Did you know that Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins wrote a mean-spirited murder mystery film? Yes, that Sondheim of West Side Story (and perhaps more aptly Sweeney Todd) fame and that Perkins of Psycho infamy. To this day, not many folks are aware. But Rian Johnson has been for a long time. He previously cited The Last of Sheila, which was made from Sondheim and Perkins’ script, as one of his favorite whodunits in the lead up to Knives Out’s 2019 release.
Now with our first trailer for Johnson’s follow-up, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, it would seem the director is intent on doing his own take of that 1973 cult classic—or at the very least homaging it extensively.
This fact is made clear at the beginning of the Glass Onion trailer. Before we even see Daniel Craig’s well-groomed gentleman sleuth onscreen, we hear that unmistakable “Southern” drawl.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Benoit Blanc gravely intones, “You expected a mystery. You expected a puzzle. But for one person on this island, this is not a game.” We are then bombarded with a slew of sizzling footage (and maddening clues). A group of friends(?) have gathered on an unnamed Greek island, presumably for a holiday of games and elaborate puzzles. What they discover, however, is a case of murder!
It’s an enticing setup for an old school locked room whodunit. Johnson should know since it’s more or less the game board Sondheim and Perkins established in The Last of Sheila.
That ’73 film, which was directed by Herbert Ross, acted as much like a dark, gossipy joke about the scribes’ show business friends as it did a total mystery. In the movie, an eccentric millionaire and producer (James Coburn) gathers a group of Hollywood friends for a cruise along the Italian Riviera. While it’s not quite Greece, it certainly looks close enough when Clinton drops the Sheila yacht’s anchor for a series of mini-games designed to reveal a larger murder mystery.
You see each of Clinton’s friends–including a film director (James Mason), two married screenwriters (Richard Benjamin and Joan Hackett), a movie star (Raquel Welch), and several other industry players, both serious (Dyan Cannon) and phony (Ian McShane)–are given a card at the beginning of the week revealing all sorts of sinister dark secrets for their “characters” in the game-within-a-movie: “shoplifter,” “informer,” “ex-con,” “homosexual,” “child molester,” and “KILLER.”
But as the game continues, each player realizes that their card speaks to another person’s darkest sins. And, eventually, a murder occurs!
Despite receiving positive critical notices, The Last of Sheila was a flop during its theatrical release, and indeed had vanished into semi-obscurity by the 2000s, complete with being nearly lost in out-of-print home media before it was rediscovered by a younger generation, which included notable filmmakers who cited it as an underrated classic. Those filmmakers include Edgar Wright, Larry Karaszewski, and Rian Johnson.
“I’m a whodunit junkie,” Johnson told the Austin American Statesman in 2019 while promoting Knives Out. “The Hercule Poirot movies, based on Agatha Christie novels, are touchstones for me—Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express—but also movies like The Last of Sheila, which is so incredible.”
Johnson is of course too shrewd to actually remake The Last of Sheila with Glass Onion. For one thing, most whodunit junkies like himself (and this writer) would immediately sleuth out the ending. But just as the first Knives Out movie partially harkened back to movies like Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1972 adaptation of Sleuth with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine—and which is visually echoed by Christopher Plummer’s murder mystery author living on a “Clue board” complete with dangerous props and toys all around—it’s plain to see that The Last of Sheila is a visual, and likely narrative, influence on Glass Onion.
In the trailer, we see a group of well-to-do elites who like those in The Last of Sheila have absconded to the Medeteranian for a week or weekend of games, a faux murder mystery, and beach bod sunbathing.
Things inevitably are going to go wrong. Although unlike the passengers of Sheila, at least these fine folks have one Monsieur Benoit Blanc to solve their problems!
Glass Onion: a Knives Out Mystery premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10 and on Netflix on Dec. 23.