Clues/Things I Read Off the Screen in The Last of Sheila
Whodunnits tend to be more like parlour games than dramas — the intellectual exercise MUST triumph over the demands of character insight, emotional investment, moral message or thematic exploration. The best mysteries often embrace this and make a virtue of it, as in Mankiewicz’s THE HONEY POT and THE LAST OF SHEILA, brilliantly scripted by Anthony Perkins & Stephen Sondheim (!) and very decently directed by Harold Ross (I mainly dislike his Neil Simon things but admired PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — would sooner watch the movie than the respected TV series original because, well, I’m shallow and I like glitz).
Lots of funny lines — a trenchant Hollywood satire is the nominal underlying purpose but the writers love bitchery too much to truly condemn the coldbloodedness they portray. The biggest laugh for Fiona was a shot of James Coburn, being winched from his yacht to his launch, grinning madly as he descends out of frame, like a radiant ivory sunset.
The cast is incredible, but if I was drawn in by the prospect of Mason and Coburn, paired in a more gentile setting than the later CROSS OF IRON, I stayed for Dyan Cannon, who gets most of the best lines but imbues even the nastiest of them with a knowing/innocent naughtiness that animates the character in a whole new way, impossible to imagine from the lines on the page (impossible for me: not for Dyan, apparently). So what if her backstory as a McCarthy-era snitch implies that she must have been working as a Hollywood secretary aged three? She gets a brilliant hysteria scene too — Cannon has a gift for that — she used to do it on chat shows too.
There’s a central conceit that I guessed at once, because I do tend to take note of the things a whodunnit DOESN’T show — if there’s no corpse, the victim is still alive, for instance. Arguably Ross played a little too fair in his staging rather than covering things up perfectly. But I didn’t guess the killer OR half of the twists, so I was still satisfactorily bamboozled, which is what I pays my money for with this kind of thing. If I guess it — as I do when Peter Ackroyd or Michael Dibdin attempt big twists — I feel smug but basically disappointed.
A vicious yet deeply civilised entertainment. There: my first blurb!