Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Late Show and the Private Eye

The Late Show 003

The Late Show and the Private Eye

Any good detective story focuses more on the detective than the story.  If the detective, cop, private eye, what have you, is interesting then the plot will be interesting, while remaining oddly secondary to the characters.  It’s how so many private dick yarns that tend towards the confusing side still work as entertainment.  The most notable example is The Big Sleep and all its half-apocryphal accompanying stories and legends wherein the point isn’t whether the story makes sense or not, the point is whether you care.  If you care, you’re probably paying attention to the wrong thing.  You should be focusing on Philip Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge.   The story should only act to propel the characters along so we can watch them for longer periods of time.  Robert Benton’sThe Late Show understands this exactly and gives us one of the best of the genre and one of the best movies of the seventies.
The Late Show 001

The seventies saw a reinvention of detective fiction with three in particular, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown andThe Late Show, each taking a different route.  Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye sought to deconstruct the private eye, and noir, in one big California-Cool package.  Chinatown presented it as a reinvention within the traditional outlines of the form and The Late Show presented it as is, set in the present day of 1977 with its lead private dick, Ira Wells, old and limping, hard of hearing but still able to wield a gun, talk tough and call every lady he meets “doll.”
The story of The Late Show begins when Ira’s landlady, Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson), knocks on his door (he rents a room in a boarding house) and announces he has a guest.  Ira doesn’t hear the knock at first as he’s busy doing a crossword while the late show plays loudly in the background.  When he does answer, he finds it’s his partner, Harry Regan (Howard Duff), who looks like he’s been out all night, prompting Ira to comment on the bender he’s apparently been on.  That’s when blood starts pouring from his mouth and it becomes clear he’s been on no bender, he’s been shot.  Ira lays him down, has Mrs. Schmidt call the police, and scolds Harry for letting himself get shot.  Then, with only a few words, Ira says his goodbyes to his old partner in what has to be the most affecting opening scenes to any private dick movie ever.  And it only works because the characters are older.  Younger partners, like Spade and Archer, would have no such visible emotional attachment, but the emotion that barely seeps out from Ira indicates a long, hard-knock life that’s been through everything and probably just wishes that his partner could go in his sleep at a comfortable old age.  Hell, he made it this long.  Maybe Ira still will.

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