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!


11 Responses to “Clues/Things I Read Off the Screen in The Last of Sheila”

  1. Agreed – great movie from two crossword puzzle devotees. The characters are all, evidently, based on actual Hollywood personalities at the time (aside from the actors playing them) – I’m guessing John Guillerman for Mason and Perkins himself for the ‘hero’ – any thoughts on who the others are?

  2. Holy crap — we could get into seriously actionable stuff by speculating on Guillermin, who I think is still alive, but yes, it seems to makes sense in some ways. Perkins also, although he’s made Richard Benjamin’s character a writer (which Perkins was on this film but not usually).

    Coburn as the sadistic game-player seems more like aspects of John Huston… I can think of more directors than producers who fit that model. Don’t know enough about agents but I’m sure there was someone who fits Dyan Cannon’s profile. Welch, with her partner trying to be her producer, could almost be playing herseld.

    David E, we need answers!

  3. Diane Cannon is doing a delicious over-the-top take on superagent Sue Mengers — who was still a powerhouse at the time and famous for her dirty mouth. Raquel is pretty much herself — but then that’s the role she always plays.

  4. Sondheim is an inveterate games-player and the game played in this move is an “in earnest” version of the party games he loves to concoct for friends. He and Tony Perkins had a long history together which may not have been romantic though was quite likely sexual. But I’m not one to gossip so you didn’t hear this from me. Perkins was a marvelous singer. It’s a shame he didn’t do “Company.” But hear he is in an earlier Sondheim.

  5. A terrific piece. Just the idea of adapting that John Collier story, which is quite Twilight Zonesque, as a musical, is AMAZING.

  6. And it contains one of my all-time favorite Sondheim songs.

  7. Charmian Carr appeared in this and The Sound of Music and then retired from show business.

  8. Those clips from Evening Primrose…wow!

  9. chris schneider Says:

    Saw it several times when it was new, for some reason. Anything for a Joan Hackett picture … I still remember Dyan Cannon saying that she’s go to the party dressed as a catamite, whatever that was.

  10. chris schneider Says:

    [“She’d go,” that is.] I also remember the sound of people in the audience recognizing the intro to Bette Midler’s “Friends.”

  11. In a sense, after the dialogue about getting Carly Simon to do the theme song, they should really have got Carly Simon to do the theme song.

    The movie is quite an exercise in making characters who mainly ought to be loathsome come over as quite charming. Amazing what movie stars can do with the right script.

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