This review has no spoilers. I wouldn’t dare.
The Last of Sheila is a closed-universe mystery, one in which all the suspects can be gathered together in one room, which they typically are at one point in the movie. It is one of the best such movies ever made. I put it right up there with Mystery on the Orient Express (the 1974 version, of course) and Ten Little Indians (1965). Of this latter movie, it has been made several times, but I think this one is the best, slightly better even that the first version, And Then There Were None (1945).
As for The Last of Sheila, this one is limited to seven people on a yacht, plus the crew. Now, I confess that with such movies, I really don’t try to solve the mystery as I watch it. Not that I would likely be successful if I did. In the television series Ellery Queen (1975-1976), the title detective, played by Jim Hutton, would suddenly realize the solution to the mystery he was trying to solve just before the end of the show. He would then break the fourth wall, bring our attention to several clues, after which there would be a commercial break, giving us a chance to answer the question, “Who done it?” Even with all that, I never solved a single mystery. But I did appreciate the fact that the show played fair, that the clues should have pointed me in the right direction.
As with most movies of this sort, we become fully aware of all the clues that have been presented to us at the dénouement. In the case of The Last of Sheila, however, while some of the clues are indeed made explicit by the end of the movie, there are others that are not, some of which I did not notice until a second or third viewing. And this movie is worth a second or third viewing.
My favorite clue is one that I thought was a goof. I said to myself, “Oh no, they forgot that ….” But they didn’t forget. And there is another in-your-face clue that I just missed. And, of course, there are a few red herrings.
At the beginning of the movie, Clinton (James Coburn) and his wife Sheila, who is a gossip columnist, are at a party having a bitter argument. She becomes so angry that she leaves, deciding she will walk home. Then we see a car speeding down the road, weaving around and striking some garbage cans. Then it hits Sheila, killing her. The driver of the car stops, backs up, looks at the body, and then drives off.
A year passes, and we see Clinton on his yacht, which he has named “SHEILA.” Being a game enthusiast, he has decided to host a game aboard his yacht in honor of Sheila. He invites the following people: Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett); Christine (Dyan Cannon); Philip (James Mason); and Alice (Raquel Welch) and her husband Anthony (Ian McShane).
Clinton is a movie producer, and everyone he has invited is connected to the movie business in some way. Tom is a screenwriter, who keeps hoping Clinton will produce a movie based on his favorite script; Lee has grown up in the film industry since she was a child; Christine is an agent; Philip is a director, presently reduced to directing commercials; Alice is an actress; and Anthony is her manager. In addition, he would like to be an assistant producer. Christine refers to them all as the “B-Team,” probably including herself. As part of the lure to get them aboard his yacht, Clinton says he intends to make a movie based on Sheila’s life, and they will all be a part of it. And because they are desperate to be part of a major project, they suffer his abuse, as when he refers to all of them as has-beens to their face. As a result, a lot of them harbor ill feelings toward Clinton.
Each person is given a card with a pretend secret on it. Each night, at a different port, they will be given a clue allowing them to find the evidence that establishes the identity of the person with that night’s secret. Everyone who solves the mystery, gets a point. If the person who has the secret solves it, the game ends, and those that have not yet solved it don’t score. The better the score by the end of the week, the better billing he or she will get in the credits of the movie. And so, on the first night, they go ashore and try to establish who is the shoplifter, which is Philip’s pretend secret. Tom solves it, and so does Lee. When Philip solves it, that ends the game for the night.
A game like this, or perhaps one a little less elaborate, may have begun life as a party game conceived by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. However, in trying to devise such a game, it likely occurred to them that it could be the basis for a movie, for which they then wrote a script.
As far as the game in this movie is concerned, it sounds like a lot of fun at first. But Alice becomes suspicious. She had once been arrested for shoplifting, and she begins to wonder if each pretend secret is the real secret of someone else on the yacht, just as Philip’s pretend secret was Alice’s real secret. Clinton would know about these real secrets because Sheila, being a gossip columnist, would have told him about them. Furthermore, Alice holds the homosexual card, and she knows that one of the guests on the cruise is a homosexual. And yes, there are both clues and red herrings as to who the homosexual is.
And then something unexpected happens, bringing us to a second mystery, a real one this time, where Alice’s suspicions are confirmed and made explicit by Tom, who has had similar suspicions as to what the game was really all about. This one involves the death of Sheila. After much analysis, with contributions from everyone, they solve this real mystery.
Or do they? I knew a guy once who said he got up and left the theater at this point, figuring the movie had to be over. I had to tell him that there was a third mystery, which he might take the trouble to watch some time when he is not in so much of a hurry.
And at this point, I cannot help but express my astonishment at the not insignificant portion of the human race that will go out for what should be an enjoyable night at the movies, and then feel compelled to leave before it is over, in order to have the satisfaction of being able to drive out of the parking lot before anyone else does. I estimate that by doing so, they manage to get home about five minutes earlier than they would have had they stayed until the movie was completely over.
I remember one night in particular. I was watching There Was a Crooked Man (1970) at the movie theater. The movie has a twist ending: you think it’s going to end one way, and then something completely unexpected happens, leading to a totally different ending, in which we find out that the title refers to someone other than the one we thought it did.
It was Saturday night, and the movie, which had started at 7:00, was completely over a few minutes past 9:00. In other words, it was not likely to be way past anyone’s bedtime. And yet, just before the movie got to that twist ending, about a third of the audience had already gotten up out of their seats and were heading for the exit. A few went through the door, and they were undoubtedly pleased that they beat everyone else in the race to get home before 9:20 that evening. The rest of them began to realize that the movie was really not over. They milled around up front, shuffling slowly toward that all-important exit, heads turned to the left so they could see what was happening, but without giving up their place in line to get out the door. One man was halfway through that exit, holding the door open with his left hand, craning his head back in to see what was going on, neither moving forward nor moving out of the way.
Anyway, for those that have the patience to wait until a movie is completely over, The Last of Sheila is a three-part mystery, the last of which is actually worth the extra time it takes to see how it unfolds.
Inasmuch as this movie is almost fifty years old, and it does not show up on your typical list of must-see movies, I figured it was worth bringing to the attention of those that might be completely unaware of its existence.