The Last of Sheila (1973)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Mono 2.0
Warner Home Video, $19.98

“You don’t have to [move around] for this game — if you’re smart enough.”

— Line of dialogue in The Last of Shiela

The quote above is addressed to the seven main characters in The Last of Sheila, but it might as well be a challenge directed at the audience. The Citizen Kane of whodunits, this lost ’70s classic is diabolically clever entertainment penned by the late actor Anthony Perkins and famed composer Stephen Sondheim, longtime friends who decided to transfer their love of elaborate games to the big screen. Dense with subtle clues, sly allusions and frustrating red herrings, The Last of Sheila not only rewards but also demands repeat viewings. Veteran director Herbert Ross and cinematographer Gerry Turpin, BSC (both now deceased) thoughtfully visualized the film with witty, resourceful framing and a canny use of flashbacks, which keep this exceptionally talky film from becoming bogged down in the details. Underneath all the gamesmanship on display, the film is also a nasty bit of business with craven, backstabbing Hollywood characters and, in true ’70s style, a profoundly cynical ending — milked for maximum irony by the use of Bette Midler’s song “Friends” over the end credits.

In the film, movie producer Clinton (a hilariously arrogant James Coburn) hosts a cruise aboard his luxury yacht in the south of France a year after his wife, Sheila, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. His guests, all Tinseltown insiders of varying levels of fame and success, have been invited to take part in a series of elaborate experiential games in exotic locales that include a tiny French town and a medieval monastery. When Clinton dies in an apparent accident during one of the games, two of the more intellectual participants (James Mason and Richard Benjamin) begin to suspect that the ultimate object of Clinton’s games was to pin the responsibility for Sheila’s death on one of the guests. This spurs a tense bout of truth-telling among the participants, as it becomes clear that Clinton was, in fact, murdered by someone on the boat who had perhaps caught on to the vindictive object of the game.

The Last of Sheila has been given a respectable transfer in this modest but worthy DVD from Warner Bros. As in most films from this era, scenes in deep shadow (of which there are a few in Turpin’s noir-influenced cinematography) fare the worst, with readily apparent pops and crackles on the print. But on the whole, Turpin’s images are sharp and well saturated and have crisp blacks, a vast improvement on the washed-out picture of earlier VHS copies of the film. The DVD’s mono soundtrack fares a bit worse than the picture, as the film’s dense dialogue at times sounds tinny and muffled. Fortunately, subtitles are included as an option to clear up any confusion the viewer might have.

A commentary from Sondheim would have been fascinating, but instead this disc offers a joint commentary by Benjamin and fellow cast members Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch. Welch’s track was clearly recorded separately, and her rather superfluous comments are kept to a minimum. Two cheerful old pros, Benjamin and Cannon don’t offer up anything too profound regarding the film’s complex structure (though they have fun pointing out all the clues), but their fond reminiscences about the luxurious four-month shoot in the south of France go down easily. Cannon reveals that the model for her loudmouthed super-agent character was none other than Sue Mengers, and the opulent yacht used in the film belonged to producer Sam Spiegel. Benjamin describes the legendary real-life games organized by Sondheim and Perkins, one of which featured a scavenger hunt all around New York City for more than 20 players, each of whom was provided with a car to chase down the bounty.

The two actors assert that the seamlessness of the film was due to the extended time taken to get every element of the story just right, a luxury that probably wouldn’t be allowed in today’s more deadline-oriented studio climate. Despite the beautiful setting, leisurely shoot and overall aura of decadence, the production did face one not-so-trifling hindrance: a bomb threat from the Black September terrorist group that necessitated bodyguards for every cast member. One can only wonder what draconian steps a studio would take today if faced with a similar danger.

The only other bonus feature on this fairly priced DVD is a ’70s-style trailer. Those who are already familiar with the film might want to consider heading straight to the disc’s 42-minute mark to replay Coburn’s inimitable “Island Speech.”

— Chris Pizzello

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.