The Last Of Sheila (1973)

Another night at the movies with an old friend from the 1970s.  “The Last of Sheila” is a terrific murder mystery set among the Hollywood elite and on the French Riviera. It features an all star cast and a delightfully convoluted plot that finishes with one of the most cynical endings you will ever encounter.

The most interesting aspect of the film from my perspective is that it was written by Composer Stephen Sondheim and Actor Anthony Perkins. The moderator of the discussion last night, told us he had visited Sondheim’s apartment to interview him on several occasions and that the entry hall was filled with puzzles and games.  Sondheim and Perkins were famous for throwing parties that featured elaborate mystery games and scavenger hunts. It seems that they were encouraged to adapt their hobby into a script that could be made into a film based on the kinds of puzzle searches that made up for their parties. Of course there has to be a spine for the story and that is provided by the types of people that they would have at their parties, you know, Hollywood types and entertainment professionals.

There are seven principle performers in the story. James Coburn is a movie producer, who’s rich wife was killed in a hit and run accident a year before. He plans an elaborate week on his yacht in the South of France for six guests who were at the party the night his wife died. He has discovered a variety of secrets about them and he uses those as cruel clues to torment his guests as part of the game. The main reason that they put up with such bullying behavior is that they each need something from their friend, a job, financing for a film project, or paying off a long held personal favor. The story then plays out through the game over the days cruising the ports and nights playing scavenger hunt puzzles to solve the game.

Of course there is a murder and everyone is suspect. During the course of the film, there are lots of clues dropped as characters interact and scramble to solve the puzzle. Actor Ian McShane, who is a ubiquitous presence in movies and tv shows these days, plays the hanger on husband of starlet Raquel Welch. He looks incredibly young and handsome in contrast to his older craggy self in films like the John Wick series. Raquel is the weak link in the film, whispering most of her lines but still looking the part. Her best scene is her final brushoff of her secret lover.

Dyan Cannon plays an talent agent based on her own agent Sue Mengers, a legendary Hollywood figure. Cannon is always a hoot in the films she appears in. Her role in this movie is mostly for comic relief as her character has only minor connections to the murder plot. If you are interested in seeing her in a more developed part in a murder mystery, I strongly recommend “Deathtrap” where her costars are Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. She was one of the guests for the conversation following the screening so more on her later.

The late Joan Hackett has a sympathetic and juicy role as the rich wife of screenwriting hack Richard Benjamin. They played off of one another really well and the complicated little game they play between each other regarding their consumption of beverages is one of the clues that move us forward in the game.

The film however, belongs to three performers who take the screen and make it crackle in dialogue, emotional desperation and cleverness. Richard Benjamin as the needy screen writer is also the clever guest who appears to be at the head of the pack when it comes to playing the game. The greatest moment in the film comes from his character Tom, when he explains that he doesn’t have any gloves. I nearly bust a gut at that moment. Coburn is brutally charming and repellent simultaneously. He uses his amazing smile as a weapon to deflect responses from the victims of his cruel asides. His manipulation of everyone else still does not justify what happens but each time he is on screen, the tension level for all the party guests goes up.

No one will be surprised that James Mason’s fading director is the acting apex of the film. He feigns interest in the game quite effectively, but on his face you can see he is really evaluating all the other contestants more that the clues. In the confrontation sequence in the climax, as he explains what has been happening, his voice never waivers but his eyes and body give way to the insecurity he suddenly finds himself in. His denouement is perfect in reflecting the cynical power structures in Hollywood, I loved his performance.

The Conversation

After the film had screened, film Historian Foster Hirsch interviewed the two guests for the evening. Dyan Cannon and Richard Benjamin. Both of them were engaging and free with stories, although most of the information they shared was already well known.
Cannon talked about how she modeled her performance on her friend and agent Sue Mengers, who knew that she was in fact the inspiration for the character that she was asking her client to play. Dyan told us about enjoying the time filming on the beaches of southern France and about adding some pounds to her frame to play the agent, still not unflattering.
Richard Benjamin recounted how he traveled one day on a break from filming with his costar James Coburn in his newly acquired Ferrari. Neither of them had their passports with them as Coburn flew down the coast at 140 mph toward the Italian border. When asked for their papers Coburn took off his sunglasses and smiled and the border guard said “Ah, Mr. Flynt, welcome” and waived them through.  When they returned to France, virtually the same thing happened with the gendarmes controlling the French Border.
Benjamin also mused about how much luck was involved in the business. He was fortunate to be cast in a play, that lead to several other jobs and ultimately allowed him to direct as well.  He mostly allowed events to move him into the job of director. Dyan Cannon, who has also directed a few things contrasted his experience with her own, a woman in the 1970s trying to get a directing gig needed a much more organized plan.
Cannon has several projects she is working on, the one she spoke of at the TCMFF a couple of years ago is still on her plate, a musical based on her life. The play will include material on her life as Mrs. Cary Grant and she intends to star in it. She looks like she could nail it, she seemed to be a healthy octogenarian with good doctors and plenty of energy. Benjamin quipped that he was available.
I also had the pleasure of being seated with one of my podcasting friends Kristen Lopez from Ticklish Business and Journeys in Classic Film. She was there with her mother who was a big fan of the film, and there was a small service dog who sat quietly next to me on Mom’s lap through the whole film. We chatted a bit before the movie and I said good bye to them as we moved through the lobby of the Egyptian Theater. Had I waited a few more minutes I might have been rewarded, Kristin posted a picture of herself with Dyan Cannon that must have been taken just a little while after I said goodbye. Nice for her.

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Westworld (1973)

This is another entry in the Pre-Star Wars inventory of great science fiction movies of the early 1970s. While the story moves forward in some slightly clunky ways, and there are some premises that defy logic in order to get to the climax, the crux of the concept is exciting and fun. The even more important point is how significant the movie is to future films in the genre. It continues to reverberate even today and makes a visit to this retro futuristic amusement park a necessity for anyone who loves the action and adventure of films from Spielberg and Cameron.

The premise is simple and enticing for anyone with a sense of adventure and a lot of cash. For a $1000 a day, adults can play in a fantasy world called Delos. The park has three distinct themes, Roman World, Medieval World and Westworld. Visitors are fitted out for cosplay and given the opportunity to indulge the pleasures of the times they have chosen. This would include the orgies of Rome, the loose serving wenches of a castle and the prairie angels that  serviced the weary cowpokes with a poke at the end of the trail. In addition there will be gladiatorial contests, sword duels and shootouts on the dusty streets of a western town.

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Richard Benjamin and James Brolin are Peter Martin and John Blane, two affluent businessmen on a vacation designed to get Benjamin’s character over a recent nasty divorce.  John has visited Westworld before and Brolin plays the opening sections of the film as an experienced visitor amused at his friends enthusiasm and his other various trip anxieties. Peter is the naive, gee whiz neophyte who wants to enjoy all the parks amenities but is a little concerned about potential embarrassment and danger. Delos is able to provide such adult fantasy play by loading it’s parks with the latest technology, lifelike robots that are fully functional in all the important ways. The promise is that the fantasy is 100% safe. Famous last words.

Michael Crichton, the writer/director of Westworld, was a well known novelist making his directorial debut. He had written other highly entertaining films before this, including the Science Fiction technology thriller “The Andromeda Strain”. His milieu was technology and many of his well known books feature stories of technology going wrong; “Sphere”, “The Terminal Man”,”Congo”. The most successful movie made from one of his stories is “Jurassic Park” about an amusement park where science is not able to control it’s attractions. Basically, “Jurassic Park” is “Westworld” with dinosaurs.  Everybody probably remembers that great line from Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcom, “Yeah, but, John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists”. It was actually the second time such a concept was used by him. Reportedly, Crichton was inspired to write “Westworld” after a visit to Disneyland where he was impressed by the animatronics in “Pirates of the Caribbean”.

The movie would be a voyeuristic dud if they had stuck to the simple premise of the park. In order to create suspense and thrills, the rules of the park will breakdown as the technology does. As a result, that which is supposed to be a naughty rich man’s fantasy turns into his nightmare. The explanation for how things start to go wrong sounds suspiciously like a computer virus; which at that point had not really been thought of. So Crichton’s  work is oddly prescient, although his film language was a little bit crude. In the early part of his career, the film stories often feel a bit clumsy as they try to bring to life a great idea. “Coma” and “Looker” are two other examples of this failing. They each have solid premises but hit some bumps along the way. If you thought it was weirdly convenient that all the technicians  were off the island in “Jurassic Park“, you will notice how it is even more awkward the way  the employees at Delos are handled in the story.

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???????????????????????????????????Peter and John engage in the fantasy play that they paid for. The have a bar fight, spend the night with the ladies of the bordello where they are staying, they even get to do a jailbreak. On multiple occasions they face down the gunslinger character that is their nemesis. The first of those events comes in a traditional barroom standoff. It makes perfect sense. The second confrontation is more visually interesting but it is largely unexplained. The point is that Brolin and Benjamin begin to take their conflicts and the outcomes for granted. There are however some warning signs that foreshadow their danger. In a parallel story set in the Medieval section of the park, a lecherous   customer also sees some faults in the system. His animatronic paramour actually rejects him which goes against all the fantasy he is paying for. When Mel Brooks said “it’s good to be the king” he had apparently not visited Delos Medieval World before.

???????????????????????????????????It takes an hour of the near ninety minute running time to get to the real drama of the story. As everything is being set up we get a backstage view of the technology and some of the problems that the administrators faced. Like John Hammond twenty years later, they are convinced that they can manage their dream despite the overwhelming technology challenges they face.  This is another place where the story telling has to rely on less than smooth technique from the first time director. The guys in lab coats talk out problems instead of visualizing them. The futuristic aspects of the park come down to long hallways filled with inadequate lighting. There are only a couple of moments where we see the robots in their true form as they are being repaired. These moments are handled well on a limited budget but they feel somewhat stilted.

Westworld is a simple story that is told in a basic, sometimes crude manner. It was successful enough to have a sequel, “Futureworld” where the plot is more intricate and the acting and motivation a lot more polished. So if the film is not a masterpiece of cinema technique, why is it a film I want you to see? Well I have already mentioned the story line is the crib sheet for the more successful “Jurassic Park”. There is however a second feature that portends future science fiction lexicon; the unstoppable killing machine. It can’t be argued with, it can’t be bargained with and it will not stop until you are dead. Yul Bryner plays a variation of his “Magnificent Seven” character here. The foreboding shootist with few words all dressed in black.

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As our city slickers once again confront the tin target set up for them to take down, the outcome changes. This is when the movie basically becomes “The Terminator” for the last twenty minutes. Just as Sarah Conner learned, a robot is never finished when you want it to be, our hero struggles repeatedly to finish off and outwit the mechanical man pursuing him. Eleven years before Arnold Schwarzenegger donned the black leather, unholstered his weapon, and chased down his prey, Crichton had his mechanical harbinger of doom do the same thing in almost exactly the same manner. When you watch the machine like swagger of the gunfighter, it is easy to see the future Terminator walking relentlessly toward us. There is an early computerized point of view shot from the gunfighter  that consists of heat signatures and fuzzy pixels. Both of these ideas will be used in future films featuring robots or aliens tracking down their targets.

You should find it easy to ignore the plot loopholes on park safety and the scarcity of assistance toward the end because you will identify with the customers. They came for a good time and they are getting so much more than they bargained for. This film will find ways to give you your monies worth even when it frustrates you with amateur film mistakes. The story concept and the vision of the  wild west as a robot will echo forward to better films that are all well loved by the movie audience, but those films owe a huge debt to Westworld.

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Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.