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A Maze of Missteps Don't Make a Mystery

The Last of Sheila At the Cheri II

By Lewis Clayton

I'M A PERSON who hates mystery movies. So I expected to find myself walking out halfway through Herbert Ross's new murder mystery, The Last of Sheila. But I never did. Sheila has all the equipment of a mystery movie, but it doesn't put that equipment to work. It is a slick production, but bogs down in its slickness, and never gets down to the mystery business. Despite the fact that it fails to deliver its basic promise, Sheila is an entertaining flick.

James Coburn, Sheila's game player, has made his money as a Hollywood producer. He has invited aboard a week's cruise six of his Hollywood friends: two movie stars, a film script writer, a director and two managers. Beside a common vocabulary of cocktail party quips and a set of stereotypical Hollywood neuroses and remedies, they share the fact that they were all present at a party after which Coburn's wife Sheila was killed by a hit and run driver.

Coburn talks to them of producing a film about his dead wife: it is his bait assuring his guests' co-operation. They play along, expecting to land parts in Coburn's planned film, but of course we all suspect that the real object of the cruise is the unmasking of a killer. The yacht is, after all, named Sheila.

The movie is cocky about its polish, to the point where the idiosyncracies of its characters over-shadow the detailed clues of what is a finely wrought plot. The clues seem presented only in afterthought, back-fitted into an otherwise superfluous setting. Sheila does not heighten interest in the hunt for the murderer's identity, as a good mystery film should. It is always more interested in showing off its cast, its settings, and its special effects.

ROSS HAS GOTTEN good performances from a cast studded with box-office attractions: Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Raquel Welch, James Coburn, James Mason, Joan Hackett, and Ian McShane. Coburn gives a fine performance as the masterminder of games, supremely certain that his guests will play. His innate arrogance masquerades as razor sharp charm.

All of Coburn's guests are people with holes in their careers: a writer reduced to doing last minute re-writes on other people's scripts, a director who must occupy his time doing commercials, stars who cannot find studios willing to meet their price. But the theme of the unholy drives that leave them prey to Coburn's mercy, the crumbling self-images which they are struggling to maintain through his promised largesse, is never explored. The events on the yacht pass through their minds without triggering a trace of self-realization. Their lives are framed as veneer on a tricky plot. Unable to scare up interest in its pursuit of a killer, and without the commitment to analyze its characters, Sheila goes down flashily, like a luxury liner, overloaded with champagne.

Nevertheless, some of the performances are fun to watch. Dyan Cannon plays a brassy, bitchy manager, joyfully screwing Coburn and half the crew. You never know whether to toss Cannon off as the sexy starlet "dumb broad" type, or look for intelligence behind her unabashed flattery. She manages to maintain this tension in her role throughout the film, and Ross uses her well as a counterpoint to more mundane dialogue. Richard Benjamin is the sliding writer, questioning and confused about the cruise and its purposes; Joan Hackett plays his clinging wife; and Mason plays the washed up director with an easy ambience and quiet paternalism.

RAQUEL WELCH is the only miscast member of the company. She is asked to play a good actress, but Sheila is her opportunity to prove that she is not. The two scenes in which she is called upon to act, and not merely pose in a bikini on the sundeck, are painful to watch.

The movie's sets are predictably professional. Coburn's ocean-yacht, the setting for most of the action, is everything you might expect to find in a position of honor at an Orange County boat show. It is a distracting picture of gaudiness, pannelled cabins and wall to wall carpeting, mansion sized bedrooms and an invisible crew. Like Sleuth's manor, the yacht is stocked with games. On seeing the living room for the first time, Dyan Cannon remarks, "Who designed this place -- Parker Brothers?" Ross dots the boat with dartboards and three dimensional chess sets, but Sleuth much better exploited the idea of the games player. Sheila's boat is a sorry second.

The authors, Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, have worked overtime to build into the script bursts of quick insight. In the midst of one of Coburn's lengthy sneering speeches, he explains how he considered and then rejected the idea of buying a tropical island populated by a group of natives ready to accept him as sole owner and king. "You poor people," he realizes, "You don't deserve a good king like me."

Taking a picture of his guests on their arrival at the dock, he commands, "Smile, or whatever you people do for a living." It is ironic that Welch, the worst of the performers, should give the most incisive critique of the film. Arriving at the airport, she and her husband are beseiged by prying newspapermen. Her annoyed husband (Ian McShane) deftly shifts the bag he is carrying and belts an offending photographer in the jaw, knocking him down. Sensitive Raquel is affected. "Why can't we just go on a vacation like normal people?" Indeed.

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