A Valentine to Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, The Last of Sheila may be best remembered for its off-screen stories. First, though, let’s start with the product on the screen: an all-star whodunit set aboard a yacht cruising the Mediterranean. The yacht’s owner, film producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) is a widower, whose wife Sheila died in an apparent hit-and-run car accident.
Clinton’s six guests include an actress (Raquel Welch), two talent agents (Dyan Cannon and Ian McShane), a screenwriter and his wife (Richard Benjamin and Joan Hackett), and a director (James Mason). Under the pretense of entertaining his guests, Clinton has devised “The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game,” a nightly event in which guests try to uncover a “pretend secret” about one of their fellow passengers. Clinton distributes the following six secrets at the start of the game: shoplifter, homosexual, informer, ex-con, child molester, and alcoholic.
The “game” turns serious, though, when one of the group is discovered dead. The police rule it an accidental death and the cruise continues. However, it soon becomes apparent that a murderer is aboard the yacht–especially after another corpse is discovered.
Like the best mysteries, The Last of Sheila displays all its clues clearly for the viewer. And, while I may not be the most observant individual, even I noticed a discrepancy…but which actually turned out to be a critical clue. The film shares much in common with Dame Agatha’s superior Death on the Nile, right down to the climatic “reveal” in which one character describes the killer’s motive and methods. The only difference is that Hercule Poirot would have had all the suspects in the room, instead of just the murderer and the self-appointed detective.
Another difference between The Last of Sheila and a Hercule Poirot mystery is that Agatha Christie was much more gifted at creating memorable characters. Screenwriters Perkins and Sondheim based some of their characters on real-life people (e.g., Dyan Cannon’s character was based on a talent agent). While film buffs may have fun trying to guess what character was based on whom, this “inside joke” doesn’t make for great drama. Additionally, there’s a shortage of likable characters; even the film’s “hero” has a suspect past.
The idea for The Last of Sheila can be traced to party games devised by puzzle enthusiasts Perkins and Sondheim to amuse their friends. These games ranged from treasure hunts to a “murder game” devised by Sondheim. Herbert Ross, who knew Perkins and Sondheim, suggested that they write a murder mystery.
The original intent was to film aboard a real yacht in France. However, the production was plagued with problems ranging from bad weather to sea sickness to conflicts among the cast members. Eventually, it was completed in a studio aboard a yacht set. In regard to the on-set friction, James Mason famously said of Raquel Welch: “I have never met someone so badly behaved.”
The film was a modest hit and earned generally favorable reviews. Tony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim collaborated on a couple of other scripts, but none of them made it to the screen. By the way, Sondheim did not compose the score for The Last of Sheila (Billy Goldenberg did). He didn’t even write the closing song (“Friends” performed by Bette Midler).