The Archivist #120: A “Last of” James Coburn Double Feature [THE LAST OF SHEILA & LAST OF THE…

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

James Coburn (1928–2002) is one of my favorite Hollywood icons, famous for his commanding timbre, lanky build, and infectious smile. But while he’s probably best known for playing a handful of heroic tough guys, I enjoy watching him work his specialties: silver-tongued charmers and dirty rotten bastards. That, to me, is Coburn, equally at home playing a hero, villain, or any of the many shades in between.

This edition of The Archivist delves into those shades of grey, highlighting two performances which aren’t immediately evident as “good guys” or “bad guys”, but rather specifically channeling that abiguity with performances that revel in both his charming and sinister characteristics — often simultaneously.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

Film producer Clinton Greene (Coburn) invites a group of friends for a cruise on his yacht, “Sheila”, honoring his late wife who was killed a year prior.

The wily showman announces a mystery “gossip game” as part of the week’s festivities, in which each guest is handed a card with a charged statement about a character they are assuming, eg. “You are a homosexual” or “You are an ex-convict”, which the other players must try to guess.

Suspicions arise that their host may be playing a dirty trick by exposing true secrets from among the group, likely to allege one of them of his wife’s murder, but the accusatory nature of the clues cannot be confirmed, for their smarmy host is killed shortly thereafter, opening up a whole new mystery.

Notably written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim and directed by Herbert Ross, The Last of Sheila has a lot of terrific talent attached. It’s not as devilishly clever as, say, Knives Out, but the magnificent ensemble makes it a pleasure to watch. The cast features a lot of my favorite actors like Coburn, James Mason, Raquel Welch, and Ian McShane; and ably rounds out the squad with Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, and Joan Hackett.

Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970)

Unlike the breezy and accessible The Last of Sheila, the second pick in this lineup is a tough one to recommend. Based on a play by Tennessee Williams (The Seven Descents of Myrtle) and directed by the great Sidney Lumet, Last of the Mobile Hot Shots is a sweaty, dirty, and very Southern kind of tale which begins comically but gets progressively darker and darker as the full picture comes into focus.

By pure random chance, Jeb Thorington (Coburn) is pulled out of a game show studio audience along with the woman occupying the seat beside him (Lynn Redgrave). The pair go on to win the day together, and the host, mistaking them for an engaged couple, offers them $3500 to get married on the show. Despite being complete strangers, they immediately agree, and thus begins the very odd tale of Jeb and Myrtle.

Jeb invites his new bride to return with him to his family plantation, which he hopes to restore to its former glory, and she decides to give their sham marriage a real chance.

But things get much more complicated back at the homestead, where resides Jeb’s half-brother “Chicken” (Robert Hooks), who is half black. Though once the best of friends, the pair have long been at odds, and the reasons for this become clearer as Myrtle is wedged between them.

Set in the dilapidated, decaying mansion in the days before an imminent flood which is sure to come when the levee breaks, Last of the Mobile Hot Shots is steeped in a grimy aesthetic that extends to its characters. Both Jeb and Chicken are calculating and cruel, unfortunately for woman who becomes embroiled in their war of enmity, more a pawn than a wife.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the obsessive nature of these warring characters runs so deep and weird (unfolding through surreal, red-tinted, overtly sexual flashbacks) that this movie, which was originally given an X rating, deserves some credit just for being so seedy, bizarre, and unconventional.

As a side note, the absence of subtitles on this disc is particularly unfortunate as I really had a hard time making out much of Myrtle’s dialogue. Redgrave’s chatty, high-pitched, twangy delivery makes for a very dynamic character but I sometimes couldn’t understand what she was saying, even when resorting to headphones.

The Package

Special Features and Extras —

Both DVDs feature the film’s original theatrical trailer.

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
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The Last of Sheila — [DVD] | [Amazon Video]
Last of the Mobile Hot Shots— [DVD]

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.

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