Warner Archive Collection DVD Review: The Last of Sheila (1973)

This piece was originally Published by Brian Sauer on his blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks as part of the Underrated Thrillers series by author Jen Johans in the fall of 2014.

The ultimate film for puzzle lovers, this Edgar award winning screenplay about a scavenger hunt turned deadly by Psycho villain Anthony Perkins and Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim took its inspiration from the real-life scavenger hunts the two hosted for their show business friends.

Underlined three times, The Last of Sheila was included at the very top of a short list of “must see murder mysteries” given to me as a young film buff and writer by the bestselling author husband of my ninth grade English teacher after she’d heard me rave one too many times about The Usual Suspects.

Sheila was not only the only work he’d included that I’d never seen (let alone heard of), it was also the one that sent me on an extensive scavenger hunt of my own from one video store to another in order to track down the sole VHS copy in a thirty mile radius… and to this day I am glad that I did.

Like Suspects, Final Analysis, Frantic, Memento, The Game, and Red Rock West, The Last of Sheila is one of those films that acknowledges its influences in cleverly crafted homage from start to finish yet it also manages to go above and beyond its roots as a post-Hitchcockian Noir.

Transcending the limits of genre so that it’s also a very self aware Tinseltown parody filled with in-jokes about type casting and larger-than-life Hollywood personas, Sheila is equal parts thriller and black comedy, directed by Herbert Ross, who was as much at home directing Neil Simon comedies as he was handling dramas.

Not only respecting but demanding the intelligence of its audience to be sophisticated enough to accept a work that doesn’t neatly fit into any one category, Sheila turns its viewers into party-goers who’ve traveled aboard the yacht of an eccentric film producer who’s celebrating the one-year anniversary of his wife’s hit-and-run death by unmasking the secrets of his guests in a week-long game.

A film where even the most throwaway dialogue has the potential to payoff unexpectedly, although the case is solved by the final frame, Sheila only grows richer with repeat viewings where you can see the way that point-of-view, subjective edits, and even the most innocuous of props hide in plain sight as clues to be both savored and discovered.

While it’s a masterwork of mystery in a script that’s sure to evoke envy in crime writers, the way it encourages and utilizes cinema-literacy in its sleight-of-hand makes Sheila underrated on a filmic level – teaching viewers about the importance of framing, cutting, and juxtaposition as well as any Film Studies 101 course.

From the playful command of “dissolve” that dissolves into a flashback to showing us the same scenes shot a few different ways, Sheila is that rare Hollywood in-joke movie that celebrates its craft as smartly as its skewers its stereotypes.

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