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.
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...
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.
Margo (as a gunman runs away):
Plug the bastard, goddammit - kill him! You could get him!
I could get a heart attack, that's what I could get. Running all that way. How far do you think I'd get with this leg of mine? That's one. Two...whoever that guy is, he's no snob about how he kills people. That's a goddamn .45 he's using. There's a lot of ways to play any game. I play mine on the house percentages.
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 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:
I feel so high...just so incredibly high, I can't even tell you. I mean, I feel like I dropped acid...I mean, have you ever dropped acid?
Well, not in the last 10 minutes.
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.