Written by Allan Mott
For many people, the key aspect of enjoying a murder mystery comes from being successfully kept in the dark. Clues are given, but in such a way that the author is still able to convincingly surprise us when the murderer’s identity is revealed at the end. But—more often than not—this is done clumsily and most intelligent viewers can spot who the killer is long before the story takes us there.
Done properly, it’s like a magic trick performed by a master. With clever misdirection, the storyteller is able to pull off a bravura coup de grace and we have no choice but to applaud. Done poorly and it’s like a magic trick performed by an enthusiastic amateur. The kind that just leaves you staring unsympathetically as they try to pretend they didn’t screw the whole thing up right from the beginning.
It’s an expectation largely fostered by the same storytellers with the most to lose if they fail to deliver. Despite the lessons taught by TV’s “Columbo” (in which we learned that there was just as much—if not more—joy to be found in the pursuit as the destination), this model is still the norm—with the result that many good or even great works end up being dismissed by audiences who feel they haven’t been sufficiently out-maneuvered in the process.
Which would be fine were it not for the fact that this expectation of clever revelation has spread beyond the genres where it makes sense and is now often used to measure works for which it should not apply. How else do we explain the fact that “predictable” is the word most often used to describe an unsatisfying entertainment experience? For some viewers, the element of surprise is so important that if they correctly guess any one element of a film prior to its onscreen revelation, they immediately judge the whole project an instant failure.
Here’s a purely anecdotal example: I remember walking out of a screening of David Fincher’s now seminal and incredibly influential Se7en and listening as a fellow filmgoer complained, “That movie was bullshit. I totally knew her head was in the box.”
It was a statement that made my jaw drop and almost compelled me to comment on it then and there, before I decided it wasn’t worth my time to get in a fight about a movie with a stranger. There I was, overwhelmed by the impact of an incredibly stylish and intelligent film with one of the most singularly nihilistic endings in the history of Hollywood cinema and this idiot was ready to dismiss it completely because he correctly guessed a plot point a whole three minutes before the film confirmed everyone’s suspicions.
It made no sense to me then and it makes no sense to me now. Which is why I have little sympathy for those folks who run screaming from so-called “spoilers”—that is, details of the plot learned prior to viewing.
I admit mine is an unpopular opinion, but it’s one borne not out of contrariness, but rather experience. As a young movie lover, my first exposure to the majority of great films came not from seeing them unspoiled, but rather by reading about them in full. Before I was 13, I knew the plots to the majority of the most important movies ever made before I had ever seen them and as I began the process of viewing those films I found that not only was the experience not “spoiled” by my knowledge—it was actually improved.
That’s because instead of spending my mental energy trying to keep track of what was happening, I was instead able to focus on the artistry with which those happenings were depicted. The clear lesson was this: A great film is a great film regardless of how much you know going into it. To insist otherwise—to insist that the overall experience should be judged by a series of momentary surprises—is the same as reducing the entire act of lovemaking to just the orgasm and ignoring all the thousand pleasures the flesh is heir to throughout the entire process.
And The Last of Sheila is just such a great film and it is extremely relevant to this discussion because it is a mystery so assured of its own entertainment value that it deliberately reveals the identity of the film’s killer in the first 10 minutes via a close-up of this photograph:
With this, the film’s screenwriters throw down the gauntlet to both those who miss the photo’s significance and those who grasp it immediately. With this shot they are saying, “This movie is so fucking good, it doesn’t matter if you know who the killer is. In fact, we WANT you to know, because then you’ll see just how smart we are as we get you there.” It’s almost arrogant in its provocation and it works because—in this case—their self-assurance is totally justified.
They being Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, who collaborated together just this once, which definitely adds to the film’s unique sensibility and aura. Sondheim (debatably the greatest Broadway composer of all time) and Perkins (a gifted performer who Mike Nichols described as the only truly intellectual actor he’d ever met) were both united in their mutual love of games, one-upmanship and bitchy gossip, which they funneled into one of the most intricate and exceptional screenplays ever written.
The film begins with a woman—our titular Sheila (Yvonne Romain)—having an unheard argument with her husband, film mogul Clinton Green (James Coburn). She runs out of the house and onto the road, where she is promptly run over and killed by an unseen driver who takes off before they can be caught.
Fast forward a year later and Clinton has decided to reunite the group there at the house the night of Sheila’s death for a trip on his luxury yacht in the Mediterranean Sea. They include Tom (Richard Benjamin), a frustrated screenwriter reduced to rewriting bad Italian westerns, his wife Lee (Joan Hackett), the wealthy daughter of a Hollywood producer, Phillip (James Mason), a once successful director now reduced to filming dog food commercials, Christine (Dyan Cannon), a brash and colourful agent to the stars, Alice (Raquel Welch), a gorgeous starlet who no one takes seriously and Anthony (Ian McShane), her brutish husband/manager.
Watching the film, there’s a definite sense of roman à clef shenanigans at play. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that Perkins and Sondheim drew these characters from people they actually knew, but they remain broad enough that only Cannon’s character is immediately identifiable as being based on Sue Mengers—if only because she was the only brassy, loud-mouthed female agent of note to be working at that level at that time.
Clinton—a low level sadist—gathers them all together and takes their picture in front of the boat before they depart. He seems very particular about where they stand in the photo, but no one says anything, nor do they notice when he pins the Polaroid to the board in his games room. He then announces his intention to make a film based on his late wife’s life called The Last of Sheila and that the bulk of their week long trip will be taken up with a game to be played in her honour.
Midway through the game (which involves the players trying to determine who possesses a card with a specific crime attached to it), Clinton is found murdered and Tom convinces everyone that the real purpose of the game was for the widowed husband to reveal that he knew the identity of Sheila’s killer—someone in their midst.
From there the film twists and turns towards one of the most hilariously cynical conclusions in film history (one that is—in its way—almost as nihilistic as the ending of Se7en, if not nearly as depressing). I’d happily spoil it here without fear of ruining a second of it, were it not so craftily convoluted I wouldn’t even know where to start.
Directed by Herbert Ross, the film ranks amongst not only the great film mysteries, but also the great behind the scenes show business satires. It portrays a world where the conventional rules of society don’t apply and rather than prison, karmic punishment lies in having to do rewrites instead of original first drafts. The joy it brings is not just a product of its meticulous construction, but also the wit and gamesmanship of its characters.
Everyone in The Last of Sheila would be a villain in another film set in decent society, but Hollywood—the film insists—is little different than the criminal underworlds we see depicted in films like John Wick. When one of the characters turns out to be a “little child molester” no one bats an eye and the film glides past it except to note that the redundancy of “little” in the phrase is an important clue to the solution of the overall riddle. We are dealing with monsters here, but they are charming, beguiling monsters with expensive luggage and exciting secrets.
Which is why it would be difficult for me to not want to pummel anyone who’d announce that the entire enterprise was “bullshit” because they guessed who the killer was because of that photograph. It’s a boorishly literal attitude that completely dismisses the true pleasures of cinema in favour of the brief amusement that comes from being hoodwinked. Rather than detracting from the experience, spoilers actually give you the freedom to go beyond the surface and enjoy the virtuosity—to hear the skill and cleverness with which the notes are played.
To live and die by the twist means being disappointed more often than it means being satisfied, because it’s far easier to come up with a shocking revelation than it is to explain or justify it. Yes, the surprise of the unexpected can be a lot of fun (and is likely the first thing you’ll remember about a movie), but there is just as much fun to be found in the elements we take for granted—the vast ocean that surrounds these little islands of GOTCHA! If you’re prepared and ready to dive in, then that’s where you’ll discover the true treasures are located.
CC photo credit: Warner Bros.