parking Valet to Parking Valet until we can see through the mansion window, where Clinton and his wife Sheila (Yvonne Romain) are fighting... then storms out of the house and down the winding road... where she is hit and killed by a car. Great shot of her corpse reflection as the car backs up to see if she is dead or alive before speeding off. The police never find the car or discover who was driving. It is an unsolved crime, and the seed from which this whole film grows.

One year later, Clinton invites a group of Hollywood types to spend summer on his yacht in the Mediterranean playing games and soaking up the sun... all of them were at that party where Sheila was killed... all of them are suspects in her death. Clinton types the name on the invitation, and then we are introduced to the character in their natural habitat...

Big time agent Christine (Dyan Cannon) used to be fat, and this is a great performance - she *acts* fat, even though she’s hot. The role may have been written for a plump actress, but Cannon plays it as a recent Jenny Craig grad who just knows she’s going to put on all of the weight in the near future - she’s hitting on all of the men, and acting really insecure. This counters her tough-gal occupation, and she is introduced in her office barking orders followed by “Kiss, kiss” - insincere manners. Totally Hollywood!



Alice, (Raquel Welch) as the hot movie star who is no longer in her 20s, but is still a star. But for how long? Welch will remind you of Julia Roberts today - at that strange age where you don’t know what’s going to happen to her career. Is she going to play *moms*? Is she going to become a character actor? What happens when you hit your “hot babe” pull date? She is recently married to...

Anthony, (Ian McShane) is Alice’s super intense Manager/Husband and great as a brawler, an insecure slice of beefcake. They are introduced in the airport and Alice is mobbed by Paparazzi... and Anthony actually slugs a photographer and breaks his camera and then slugs someone else. This guy can not keep his temper under control, and when Alice tries to be apologetic, he scolds her - these people will ruin her image!

Philip (James Mason) a once famous film director who is now doing TV commercials and not liking it. Introduced shooting an oatmeal commercial with a bunch of bratty little girls, one of them sits on his lap... and pees on him. Philip is always aloof but never mean - and Mason is one of those actors who can deliver any line and make it sing. Philip is floating along on some higher level than everyone else - he’s a director! that’s a step down from God - but at the same time, he is afraid he might not land a job directing Clinton’s next film.

Tom (Richard Benjamin) is the screenwriter, who is broke and really needs a job... his last gig was doing on set rewrites on a low budget spaghetti western. It’s strange to think that Benjamin was a star once because he’s so unlike what we think of as a star today... but he’s an everyman when that was popular. When I first saw this film, I was a kid and wanted to be a screenwriter - so this was the perfect hero. But his character Tom is a “cautionary tale” about screenwriters. He has a stack of scripts that haven’t sold - including “Freak Show”, which he would love to sell to Clinton. He is currently living off his wife...

Lee (Joan Hackett), whose family has been in the film biz for generations and she has childhood memories of sitting on Mason’s lap. Lee’s family money ($5 million in 1973 money) has been supporting Tom while he tries to sell a script. She says paying for everything isn’t a problem... but you can see on both of their faces that it really is. Both characters are introduced at her luxurious home, where he’s laying around on the sofa instead of writing and she is drinking non-alcoholic beverages.



So those are the guests on the cruise, our suspects - each was there the night Sheila was killed by the hit and run driver, and did I mention the games? On the first day of the cruise everyone is given a card with the name of a criminal on it, like “The Shoplifter” - none of the other players knows what criminal is on your card. When the yacht docks at some exotic locale, Clinton gives the group a clue at exactly 8pm, and then each of them scrambles to follow the clue to some other clue and find the Shoplifter’s Lair before everyone else. So the clue in the Shoplifter game is a silver key marked Sterling 18k. What does it mean? This is a French port, so one of the players realizes that French for key is “Clef” - and there’s a jazz club with that name... Others think the “sterling” on a silver key is the clue. Everyone has a theory... and they follow the clue leads to a clue leads to a clue.

There’s a great bit in this game where a tourist couple wandering through the village keeps crossing paths with each of the players - connecting them with each other.



Once you find the Shoplifter’s Lair there is a clue with the identity of whoever holds The Shoplifter card. It’s a crime scene with a dead detective (dummy) and clues to the killer. You know that the criminal is a Shoplifter, because all of the clothes and other items in the room still have their price tags on them. Follow the clues and you will find which one of our players has the Shoplifter Card... and you get points. “Everything with Clinton is points,” Tom says. Once the person holding The Shoplifter card finds the Lair, the game is over - a sign is placed at the Shoplifter’s Lair that says The Game Is Over - and everyone else is a loser. No points for them! Oh, and there’s a time limit - when the boat headed back out to the yacht leaves, you’d better be on it!

There is a chart of who has won and lost each round in the yacht’s cabin, and the person who solves the most games is the ultimate winner (and may end up with a job on Clinton’s next film). If you have The Shoplifter card, you want to solve it before everyone else so that the game is over and you are the only winner of that round. A fun little game for rich Hollywood types to play, except - did I mention the cruel streak?



Each of the crimes on the cards are things a member of the group has actually been accused of. As is explained a bit later - Clinton wouldn’t give the actual shoplifter The Shoplifter card, because everyone would get angry and quit. So no one knows the cruel element of the game until enough games are played that the pattern appears. And that is when the real fun begins... because some of the crimes on the cards are more than just embarrassing, they are blackmail material.

You are a Shoplifter.
You are a Homosexual.
You are an Informant.
You are an Ex-Convict.
You are a Little Child Molester.

Oh, and one of the cards says You are a Hit And Run Killer on it.



So Clinton’s real game is to expose Sheila’s killer at the end of the cruise, while ruining everyone’s lives along the way. “That’s the thing about secrets. We all know stuff about each other, we just don’t know the same stuff,” as Alice says... she was actually once busted for shoplifting early in her career, and it was covered up. Tension builds and soon there are attempts on people’s lives - a really frightening scene where someone turns on the ship’s propellers while Christine is swimming near the rear of the yacht and she is swept towards the giant rotating blades!



But this story isn’t just a murder mystery, it’s also a showbiz story! And each of these folks being tortured by Clinton’s game also wants to be in his new movie - the story of his dead wife to be titled “The Last Of Sheila”. Each of the players is competing with each other for the attention of the most hated man in Hollywood, and backstabbing each other to climb over each other’s corpse to reach the top - a job on this proposed film about the murder victim. If you are in the business, or just a big enough movie fan to get the jokes, it’s a lot of fun as it skewers the film business... especially those second tier studio flicks with stars who are trying to hold on to their stardom and directors and writers who are no longer on their way up...

Super intense Anthony is not very good at kissing ass, but does his best...” My aspirations do run closer to the production end of things, if you know what I mean. What would you say, and please be absolutely frank, to me asking you for an associate producership on this upcoming film?” What Clinton would say is - a humiliating fake crying sound, boo-hoo-hoo, that morphs into laughter. He cuts off Anthony’s balls in front of everyone else. And that makes the others both afraid of Clinton and happy that with Anthony out of the running, maybe they will win Clinton’s favor. It’s vicious!

Buy King Kong DVDs

Okay, someone is murdered in addition to long dead Sheila (or it wouldn’t be much of a movie) at the halfway point, and the director and screenwriter partner up to solve the murder in a Holmes & Watson kind of thing. The screenwriter, Tom, leading the investigation... which only makes sense because the screenwriter is the brains of any film. But the director, Philip, actually finds the big clue at an unexpected moment. The way these two work together is great, and James Mason has played Watson a few years later in MURDER BY DECREE.

The great thing about this film is that it completely plays fair - the audience can play along and solve the murder themselves. The clues are all there. In fact, the great thing about the ending when Tom and Philip are taking it clue-by-clue explaining who did it and how, is that they show you a clip from the movie you have already seen... and this time you notice the killer picking up the murder weapon! Before, you saw the exact same piece of film and didn’t notice it. (Though the new piece of film continues to show the killer actually pocketing it... the original clip stopped just before they put it in their pocket.) But everything was right there on film and you could have easily followed the clues to the killer. Ellery Queen could have popped up before the end and said you had all of the information to solve the crime. The film clips we have already seen are the reason why I love this film because I was paying attention and missed some of the clues. In the cinema, you wonder if the clip is the same in the denouement on video you can literally zip back and compare! Dang - the killer used that amazing skill earlier in the film!

And one of the great things about how this story plays fair, is that there are three different solutions to the murder in the film - the first one makes sense if you noticed some of the clues, the second one if you noticed most of the clues, and the last if you noticed all of the clues. That way we have different prime suspects you can build a case for, and we can have an obvious suspect and a least likely suspect and still have a twist ending with the actual killer. We also have Sheila’s murder and the victim halfway through the story - they may or may not have been killed by the same person. So even if you are a mystery fan, there are all kinds of variables that have been carefully set up to throw you off the track!



There is a great scene where they lay all of their cards on the table and we see the secret crimes for the first time... and Tom asks each to pick the card that is their secret. Needless to say, no one wants to admit to being any of those things. So there are disputes over who *wants to be* the Homosexual - which isn’t nearly as bad as a Child Molester or a Hit And Run Killer. And then there’s a fight over who gets to be the Ex-Convict! These characters are all clever and witty, but none are very nice (except Welch’s Alice, who is way too sweet to be a sexy movie star... and that’s what makes the character interesting). Each character is well rounded to begin with, and once you discover who has what secret, you see realize small things in their personality have set these revelations up. They are twists, but completely logical. Once the Hit And Run Killer is revealed, you can watch the film again and if you focus on that character you not only can see all of the clues... you can see a great performance by that actor. In the background of scenes they react to discussion of Sheila differently than other characters. You don’t notice this first time through, but it’s an amazing performance.

Another great element of this screenplay is that the title, “The Last Of Sheila”, is kind of “punned” throughout the story. It has different meanings at different times. So it’s the death of Clinton’s wife, it’s the title of the movie he is planning to make, the yacht is the “Sheila” so it is where Christine is almost mangled by the propellers, and a secret clue to the killer... part of Clinton’s cruel games.



This is one of the films I use as an example in SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING along with THE VERDICT on how to not lose the audience when your identification character becomes a suspect. When the hero may be the villain. Usually in a mystery, like MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, the detective is not a suspect. But here, both our Holmes and our Watson have great motives and enough clues to make us wonder if they are going to be revealed as the killer. And because we have a shallow suspect pool, there is a character in this story who we have grown to like... who ends up being a killer. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but the film manages to pull off the seemingly impossible task of *not losing the audience* after this killer is revealed. This story walks a dangerous tight-rope and doesn’t fall, which is a miracle. Great writing skills involved in this.

And the locations are fantastic - one of the games takes place in an abandoned monastery on a tiny island at night, with only candles to illuminate the dark spooky hallways. It's a great creepy location, and all of the players are dressed as monks so you can not tell them apart. This sequence is almost like a horror story - lots of spooky atmosphere and scares. Though most of the story is on a yacht in the Mediterranean - beautiful and fun - the games are at night and in interesting locations like the monastery.

And quotable dialogue: “The harder you try to keep a secret in, the more it wants to get out.”



What is frightening is that Hollywood wants to remake this film... as a comedy! Huge mistake! The best way to remake this film - use the original screenplay and do not change a single word. Maybe hire a typist to change any anachronisms, but DO NOT HIRE A SCREENWRITER because they may change something that is already perfect. Of course, Hollywood doesn’t do that, so they will probably hire some version of this movie’s Tom to do a rewrite that isn’t nearly as good as the original. The recent remake of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS turned it into an action flick at times, because mysteries are a hard sell today... so maybe they should just put off any remake until mysteries come back into fashion? Then they don’t need to make it as a comedy or an action film, they can just make it as a mystery?

THE LAST OF SHEILA is a great mystery film, but if you don’t want to play along and solve the crime like Ellery Queen, it’s a vicious look at Hollywood with a bunch of great performances... and starring that guy who starred in WESTWORLD. Warner Archive has it on DVD, sold at Amazon and other fine retailers.

- Bill

1 comment:

Virginia Shine said...

Wow that film sounds like fun to me! With VR films being developed I think a mystery you were enveloped or immersed in would make for an interesting Saturday night out. Seems like a natural extension of these escape room places as a form of interactive entertainment.

eXTReMe Tracker