Saturday, May 16, 2015
the late show-one of my all time favorite movies of any kind
Familiar Yet Foreign Noir: The Late Show
SCOTT ADLERBERG from Criminal Element
The opening of Robert Benton’s private eye film The Late Show is chock-full of deception. We first see the Warner Brothers logo, but it’s not the Warner logo of 1977, the year the film was released. It’s a sepia colored 1940’s era Warner logo, and right away we hear soft 40’s style piano music playing and a woman’s voice that starts a song. It’s a melancholic, romantic song that a singer in the background of a 40’s film noir lounge scene might have crooned. The logo fades to give us a shot of an old manual typewriter, an Underwood, with a sheet of paper in the carriage. “Naked Girls and Machine Guns,” the title on that page says. “Memoirs of a real private investigator, by Ira Wells.” As the camera pans, it passes a small framed photo of Martha Vickers, who played Carmen Sternwood in Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. It shows us a somewhat shabby room that has an unmade bed and a little bit of mess and a black and white wall picture of two younger men in natty suits and fedora hats. The movie’s coloring is subdued – everything from the wallpaper to the furniture seems to be done in some shade of brown – and by the time we get to a beefy, older man, Art Carney, seated in a recliner chair as he studies a racing form, his back to an old-fashioned black and white television set, we’d be forgiven for thinking we’re going to see a film that is either a film noir parody, an exercise in noir style nostalgia, or perhaps a straight-on pastiche, imitative in the extreme. But surprise, surprise. The Late Show is none of these. Benton’s film adheres to the classic structure of private eye film and literature, but within that structure, it mixes its components in a way not quite like anything else. The film is a reflective character study with a first-rate plot, continual tension, and comedy worthy laughs. Its dialogue crackles, at times fast and furious, but underneath the banter there's a melancholy mood. The pace seems unhurried, but at 93 minutes long, the movie is air tight. In a decade that saw a revival of private eye films, some more revisionist in intent than others – Chinatown, Night Moves, The Long Goodbye, Farewell My Lovely, to name a few – The Late Show remains one of the very best.
The plot kicks off fast. A moment after we first see Ira Wells (Carney) sitting in his recliner, his land-lady Mrs. Schmidt says that he has a guest. So late at night? The man there to see him opens his mouth to say Ira’s name and blood comes out. He’s been shot point blank in the stomach. It’s clear the man, about Ira’s age, is a former partner of Ira’s, and Robert Benton has some cultural reference fun here also: this man, named Harry, is the veteran actor Howard Duff, radio’s Sam Spade from 1946 to 1950. I first saw The Late Show when it opened, at age 15, and even though I had no idea who Duff was, my parents instantly recognized him and chuckled, getting the joke. In any event, the former tough guy dies in Ira’s room, but not before giving Ira information that will be of great importance later. At Harry’s funeral, an old friend of them both named Charlie (Bill Macy) introduces Ira to Margot, an oddball, 70’s style New Age woman played by Lily Tomlin. A male acquaintance of Margot’s has taken her cat because Margot owes him money, and Charlie has touted Ira as just the guy, a total pro, who can track down her acquaintance and get her cat back. Ira scoffs at the “two bit job” offered, but when he finds out more about the case, and how it ties in to Harry’s death, he says he’ll take it. Not that Margot is impressed. Besides his gut, Ira has a slight limp, a hearing aid, and a crotchety personality that shows no respect for the young. Margot voices her doubts about Ira, but Charlie, who oozes two bit chiseler through his every pore, reassures her. Ira may not look like much, but he’s been around and you’re not going to find a better gumshoe. Still, taking him on will cost her. He’s no amateur. As Ira tells her, “I’m the best and I get paid like the best.” Oddly, it’s this assertion of his prowess that sways Margo, and she hires him.