Saturday, 20 July 2013

Non-singing detective… The Last of Sheila (1973)

Raquel again...
There’s a genre of seventies film that tries to walk the fine line between comedy and crime. Pretty Maids all in a Row is one example as is this film, written by Stephen Sondheim in cahoots with one Anthony Perkins.
There are no songs from Sondheim but there is a Perkins-like psycho and the aim of the game is to work out who this is.

Mason, Welch, Hackett, McShane, Cannon and Benjamin
In this twisted Christie mystery the main character Clinton Greene (James Coburn) gathers together all of his chief suspects for the hit and run killing of his wife a year earlier. They are to spend a week on his yacht and are all assigned cards denoting a crime a member of the party has supposedly committed. No gets the card for their particular guilty secret and the aim of the game is to work out who actually did what in a series of stage nightly mysteries… a bit like a host a murder party only after the fact.

Career trajectories...
The guests are a mix of high-powered creatives, obviously drawn from the experiences of the two writers… there’s the disappointed writer Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin in classic period earnest-moustache…) and his quietly uptight wife Lee (Joan Hackett), the good time girl with a heart of gold Christine (the always interesting Dyan Cannon) and the past-his-best director Philip Dexter (James Mason) who is currently reduced to filming commercials.

Clinton eyes his guests
They are joined by the up and coming actress with a great future behind her Alice Wood (Raquel Welch) and her cynical Brit of a husband Anthony (Ian McShane), eager to get ahead but weighed down by lack of actual talent.

Clinton has lured them along by saying he wants them to help make a movie about his late wife… the irony is all on him. The characters gather on the boat and are ushered into their cabins, cracks in each relationship readily apparent.

Clinton has filled his boat with games for all to play but his main recreation will be watching them struggle to untangle each evening’s mystery.

On the first night the party is sent ashore with keys and have to discover the door they open, here they’ll find the clue to one of the crimes and if the person holding that “crime card” finds out first the game is over and they get to keep their secret… or rather their unknown neighbour’s secret.

The second night involves a trip to a deserted monastery which is far more unsettling all round with Clinton having set up tape machines throughout the darkened ruins to freak his guests out. But, whilst this has the desired effect, there is a genuinely shocking development as Clinton is found dead, seemingly crushed beneath a falling column…

Shaken, the guests try to work out what has happened with Tom and Philip leading the investigation. It looks like foul play after they work out that the fatal slab of masonry was from the base of the column and not the top…

Twisted Christie...
Panic starts to settle in by Tom takes charge by asking the guests to reveal what their crime was hoping by elimination to work out who had the most to lose and, by implication, who must the killer be!

This leads to the shocking revelation that Tom’s own wife had been driving the car that killed Sheila… a complete accident from an alcoholic driver but surely she can’t be the killer as well?

There are plenty more twists and turns in this entertaining albeit slightly cheesy story.

Dyan Cannon
It’s a stellar cast and all perform well with Welch being especially interesting given the “single-tracked” nature of most of her early career. Here she is relatively subdued although naturally she gets to show off more in her bikini along with Cannon.

Joan Hackett and Raquel Welch
The dialogue is crisp and quick as these old friends barely maintain civility and look for their main chances and you’d expect nothing less from a lyricist of Sondheim’s pedigree. And that edge of darkness you’d guess comes fresh from the talented Mr Perkins…

Oh and in a shock twist, there is singing, as Bette Midler pops up over the end credits belting out Friends… never had the context for that song: now I understand!

Dusty verdict: Certainly worth keeping for a rainy day when you need something well-crafted but un-demanding!

It’s available on DVD from Amazons but a bit of a collector's item from the looks of it.

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