Noirvember Files: The Late Show (1977)
The massive influence of film noir can be traced through many facets of cinema; the subdivisions and iterations are about as labyrinthine as the classic stories that form the genre. While it’s impossible to deny the greatness of Hollywood classics, (Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Heat) sometimes the more modernized and self-aware iterations that came after the heyday of the genre are the most fun.
At least that’s the case with The Long Goodbye, Point Blank, Chinatown, and the lesser championed but equally great 1977 Robert Benton film, The Late Show.
A film noir that is a product of its time in the sense that it wouldn’t exist without the roots of the genre before it, Art Carney is Ira Wells; he’s been around, seen the old days, and in this world, he ranks alongside Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. But in 1970’s Los Angeles he’s a relic from another era, and he’s not afraid to the point that out either. Lily Tomlin is Margo, a wacky, freewheeling hippie who came to Hollywood to be a star but she manages a few singers, slings a little pot, talks about the zodiac and hopes to open her own business. What could these two possibly have in common? Well, when someone steals Margo's cat, she enlists the old gumshoe in helping her out.
It might sound like a silly concept or a typical case of old school versus new school, but The Late Show is the detective film that we’d see if Hollywood never stopped making the classic hard-boiled private eye film noir and let their stars age into new narrative and characters. Reflexive but not self consciously so, The Late Show is one of those cases where all the characters ring true, the story and direction confidently parry out humor and action without trying to sell you on either.
Carney and Tomlin are magical together; these characters work on some intuitive connection, a mixed bag of trust and curious apprehension. Margo admires Ira’s sense of propriety, intelligence, and in the scummy phonies that lurk in the criminal world Ira’s a dignified member of an endangered species. While Ira appears disapproving of his groovy counterpart there’s no sexual interest, they become partners, and their alliance is subtly beautiful in a way that each of these misfits gives one another more credit than most of the world has shown either of them.
What makes this punchy slice of crime so wonderful is that it’s accomplished and doesn’t deviate from its mission statement; The Late Show has the gutsy edge of a hard-boiled detective thriller, and instead of playing out the mismatched protagonists for laughs it uses their personas to substantiate the story. Wells opts out of chasing a carload of bad guys because he’s got an ulcer, his back might give out, he could have a heart attack; this isn’t funny, it’s what happens when you get old. Writer-director Robert Benton introduces something new to the genre - a resourceful hero with principles, but is scared in that he knows he’s aged out of a profession that doles out abuse and danger in spades.
Robert Benton, Art Carney, and Lily Tomlin carved out one of the most genuine films of its kind, and it’s a fun, violent, lightning-paced romp that delivers on all fronts. I’m tempted to evoke the adage "they don’t make'em like they used to” but in this case I don’t think they ever made movies like The Late Show, a few have come close (Altman, Penn, Hanson) but this little gem is its own thing.