One of the last of the 70s era, nostalgia-fueled private eye throwbacks, The Late Show stars comedian Art Carney in a surprisingly authentic turn as a hard-boiled, over-the-hill shamus, drawn out of retirement for one last big case.
The movie wears its nostalgic heart on its sleeve from the get-go, beginning with a sepia-toned Warner Bros. logo and a slow crooning torch song over the opening credits, as the camera does a slow pan around the rented room of Ira Wells (Carney). In a nice bit of visual background laying, we see the bric-a-brac Ira's accumulated over years of P.I. work. A black & white WWII movie plays on the TV in the background, as Ira sits at his desk, the first page of his memoirs (titled "Naked Girls and Machine Guns") in the typewriter in front of him.
After this gentle opening, the plot kicks in immediately as Ira's landlady, Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson) knocks on his door and tells him he has a visitor. Ira finds old buddy Harry Regan (Howard Duff) gutshot and bleeding. "Mrs. Schmidt, call the police. Tell them to get an ambulance here fast. Tell 'em we got a dying man." Ira tries to get Harry to tell him who shot him, but no dice.
Later, at Harry's funeral, Ira is approached by another cronie form the old days, Charlie (Bill Macy), a two-bit, shady producer and informant. Charlie introduces Ira to Margo (Lily Tomlin), a nervous motormouth of a woman who wants to hire Ira to rescue her kidnapped cat from a drug dealer named Brian. Ira turns her down flat, but later confronts Charlie to see what the real game is. Seems Harry started off trying to help Margo and stumbled onto a larger crime, a stamp robbery turned murder, and tried to cut himself in on the finder's fee, leading to his death. Turns out one of the robbers is the same Brian who's holding Margo's cat to ransom.
To avenge his friend, Ira agrees to work with Margo and Charlie. Ira has Margo arrange for a meet, but Brian ends up shot dead on Mrs. Schmidt's front lawn. Soon Ira and Margo are up to their necks in a twisty plot full of blackmail, sex and more dead bodies, somehow involving a garrulous mobster named Birdwell (Eugene Roche) and his fashion-conscious muscle, Lamar (John Considine), Birdwell's femme fatale trophy wife, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), and her lover, Whiting, the owner of the missing stamps. As the violence and danger mount, even Ira himself begins to wonder if he still has what it takes to see this increasingly deadly case through to the end...
22-year-old Joanna Cassidy as Laura Birdwell.
While The Late Show has both feet firmly planted in sunny late 70s Los Angeles, the ghostly shadows of 1940s film noir, Black Mask magazine and Philip Marlowe haunt its corners. The film has the sort of burnished cinematography and melancholic tone that characterizes earlier films like Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and Roman Polanski's Chinatown. It's a less serious, smaller scale work than Chinatown and a more narratively linear one than Goodbye (interestingly, Altman produced The Late Show, though it bears no hallmarks of his style). Its murder mystery is solid and engaging, but is secondary to what writer/director Robert Benton is really interested in - the chalk-and-cheese, May/December relationship and uneasy alliance between the old-fashioned, no-nonsense, sixtysomething Ira and the goofy, flaky thirtysomething hippie chick Margo.
While the character of Margo, gabby pothead, Hollywood fringe dweller, wannabe agent and dilletante extraordinaire, frequently threatens to cross the line from quirky into outright irritating, a game Lily Tomlin, and the adroit script, manage to inject just enough flashes of vulnerability and sweetness to keep things in check. Thankfully, Carney's wonderfully gruff, sarcastic Ira is there as a counterpoint. Nearly every line Ira utters evokes the ethos of the typical old-school, tough-as-nails private dick. Ira has survived such a long time in this business out of a combination of grit and shrewd practicality.
When I first saw The Late Show many years ago, I remember being shocked that Carney, the skinny comic sidekick from The Honeymooners, could be so effective as a hard-ass. While Tomlin has by far the most lines and the showier part, Carney is the one who walks away with the picture. He imbues Ira with a believable, shabby tenacity, whether turning the tables on thugs, removing his hearing aid before calmly shooting out the front tire of a fleeing car, or dealing with leggy redheads trying to play him for a sap, his Ira shows that he knows all the angles; this particular dog might be old and a bit broken down, but he still knows plenty of tricks.
The supporting cast is small but capable. Bill Macy is particularly convincing as the oily Charlie, trying to work both ends of the game. Roche has fun as the seemingly genial but actually vicious Birdwell. Considine is appropriately slimy as his sadistic henchman, and the statuesque Cassidy seems to have stepped right out of the pages of a lurid detective pulp.
The talented Benton directs his own script with a relaxed pace, giving the characters plenty of room to breathe and interact. Benton is better known as the screenwriter of Bonnie and Clyde and Kramer vs. Kramer, but his script for The Late Show is no slouch, full of pithy dialogue and funny observations on L.A. culture, such as this exchange between a jubilant Margo and a wry Ira, after a successful car chase and escape:
His film works as both a pleasing character study of two oddballs coming together and a clever, old-school mystery tale with echoes of Chandler and Hammett (Margo even mentions Nick and Nora Charles at one point). While the pair certainly are a long way from the sophistication and glamor of The Thin Man, one could draw a line from Ira and Margo back to similarly mismatched "screwy dame" / straight-man detective pairings in classic Hollywood genre outings, such as Barbara Stanwyck driving cop Henry Fonda to distraction in The Mad Miss Manton, or Edna May Oliver assisting long-suffering inspector James Gleason in several Hildegarde Withers films in the 30s.
Of course, now the 70s have taken on their own distinct brand of rose-tinted appeal, as far removed from today's Smartphone and Twitter culture as Ira's "good old days" were from 1977. The Late Show benefits from this strange kind of double-barreled nostalgia, thanks to skillful writing and acting, as well as its understanding of, and affection for, the seedy fringes of Hollywood society.
DVD Note: Warner's DVD looks good and can be found for cheap on Amazon Marketplace (though be forewarned, it does come packaged in the dreaded "snapper"-style case. Extras include a brief interview snippet with Tomlin on Dinah! (the Dinah Shore variety program) and a trailer.
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