The Late Show January 15, 2021
1 Hr., 40 Mins.
he Late Show (1977), written and directed by Robert Benton, focuses on a private eye not often checked in on in detective fiction: the elderly gumshoe — the lone wolf equally wearied and weathered. In The Late Show, that elderly gumshoe is Ira Wells (Art Carney). He lives in Los Angeles and has been doing this for the last 30 years. The film opens with a shot of the first few sentences of an
autobiography he's writing — for now titled “Memoirs of a Real Private Detective” — still sitting in his typewriter. Ira has seen better days. In his 60s and still on the mend from last year's stomach surgery, he isn’t as prolific as he used to be, and is nearing financial destitution. We can’t be sure if there was a time where he was really at the top of his game or if he’s always just sort of gotten by.
When Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart respectively played the legendary fictional private eye Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), their cynicism had humor to it. Their characters constantly wise-cracking (something that seemed to be a coping mechanism, dealing with society’s ugliness so often), they seemed to relish portraying this lonely heroism. But Ira’s too drained from decades of thankless work to have a sense of humor anymore — though he might have had it when he was Powell's age. He's too old to believe in sentimentality. Carney’s performance conveys all-consuming tiredness — he could be sitting completely still and emit more noticeable fatigue than someone else in the room in the grips of a deep sigh.
A new case practically falls into Ira’s lap at the beginning of The Late Show. It would be a blessing if it weren’t so personal. His ex-partner, Harry (Howard Duff), shows up at the room he rents one night and immediately collapses. He’s been stabbed, apparently by someone involved in his last case. On moral principle Ira decides to pick up where Harry left off; he reluctantly teams up with an eccentric, Margo (Lily Tomlin), who had planted the investigation’s seedlings in the first place to help him. The narrative of The Late Show is involving and thankfully not overly twisty; the problem with many Marlowe books and adaptations is that they were too maze-like. It’s tightly constructed and, once its tangles have been straightened out, it’s satisfying. But a satisfactorily told story in detective fiction doesn’t mean much in the long haul.
What makes The Late Show more indelible than the bulk of its genre counterparts is Tomlin and Carney's interplay. Odd-coupling is an overcooked trope in crime procedurals. But what we get here isn’t so simple as one party being a believer and the other a skeptic, the other prone to thinking in abstracts while the other depends on logic. Tomlin begins the movie as a pure kook — she can’t believe what’s happened to Harry and just wants Ira’s help getting her catnapped kitty back. (She first came to L.A. to pursue an acting career, which didn’t pan out, so these days she’s oscillating between small-time drug dealing and the unsuccessful managing of up-and-coming performing acts.) She compulsively yammers on so much that she seems like she’s purely going to be an annoyance to the ever-gruff Ira. “I go with the flow,” she says of herself unconvincingly. Later, she tells Ira that he can be exhausting to her because she has to keep both her and his sides of the conversations up.
But she starts warming up to us (and to Ira) once she begins to insert herself into the investigation. She realizes that maybe she likes this detective stuff more than she ever has anything else. Her new love is solidified for her when she’s behind the wheel during a stakeout with Ira. The person they’re following around eventually notices; a car chase ensues, and Margo winds up improvising so well in the front seat that temporarily the movie’s like a smaller-scale cousin of The French Connection (1971), relocated to a sleepy L.A. suburb in the dead of night. Margo is practically giddy once they’re in the clear. “I feel like I’ve just dropped acid,” she confesses.
Margo’s never been sure about acting, dealing, or managing, but she can really envision herself doing what Ira’s been doing for decades. Her unexpected enthusiasm helps revive at least some of his own keenness for his craft; his expertise makes her feel like this new interest of hers could have a future. Her perpetual high-strungness and his humorlessness initially seem incompatible; the movie’s victory is that it makes the compatibility feel earned rather than neatly contrived once it announces itself. It also helps that Margo is played by one of her generation’s most likable performers. Another actress might make Margo’s frequent franticness and habit of talking when she’s nervous grating, but Tomlin turns it into keyed-up comedy. You almost don't notice how masterful a performance this is until you think to yourself that Margo has grown on you the way a once-irksome acquaintance might.
The Late Show's storyline doesn't have quite the same energy. We’re never not engaged by it, but there’s such a bagginess to Carney’s and Tomlin’s work — there’s room offered to them by Benton to move out of the set character “types” to which they've been assigned — that we also half-expect the movie to emulate that bagginess. We expect more time dwelling inside Ira and Margo's budding friendship without being too affixed to the case that has brought them together. But The Late Show surprisingly doesn’t live up to those expectations, and though the movie ends on a note of possibility and optimism that lends it some expansiveness, it feels too open and shut.
We don’t feel like we’ve gotten enough time with these characters. When I’ve offered a similar line in past reviews I’ve meant it only as a compliment — a way to say that even though I could recognize that the movie had accomplished what it needed to, it was still sad to say goodbye to the people who populated it. But with The Late Show we really do feel like we need more than we get, and so it ends without fullness. Still, what it accomplishes eclipses what feels like incompleteness. The movie forgoes the glamorousness of detective fiction without losing sight of what makes it exciting, and it feels unusually lived-in. The Late Show is so successful at its most subversive that that’s probably the reason why the shortcomings feel protrusive. They wouldn’t be that noticeable in something more run of the mill, and The Late Show decidedly isn’t. B+