Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cluedo, 70's style with a twist of murder

So here's a mind-blowing fact: Anthony Perkins (as in "We all go a little crazy sometimes" Anthony Perkins) and Stephen Sondheim (as in... well... that one guy who's done all those musicals) were great buddies. Even more interesting is the fact that they were both great lovers of board games, puzzles and mysteries.

Even stranger still is the fact that they combined these interests by inviting friends over for elaborate dinner parties that would include a "murder" mystery that the guests tried to solve with various hints and puzzles strewn about the house. In fact, Sondheim was the inspiration for Anthony Shaffer's legendary play Sleuth which was turned into the wonderful film by Joseph L. Mankiewicz with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. (A further note of interest for film geeks is the fact that Shaffer not only adapted the play himself for the screen but also went on to write such classic pieces as Hitchcock's Frenzy and the amazing cult classic The Wicker Man. Shaffer, along with director Robin Hardy, is therefore to thank not only for the inspired, bug-crazy brilliance of Christopher Lee muttering about "appeasing the old gods" but, more importantly, Britt Ekland's butt-naked booty-shaking. But I'm getting way off track here).

Perkins and Sondheim decided to channel their love of puzzles and games into a screenplay. The resulting film, The Last of Sheila, is actually rather wonderful, somewhat forgotten gem of 70's cinema. It contains some of the same elements that made Sleuth such a great film - the wicked and macabre sense of humor, the playfulness, the intelligent plot that, when revealed, is as satisfying and harmonious as a completed crossword puzzle - but it also contains some very entertaining characterizations from great actors and a wonderful direction from Herbert Ross (who also directed the film adaptation of Woody Allen's Play it Again Sam, The Goodbye Girl, which garnered Richard Dreyfuss an Oscar, and the 80's camp classic Footloose, starring the mighty Bacon).

James Coburn, in a performance so gleefully mad that I was reminded of Nicholson in The Shining, plays a movie producer named Clinton Green whose wife, the titular Sheila, is killed in a hit-and-run accident in the first scene of the film. The main plot begins a year later as Coburn, having been in seclusion for the past twelve months, mails letters of invitations to a group of industry friends, all of whom were present on the night when Sheila died. These include a down on his luck screenwriter and his alcoholic wife (Richard Benjamin and Joan Hackett), a film director whose once glorious career has been reduced to filming commercials (the deliciously smooth James Mason), an ambitious agent (Dyan Cannon) and a famous Hollywood actress and her rather shady boyfriend (Raquel Welch and Ian McShane). All of these people, for a variety of reasons, desperately need to resuscitate their careers and the promise of being a part of Clinton Green's comeback film lures them to his yacht, creepily named after his dead wife. Once they're on the boat Clinton reveals that he has planned an elaborate game for their "entertainment." None of them seem particularly excited about this but resign themselves to the fact that Green has always enjoyed puzzles and games, almost as much as he enjoys playing with people's minds. If they are to have a chance of being a part of his movie they better play along. As you can see there is an interesting commentary on the film business running throughout the film which, though not subtle, is never hammered home and actually adds interesting layers to the murder plot.

The game in question consists of each person receiving an envelope which contains a secret (one reads "alcoholic," another "homosexual," and so forth). Each person is to guard their secret while trying to find out the secrets of others. Each night, when in port, they will enter different towns and villages to try to decipher clues that will eventually reveal a secret. Before long some of the contestants realize that the secrets may not have been chosen at random and that each person has in their possession the actual secret of another person in the game. This is particularly bothersome since there are not only embarrassing secrets like the before-mentioned two but also the more incriminating "child molester" and "hit and run murderer." It quickly becomes obvious that the stakes in the game are higher than people had expected. But it's not until an actual murder takes place during the game that Sondheim and Perkins' script really starts to lay on the twists.

If you're a fan of tightly-plotted, clever mysteries this film is absolutely essential viewing. The character interactions are very interesting and there are some wonderfully philosophical themes dancing in the background. Not only do we, the audience, get to try to figure out the puzzles and subsequent murder mystery along with the characters but there is also the added enjoyment of certain puzzles of human nature and ethics, of integrity, revenge, justice and honesty. Add to that great technical work, including absolutely perfect pacing by director Ross and very nice camerawork by Gerry Turpin (who also shot the original The Avengers TV series) and you've got yourself a beautiful accompaniment to a night at home with an ice-cold martini in hand.

A few additional tidbits:
-The Last of Sheila is currently available on Netflix Instant Play.
-If you enjoy this film I would also highly recommend a very guilty, sleazy pleasure of a film called Wild Things that came out a few years back starring Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon and Neve Campbell. It also contains more twists than a Chubby Checker hit and briefly features a yacht. And the Baconator goes full frontal in it.
-Dyan Cannon, who is absolutely fantastic in The Last of Sheila, was briefly married to screen legend Cary Grant in the late 60's. Grant, during this time, was a connoisseur of psychotropic drugs and would regularly drop acid.
-Ian McShane and James Mason would co-star in the TV epic Jesus of Nazareth a few years after making The Last of Sheila. McShane starred as Judas Iscariot and Mason played Joseph of Arimathea, the man who retrieved Christ's body from pilate and donated his tomb for Christ's burial.

1 comment:

Haukur said...

I saw Sleuth quite recently and it instantly became one of my favorite films from the 1970's. What a wonderful film!

I can also recommend Deathtrap, starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Not quite as good as Sleuth, but a fun film that belongs to the same genre.

The Last of Sheila is on it's way to my hard drive (very illegally) as we speak.