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If 'The Glass Onion' has you craving ensemble murder mysteries, try 'The Last of Sheila'

James Mason, Raquel Welch, James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, and Ian McShane in "The Last of Sheila" (1973)
Warner Bros.
James Mason, Raquel Welch, James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, and Ian McShane in "The Last of Sheila" (1973)

With the success of the new Knives Out sequel Glass Onion, a lot of people are looking for more ways to satisfy their craving for ensemble murder mysteries, and a movie that director Rian Johnson has repeatedly cited as inspiration for Glass Onion is 1973’s The Last of Sheila.

As in Johnson’s film, this one begins with a group of people receiving a mysterious invitation. In this case, the group consists of a bunch of has-been film industry people: a director who’s fallen to doing dog food commercials, a writer who hasn’t worked on anything but rewrites for years, and a few others like that. They’ve been invited to join a producer they all know aboard that man’s yacht for a week, and it turns out he’s crafted a twisty-turny game for them to play while they’re there, a game full of intrigue and clues and some light psychological sadism. Add to this the fact that everyone invited was also present a year before at this producer’s house for a party that resulted in the unsolved death of the man’s wife, and we can be pretty sure there’s more to what’s happening than anyone thinks.

This is the kind of movie you really have to stick with for it to fully pay off, because for a long time it seems incredibly messy and needlessly complicated. And it probably is needlessly complicated, but the way it all comes together and actually does tie up pretty much all the loose ends before the credits roll is fun to see. And the cast is a hoot, with James Coburn as the producer, James Mason as the director, Raquel Welch, Ian McShane, Dyan Cannon, and other familiar faces. The way it treats some of the subject matter is maybe a little cringey, but also these are not exactly the most savory characters, and the movie has a healthy cynicism about what these people might actually do given a situation like this. Oh, and did I mention the screenplay was written by Stephen Sondheim and Norman Bates himself, Anthony Perkins? The Last of Sheila may not be a full-on masterpiece, but it’s easy to see why Rian Johnson borrowed so much from it.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.