Whodunit?!? Was it the suspicious relative who stands to earn millions of dollars on someone's death? Was it a hired gun? Oh, the murder mystery, where you can throw a long list of characters/suspects into one story, and let the chaos ensue. There are comedies like Clue, dramas like Murder on the Orient Express, and somewhere in between the two genres, 1973's The Last of Sheila.
It has been a full year since the death by hit-and-run of the wife of powerful Hollywood producer Clinton Green (James Coburn), and he's got a plan. Green has invited six friends of both his and his dead wife to a week-long vacation in the Mediterranean on his expansive yacht. All of them with different motivations and reasonings, they all agree. Green has a complicated scavenger hunt for them that will take them to six different ports, all to see who can figure out the end game first. But as the clues come together, the guests begin to realize there may be something more sinister going on.
For the last couple of years, I've been aware of this 1973 murder mystery with a touch of comedy amidst a much darker undertone. I'll get into it more in a bit, but the star power is impressive so it would be hard to completely miss it. From writers Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins (yes, the actor) comes a script that is very smart, very clever and very entertaining. The game turns into a genuine mystery as a second murder comes into question. It's fast paced though, and the first hour is basically perfect as clues start to come together about what exactly Green is up to.
And what is his plan? The Hollywood producer has issued each of his guests a notecard with a single message; "I am a....." They seem like personality traits taken from the ether, but the guests begin to figure out that Green has identified very specific traits from each of his guests, one more embarrassing than the others. One clue is the worst though. "I am a hit and run killer." Does Clinton Green hope to reveal the identify of his wife's murderer? The scavenger hunt provides two great mood-setting scenes, equal parts dark humor and then just plain old darkness. It's clever without being too clever, and in tone alone, it's different from basically any other murder mystery I've ever seen. Win-win.
Now onto that cast, and no James Coburn is not the only star. This is a part that's pitch perfect for him. He's likable, he's charming, and he's an a-hole. His Clinton Green knows how to get under someone's skin like he's being paid to do it. By the 1970s, Coburn seemed to specialize in these amoral characters with questionable....well, everything. Green lures his guests in with the promise of possibly producing a movie about his wife, and he wants them all involved. There's Tom (Richard Benjamin), a screenwriter fallen on tough times, and his wife, Lee (Joan Hackett), Christine (Dyan Cannon), a talent agent who's had a relationship with Clinton in the past, Philip (James Mason), a director now forced to direct TV commercials, and Anthony (Ian McShane), an assistant/agent for his movie star wife, Alice (Raquel Welch). Not a weak performance in the bunch.
From here on in, I continue admitting that I liked this movie a lot and will give it a positive rating. But following my enjoyment from the first hour, I didn't go along as much for the second hour. The story takes a very surprising twist around the 60-70 minute mark that I didn't see coming in the least. The remainder of the story twists, turns, veers, U-turns and brakes all over the place. It all comes together in a long, detailed and fast-moving scene late as everything comes together, but all I could think was that I was missing something. Definitely an ending (and its build-up) that would probably improve on multiple viewings. I'll add it to the list, but for now, I very much enjoyed my first viewing. Above average murder mystery.
The Last of Sheila <---trailer (1973): ***/****