Thursday, December 16, 2021

the last of sheila: a stylish whodunnit

Fans of games, puzzles and mysteries will enjoy the 1973 film The Last of Sheila. Written by the dynamic duo of composer Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins, the film features an all celebrity cast trying to conceal their most scandalous secrets from one another as they play a high-stakes murder mystery game.

Pre cruise, L-R: Philip (James Mason), Alice (Raquel Welch), Lee (Joan Hackett), Anthony (Ian McShane), Christine (Dyan Cannon) and Tom (Richard Benjamin)

Movie producer Clinton (James Coburn) is well-known for his love of parlor games and his wicked sense of humor. A year after the hit-and-run death of his gossip columnist wife Sheila he invites a selection of friends to join him on his yacht in the South of France to cruise and play games. At least, that's what he tells them. Most of the attendees also happened to be present at a house party on the night of Sheila's death: actress Alice (Raquel Welch) and her manager/husband Anthony (Ian McShane), Director Philip (James Mason), talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon) and writer Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his heiress wife Lee (Joan Hackett). When they all arrive dockside they are eager to check out the luxuriously appointed yacht and its well-supplied liquor cabinet.

Their enjoyment is short-lived, however. Almost immediately the first game has begun and it's a doozy - a game of secrets. Clinton gives each of his guests a typed index card with a secret ("You are a Shoplifter," "You are a Homosexual," etc). Each night they will embark on a scavenger hunt in some gorgeous port of call to hunt for clues to their assigned secret's identity. The object of the game is to find out what everyone else's secret is, while keeping your own peccadillo hidden. It doesn't take long for the players to figure out that these secrets aren't just made up by Clinton for a random parlor game - they are real. And one of the group will do anything to protect their particular secret, even murder.

Clinton (James Coburn) loves to play games

It is no surprise that the dialogue by Sondheim and Perkins is witty and fun. In the 1960s the pair used to stage their own elaborate scavenger hunts with friends, one of whom was Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl, Play it Again, Sam), who directs the film. The French Riviera locations are gorgeous, as are the cast, who look especially great in the cruisewear costumes designed by Joel Schumacher (yes, that Joel Schumacher). As lovely as Raquel Welch always is, it is Dyan Cannon who really steals every scene she is in. She is vibrant and radiant, playing a brassy but lovably irrepressible casting agent. Viewers of The Last of Sheila will not only enjoy the mystery at its core, but the subtle skewering of Hollywood and its denizens that permeates every scene.

Christine (Dyan Cannon)plotting her next move in the game

The Last of Shelia is the granddaddy of classic mystery films like Clue, Deathtrap and most recently, Knives Out. Sondheim and Perkins had planned to do some other mystery films together, but unfortunately none of those projects were ever completed. That's Hollywood.


The Last of Shelia is now part of the Warner Brothers archive collection, made from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. The picture is terrific. Sharp and colorful details in foreground and background shots. 

1080p High Definition master from 4K scan of the original camera negative. 

Color. 16x9. Aspect ratio 1.85:1 (original aspect ratio 1.85:1). 



DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono, English. Subtitles, English SDH.

119 minutes. Rated PG.


Original trailer

Audio commentary with Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, and Raquel Welch. The audio commentary is actually fun to listen to, with primarily Cannon and Benjamin together reminiscing about their filming experiences as they watch the film. Raquel Welch provides her personal memories as well, but is clearly spliced in from a separate location.

Originally published on Cinema Sentries 

Friday, December 10, 2021

matt scudder – nostalgic nyc noir

 My dad was a huge fan of the prolific author Lawrence Block. Block is best known for two series of books, one following ex NYC cop Matthew Scudder and his battles with alcohol and guilt, as well as a light-hearted series about the charming burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, who always seems to find himself on a job in a fabulous residence that also happens to contain a dead body. Most of the Scudder novels are included with my Audible subscription, so I have been enjoying revisiting a few that I read years ago and discovering some new (to me) ones. But mostly I have enjoyed time-traveling with Scudder to New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, a time before the internet and 24-hour cable news and so many other scourges of our times.

Matthew Scudder has a tragic backstory and spends a good deal of his time in coffee shops, ginmills, and walking the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, as he tries to “do favors” for friends. After he quit the force he started drinking – and also functioning as a quasi private eye. Even under an alcohol haze he can put his considerable talents to helping track down assorted murderers and ne’er-do-wells. Block loves to underline the day-to-day repetitiveness of city life as Matt drops numerous dimes in payphones, hops into cabs or rides subways and mass transit trains all over the boroughs of New York to solve a case – all while hitting his favorite watering holes several times a day to drink his favorite concoction – coffee with a shot of bourbon – it helps him keep his drunk on while also keeping him awake.

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986) by Lawrence Block

What is most interesting about Scudder is his unapologetic manner – he doesn’t pretend or aspire to be a hero. He is dogged, determined, and sometimes enacts his own sense of justice. He is the first to talk of his many flaws. Most of the talk, the dialogue in these books, is first-rate. Block has a way with words, but especially with conversation between characters. This hits its apex in When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, a story the now sober Scudder tells while looking back on his hard-drinking days with his even harder-drinking buddies.

The best audio versions of these books are by readers who really seem to capture the character of Matthew Scudder, as well as being able to act out the other characters convincingly. Strangely, the weakest reader so far has been the author himself, who voices perhaps his best-known Scudder novel, Eight Million Ways to Die. It is a pivotal book in the series, as it chronicles Scudder hitting his lowest point with the booze and taking his first tentative steps towards quitting it and joining Alcoholics Anonymous. Block’s reading of the novel at the beginning is rote – but his delivery does seem to come alive as Matt sobers up. This may have been intentional, but frankly the other books are far more enjoyable for listeners, books where the voice actors can act, not just read.

That minor quibble aside, I am really enjoying my recent foray into nostalgic NYC noir. I’ve listened to the first seven books in the series. There are seventeen novels and numerous short stories featuring this classic detective (even if Matt wouldn’t call himself one). Favorite narrators in the series so far are Alan Sklar and Mark Hammer. There are numerous non-PC attitudes expressed by many characters, as to be expected of NYC low-lifes circa ’70s-’80s, but some readers/listeners might find the racial, homophobic and ethnic slurs offensive. Matt Scudder never projects such views, but runs across or spends time with characters who do.

The Sins of the Fathers (1976) – narrated by Alan Sklar

In the Midst of Death (1976) – narrated by Alan Sklar

Time to Murder and Create (1977) – narrated by Alan Sklar

A Stab in the Dark (1981) – narrated by William Roberts

Eight Million Ways to Die (1982) – narrated by Lawrence Block

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986) – narrated by Mark Hammer

Out on the Cutting Edge (1989) – narrated by Dan Butler

First published on Cannonball Read

Friday, October 15, 2021

poltergeist, circa 1930

In The Haunting of Alma Fielding English woman Alma Fielding has had a hard life. She has had numerous health issues, is in a dull marriage and struggling financially. The world around her is in chaos, too – war with Germany seems imminent. And to add to all of her stress she seems to have attracted an at first mischievous, at times violent spirit – a poltergeist. Alma’s haunting has attracted the local newspaper, and also the attention of Hungarian emigre Nandor Fodor, a journalist turned psychic phenomena investigator. Fodor has created his own institute of psychic investigation. He is part Ghostbuster, part hopeful spiritualist. He ands colleagues start to study Alma – and to attempt to witness a psychic event as it happens. Some of the “examinations” of Alma and the lengths to which Fodor and his investigators try to prevent or identify any fraud or hocus focus on her part are quite elaborate. And also quite unprofessional. Especially strange is a “field trip” to the seaside where Alma may or may not have been “gifted” a piece of costume jewelry by her spirit.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding
The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

The writings of Sigmund Freud were in fashion at the time, along with spiritualism, and The Haunting of Alma Fielding suggests the effects of trauma and loss on the human psyche can 1. manifest psychic phenomena or 2. manifest a desire for psychic phenomena (?).

Author Kate Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) has compiled all of Fodor’s records and other documentation of Alma’s case to (re)tell her story. The Haunting of Alma Fielding may not ultimately be very haunting a tale, but Summerscale takes us step by step through the investigation and it is fascinating, if ultimately quite sad. Alma. whether you believe her role in the strange happenings that occur around her or not, was a troubled, lonely soul.

classic swedish noir

 Originally published on Cannonball Read

In 1965 writing partners (and partners in real life) Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö embarked on a quest – to write and publish ten novels in ten years featuring Stockholm’s Martin Beck. The novels, police procedurals, were structured as not only mysteries, but reflections and commentary on modern Swedish society. The duo wore alternating chapters – but since I haven’t read any of their individual works I couldn’t guess who wrote which chapter in any given novel. The books are cohesive and follow policeman Martin Beck as he progresses through the ranks of the Swedish national police.

Although these books were written decades ago many of the issues and crimes depicted by Sjöwall and Wahlöö sound eerily familiar – violence against women and children, serial killers, terrorism. Their top detective Beck is an interesting character. We follow him through the ten years as his marriage implodes and he becomes more and more disillusioned with the growing militarism of the police and his superiors’ endless bureaucracy (and incompetence). But Beck doesn’t work alone. Equally interesting are his colleagues Lennart Kollberg and Gunvald Larsson and female detective Åsa Torell and Rhea Nielsen. I listened to these books on Audible and was grateful for the reader to pronounce all of the Swedish place names, but also surprised at the pronunciation of some of the characters names. If I had been reading it in paperback or Kindle I never would have guessed that Kollberg is pronounced Kahl-bree-yah in Sweden.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö are considered the origin and of modern Scandi-noir. They have influenced a great many writers, such as Henning Mankell (Wallander), Stieg Larsson (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) and Jo Nesbø (The Snowman). I enjoyed all of the books and came to care about Beck and his compatriots. Not only was reading the series doable, it satisfied my completist mentality. I really enjoyed a glimpse into the swinging ’60s and ’70s Sweden. Maybe not so free-thinking as I might have thought. My favorites were probably The Man on the Balcony, The Laughing Policeman, The Abominable Man and The Locked Room, although I recommend checking out the entire series. Although I appreciate the authors’ discipline, I wish there were more Beck novels. Apparently there are a ton of movie and television adaptations of the books and the characters, although so far I haven’t found any on any of my streaming services.

Martin Beck detective novels, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The books, in the order they were published (and how I read them) are as follows:

Roseanna (1965) – In this first novel of the series Martin Beck must determine the identity of the corpse of a young woman found in a canal. The solving of the case requires long-term and meticulous research and sometimes a little luck.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966) – Beck is sent to Budapest to find a missing journalist. Sixties Eastern Europe is an interesting backdrop and the reader gets to know more an=bout Beck’s home life and his quirks and attitudes.

The Man on the Balcony (1967) – The series takes a dark turn as Beck & Co. try to track down a serial pedophile/murder. Two bumbling cops, Kristiansson and Kvant, are introduced, as well as detective Gunvald Larsson to provide some subtle and wry comic relief.

The Laughing Policeman (1968) Maybe the most well-known of the series, this was adapted into a Hollywood movie starring Walter Matthau (which I haven’t been able to find streaming anywhere) and also won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1971. The opening, and the main crime to be investigated is stunning – on a snowy night a gunman, wielding a sub-machine gun, boards a commuter bus and systematically kills everyone aboard and then disappears. One of the passengers happens to be Beck’s young colleague detective Åke Stenström.

The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969) – Gunvald Larsson is about to replace a fellow cop on a routine surveillance assignment when the building they are observing goes up in flames. He singlehandedly rescues many of the residents, but Beck must determine the cause and more importantly, the why of the conflagration.

Murder at the Savoy (1970) – During a fancy banquet at Stockholm’s Savoy Hotel a gunman walks  in, shoots a man in the head and walks out. No one in the crowded room can offer much information on his identity. How will Beck track him down?

The Abominable Man (1971) – A former policeman is killed while in the hospital. Beck must not only track down the culprit but the motive. One of the most exciting books of the series, this involves a city-wide manhunt and a crazed sniper holding the city hostage.

The Locked Room (1972) – This book involves two separate crime investigations – a series of bank robberies (which was apparently a big problem in Sweden in the ’70s) and Beck trying to solve a classic locked room mystery.

Cop Killer (1974) – This book has a callback to first novel Roseanna as Beck investigates the disappearance of a young woman in southern Sweden.

The Terrorists (1975) – Beck and his team are tasked to protect a very unpopular U.S. senator on his visit to Sweden. The novel follows Beck and his team as well as the terrorist cell that is planning to disrupt the visit.