A second review requested by Zev Burrows, with thanks for contributing twice to the ACS Fundraiser.

In his two-volume collection of lyrics and personal recollections, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, Stephen Sondheim acknowledges that among his impressive corpus of skills, the ability to construct a dramatic narrative has eluded him. He has been blessed with strong collaborators to write the books for "his" shows, but a playwright he has never been.

There has been only one original story co-written by Sondheim produced, in fact, and it's not a theatrical piece. In the early 1970s, he and Anthony Perkins - it's his only writing credit as well - collaborated on a on a screenplay for a film that was ultimately directed by Herbert Ross and released by Warner Bros. in 1973, The Last of Sheila. It's an old-school murder mystery written by obvious genre enthusiasts, and it's a solid piece of work, neat and clean in all its particulars. But it also doesn't really dispel Sondheim's belief that writing great scripts isn't a strong suit. There's a certain mechanical soullessness to the way the story unfurls and how the characters are built into it that, at any rate, doesn't show off the natural skill of its co-writers. Sondheim and Perkins wrote two later screenplays that were never filmed, which is a pity: it seems fully possible that they grew more comfortable as they went along, for The Last of Sheila has all the earmarks of a promising first attempt by a pair of first-timers mostly concerned with proving they could get ideas down on paper, and with the jitters worked out of their systems, they could build on its foundation.

The scenario is deliberately contrived: a year after the death of his columnist wife Sheila (Hammer vet Yvonne Romain, cameoing in the swell opening scene), movie producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) reunites the six friends who were his guests the night of the hit-and-run accident that widowed him. These include director Philip Dexter (James Mason), screenwriter Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett), the only person at the party who's not a film professional (and this will later prove to be, if not "important", then at least a nice grace note), movie star Alice Wood (Raquel Welch) and her manager husband Anthony (Ian McShane), and agent Christine (Dyan Cannon). On Clinton's gigantic yacht off the coast of the French Riviera, he announces the rules for the Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game: each of the guests are assigned a secret - a piece of fake gossip - and on each of the trip's six nights, they'll go on a scavenger hunt in a different port town to uncover one of those secrets. The night's game ends when the individual whose secret is the subject of the hunt finds the proof, hopefully before any of the other five have already done so.

It's tough to describe, because it's frankly pretty damn convoluted, and that's the mechanical soullessness I had in mind. For much of his life, Sondheim had delighted in constructing absurdly elaborate mystery games for his friends, and these games only grew more ambitious once Perkins started helping him construct them in the 1960s. The Last of Sheila is in great part an attempt to memorialise these games on celluloid, and the momentum-deadening scene where Clinton explains the fussy rules to the partygoers comes straight out of that impulse. It is not a sequence that grows elegantly and organically out of characters; we haven't even really met the characters yet. This is nothing but showing off on the part of authors who are really proud of the ingenuity of their mechanism and want to make sure that we notice how conspicuously Written it is, right down to the sound of typewriter keys clacking at the beginning and ending.

This is, for good and ill, a major component of the screenplay. Not that it's a two-hour exercise in Stephen and Tony showing off, exactly; but it is very tangibly the result of people who love making and solving murder mysteries. It's very rare to find a mystery film - by the way, what ends up happening is that Clinton ends up dead on the second night, and everyone quickly concludes that it must have been the one who mowed down Sheila that night last year who killed him, and it then turns into a tense yachtbound stand-off as everyone starts to suspect everyone else - that's so conscientious in its construction to make sure that all the clues you need to figure the movie out are right there in plain sight, without foregrounding any of them with a neon sign reading "THIS IS A !!CLUE!!" Not even with a scene that finds Clinton grandly announcing, in almost so many words, "you can figure out everything just from the details presented in this scene". And I confess that I didn't figure out the movie and wasn't really interested in trying to. But that is, kind of, the point: it's an immaculately made puzzle that is damned proud to dot every i and cross every t, not like all of those other mysteries that hinge on an unpredictable twist (viz. The Sting, which came out later the same year).

That leads to a movie that's undeniably a bit chilly: the writers were so busy making sure the mystery was structurally airtight that they missed out on crafting rich, deep characters, or giving them anything but the most ordinary relationships to each other. This doesn't end up ruining the movie almost entirely because of the efforts of a number of people to make sure that interesting human wrinkles are saved from the gears of the plot: obviously one of these is Ross, whose direction has never been peppier in any of his films that I've seen (which isn't even half of them, and "peppier than Funny Lady" is one of the easiest bars to clear ever), and so are most of the cast, but it would be bad form to overlook production designer Ken Adam (miles away from the florid fantasy of his Bond fortresses), art director Tony Roman, and set decorator John Jarvis, for building a well-stocked box of little details and red herrings, and for the staging of Clinton's two successfully-executed and highly baroque puzzle rooms, and for augmenting the inherent loveliness of north Mediterranean architecture without feeling like they're gilding the lily. Hell, I'd even have to tip my hat to costume designer Joel Schumacher - that Joel Schumacher) - for the niceties of showing who has money and prestige, versus who had money and prestige through fashion. (I do not know who out of all the possibilities deserves credit for the strangulation via clown puppets climax, but they are a hero to me).

But back to Ross, whose aggressive show-off touches are few and far between, but are all the better for it. The opening sequence, the night Sheila died, is maybe the most elegant, impressive part of the movie: the camera follows Romain as she's obscured by people, plants, sheets of distorted class. It's easy to presume that this must be Sheila, but the film puts so much energy into hiding anything about her that it starts building up tension and mystery right away. There are other sharp visual moments: Clinton descending out of frame on a lifeboat as he finishes a florid monologue, or a hunt for clues inside an old monastery, setting up a stuffy, dark space that helps the artful misdirection that ends up taking place there, and which we see elucidated late on in flashbacks.

As for the cast, it's a collection of people who aren't, like great great - only Mason and Coburn had a truly impressive body of work in '73, and only McShane has come anywhere close to forming one since - but who have spirit and energy and dive into the one-note characterisations with a good eye to fleshing them out. Cannon especially; and when there is a film with Dyan Cannon and James Mason in it, and Cannon gives the better performance, we've entered some kind of mirror universe. But she gives maybe the most blunt and uninteresting of the characters a loopy, electric sense of presence; that's a hell of a lot. The only person whose performance falls short is Welch: she was angry and combative on set, by all accounts (including her own), and that seeps into the performance, which is all sharp angles and spikes in places that keep the other actors at bay, rather than the other characters, if you feel me.

Outside of her, the cast is having enough fun cruising the Riviera and play-acting detectives that their energy turns contagious: while the emphasis on problem-solving is enough to make The Last of Sheila fun for fans of mystery paperbacks, it takes a bit more of the human sparkle that the cast provides to make it fun for the rest of us. It's never more than a lark, but it's at least two different kinds of larks designed for two different audiences, and it's pretty damn good at both of them.