The Last of Sheila: The Best Whodunit You’ve Never Seen Turns 50

Movies Features Stephen Sondheim
The Last of Sheila: The Best Whodunit You’ve Never Seen Turns 50

If you saw last year’s delightful Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, you may have noticed with bittersweet relish one of the film’s most memorable cameo appearances: Stephen Sondheim, in what would turn out to be his last screen appearance, filmed shortly before his death in November of 2021. It’s a nice moment, particularly in light of losing the legendary composer, but it’s also a fitting tribute to the co-writer of one of the film’s chief influences.

No, I’m not talking about a musical. Though Sondheim is best known for classics like Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, he’s also one of the brains behind what’s stealthily become one of the most influential mystery films ever made, a movie so beloved by Glass Onion writer Rian Johnson that he basically took the whole set-up and made it his own.

“It’s a great murder-mystery, but the main thing that I took from it was the idea of a rich jerk inviting all of his friends out to an exotic locale for a murder-mystery game,” Johnson told Deadline last year. “Within that, there’s also the hierarchy of a group of friends, with somebody at the top of the pyramid, and everyone having a reason to bump them off, and the way that money plays into that.”

The film in question is 1973’s The Last of Sheila, written by Sondheim and Psycho star Anthony Perkins and directed by Sondheim’s fellow theatrical legend Herbert Ross. Like Glass Onion, it’s a film in which a star-packed cast heads to a beautiful location and gets embroiled in a twisty whodunit. But 50 years after its debut, there’s so much more to the movie than its symmetry with a recent mystery classic. Adored by Johnson, Edgar Wright and many other filmmakers, it’s spent the last five decades growing into a must-see whodunit that too many people still haven’t seen, the kind of hidden gem that slowly reveals itself to be one of the smartest, most fun films of its kind.

Sheila Greene (Yvonne Romain) is a gossip columnist, murdered in a hit-and-run after leaving a Hollywood party a year before the film. In the present day, Sheila’s husband, movie producer Clinton (a gleeful James Coburn), has invited six of Sheila’s closest friends to his yacht in the south of France for a weeklong series of parlor games. Thanks to Clinton’s machinations, each of the invited guests—director Philip (James Mason), actress Alice (Raquel Welch), Alice’s husband and manager Anthony (Ian McShane), agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), screenwriter Tom (Richard Benjamin), and Tom’s heiress wife Lee (Joan Hackett)—has been given an envelope containing a secret, and the goal of the game is for the other five players to determine who’s holding which secret. It’s billed as the “Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game,” and it’s all set up as a bit of fun framed around six exotic Mediterranean ports.

On the surface, this is just an excuse for movie stars to pal around while looking sexy and being surrounded by beautiful scenery, and The Last of Sheila certainty delivers on that promise, as the game takes its players from a small French town to an isolate monastery that, as one of the characters remarks, looks like something Hammer Studios would’ve used for a horror picture. Then, of course, people start turning up dead, and the nature of what’s really going on slowly bubbles to the surface, like the air inside a champagne bottle threatening to pop the cork.

Sondheim and Perkins’ script is, it should come as no surprise, remarkably witty and crackling with the kind of dry energy you might expect from rich people hanging around and trading barbs on a yacht. That these lines are being delivered by legendary voices like Mason, Coburn and McShane only makes everything go down that much easier. Throw in Ross’ remarkable grip on the locale and the various opportunities provided by the location shoot, and you’ve got a film that’s smooth as a top shelf dry martini, even if you’re barely paying attention. 

But it’s not just the breezy visuals and dynamic script that makes The Last of Sheila so engrossing. There’s another reason Johnson chose it as his model for Glass Onion: The way in which Sondheim and Perkins use the framework of their narrative to probe the cannibalistic, implosive nature of the Hollywood elite. Spend even five minutes listening to an old interview in which Sondheim talks about story, and you know that he was always chasing layers, always searching for new harmonies within his iconic melodies. The same is true of The Last of Sheila

It’s no accident that the central figure that drives the plot is a movie producer who not only holds cards (literally) on each of his friends, but who loves to put on a show and engineer a dramatic story with layers that will bring out even more narrative tension. The people he surrounds himself with—the frustrated writer longing for a transformative piece of work, the cutthroat agent, the director slumming it in commercials—are all equally reflective of their own professions and personal journeys. Even when the film isn’t spelling all of this internal tension out for you, you can feel it lurking just beneath the surface. It’s a standoff between seven strong personalities, but the layering doesn’t stop there.

Over the course of The Last of Sheila, which is itself at least partially concerned with Clinton’s dream movie production centered on Sheila’s life and death, various characters attempt to gain control of the narrative, to wrest it from each other in dramatic fashion—to tell their own version of the story to the point that, eventually, one character almost literally rewrites it before our very eyes. At a time when writers, directors and actors are all negotiating in an effort to get their fair piece of the show business pie, it’s not hard to see the parallels to real Hollywood battles, the glamorous ones and the down-and-dirty brawls. It’s so smart, so rich with detail and so immersed in the one-two punch of calculated storytelling and bright, breezy wit, that it becomes timeless. No wonder the best mystery storytellers of our own time are so obsessed with it. 

If you love mysteries and you’ve still never seen The Last of Sheila, consider this your invitation to view one of the very best the genre has ever produced. It’s worth the ride, and it’ll make numerous other mysteries produced in the past 50 years, including Glass Onion, richer experiences in retrospect.

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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