Late Show, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/14/05 19:06:29

"Don't you dare touch that dial!"
5 stars (Awesome)

It’s the little things that count. Consider a scene midway through “The Late Show,” in which our hero, aging gumshoe Ira Wells (Art Carney), chases after a killer. His target’s getting away in a speeding car, but Ira takes his time. Aims, fires. But before he does, he reaches up… and turns off his hearing aid.

Well, of course he does. That’s because “The Late Show” actually bothers to treat its characters like actual people. Sure, the movie is a play on the noir genre, and the story is a complex web that sounds familiar to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a good pulp thriller, yet sounds unfamiliar to anyone who’s actually led a normal, boring life. But that’s part of its genius; it takes genre conventions, then adds on a layer of character often ignored in Hollywood. We thrill to the adventure of our heroes, but the real hook to the film is its ability to handle characters.

The film, written and directed by Robert Benton and produced by Robert Altman, arrived at the height of a nostalgia boom in the 1970s. Revival theaters and late night broadcasts introduced a new generation to Bogie, Bacall, and the rest. Soon, Hollywood was drowning in 40s throwbacks, serious, comical, and everything in between. “The Long Goodbye.” “Farewell, My Lovely.” “Play It Again, Sam.” “The Cheap Detective.” A remake of “The Big Sleep.” And “The Late Show.”

Benton opens his film perfectly. The Warner Brothers logo is presented here in a golden monochrome; a jazzy tune cues up on the soundtrack, its title - “What Was” - telling us everything; a pan around Ira’s cluttered bedroom revealing an Underwood typewriter and the barely-begun memoirs it’s holding, a glamour shot on the wall, perhaps of a loved one long gone. This will be a film with one foot planted firmly in the past, Benton informs us without saying a single word.

The other foot, however, is firmly in the present - or, that is, the present of 1977. At the funeral of his friend, Ira is introduced to Margo (Lily Tomlin), as flaky a new age-y hippie as they made ’em. If Ira is old school, Margo’s truly modern times; she even wears pants, for cryin’ out loud. Ira, thanks to his endless supply of 40s slang, insists on calling her “dolly,” even though it’s clear this pot smoking gal who openly discusses her periods isn’t his kind of old-fashioned dame. (Well, Margo’s attitudes may be less lady-like than the sirens of yesteryear, but the overall behavior’s the same: in a brilliant monologue, Ira lets loose that “this town hasn’t changed, they just pushed the names around. Same dames, screwin’ up their lives the same way.” Although, of course, “they did it better back then.”)

Margo needs help finding her stolen cat, which is a two-bit job, to be sure. But there’s a link in the case to Ira’s dead friend, and if finding this fruitcake’s puss will help him track down the mug that popped ol’ Harry, then he’ll do what he’s gotta do.

With such a premise - and with such top notch comic stars in the leading roles (Bill Macy takes the third lead, as a slimy talent agent/rat fink) - one would expect a riotous “Odd Couple” type picture, with Carney forever rolling his eyes at the dippy Tomlin. But Benton makes a strange, wonderful choice here. Instead of predictable situation comedy, he decides to make his story about two people that become close friends. There’s something touching at work here, as the loner Ira finally lets someone into his life, as the ditzy Margo finds herself drawn to this man who’s more caring than he’ll let on.

It’s this character development that not only carries the picture, but raises it to greatness. Watch the interplay between Tomlin and Carney. Their give-and-take is effortless, two great actors understanding the rhythms of their dialogue, of their characters, of their surroundings. These are two superb performances (working off an expertly crafted screenplay) that make us believe that Margo and Ira are two real people caught up in unreal events. They work well with each other and off each other, and seeing them in action is a genuine joy.

(And how smart is Benton’s writing? He uses punchlines to clue the viewer into a character. For example, Margo, explaining to Ira who “Nick and Nora” are, offers this: “You know. ‘The Thin Man.’ Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford.” Her forgetting (or ignoring, or not knowing) the more familiar cinematic version of this popular detective couple makes for a good laugh, but it also lets us know once more that this woman isn’t thinking on the same wavelength as many of us. “The Late Show” is loaded with little bits like this, moments that sound like throwaway lines but in fact help build more solid characterizations.)

There’s so much attention to the characters that one can even read the film as a gentle study on aging. Ira’s body is falling apart, but he’s none too eager to give up just yet. He does not slip quietly into retirement, but he’s also unwilling to go completely modern. He’s an obsolete model looking for a way to remain useful, finally finding some smidgen of happiness in a person who needs him. That the cast and crew never force this issue, that they let it merely be just one more thing that comes naturally out of this story about people, tells so much about why the film works. It’s not pushy in its sweetness; it’s smart enough to let the sweetness simply happen.

Underneath this layer of character and performance lies the real fun of the picture. This is giddy mystery the way genre fans love it, a thick jigsaw that’s always careful in dishing out the pieces. Benton shows he’s a master at crafting a puzzle like this, and yet he’s not above winking at us. There’s a playfulness in the air. And not just in the comedy: Benton sees the beauty and fun in a well-placed chunk of noir slang (“You were born dumb and you’re gonna die dumb” is one of my favorites), or in a well-crafted moment of thrills (the discovery of a corpse in an apartment is a study in dark comic suspense that would make Hitchcock proud), or, simply, in a scene that allows the mystery to finally put all its pieces together.

When it all adds up, “The Late Show” is so much fun that its deeper layers become invisible. This is a sign of expert storytelling. Benton doesn’t show himself straining to make anything work. It’s seamless. All we notice is the entertainment, which, of course, is how it should be. It’s not until we examine it more closely that we discover just how carefully put together everything is here. Benton, a fine director and an indispensable writer (his other scripts include “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” “Superman,” and “Nobody’s Fool”), here is in top form, as is his cast members. “The Late Show” is a masterpiece disguised as a fluffy mystery-comedy, and it is not one to be missed.

And no, I will not tell you how a story about a missing cat becomes a story about blackmail, car chases, and murder.

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