Daily Archives: December 18, 2011

The Late Show (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Quirky couple solve mystery.

Ira Wells (Art Carney) is a crusty, old-fashioned detective from a bygone era who has settled down into retirement while renting out a small bedroom in the house of a sweet old lady (Ruth Nelson). One night he is visited by his old friend and fellow detective Harry Reagan (Howard Duff) who has been shot and dies before he can tell him the identity of his killer. Ira makes it a pledge to avenge the death of his friend and bring the killer to justice.  At the funeral he meets a flighty, free-spirited woman by the name of Margo Sperling (Lily Tomlin). She tries to hire Ira to get him to find out who has kidnapped her pet cat and holding him for ransom. Ira initially refuses until he finds out that his friend Harry had been investigating the case before he was shot.

Although billed as a comedy this is really much more of a gritty crime-drama molded as a modern day film noir. I think this is what threw me off when I first saw the film as well as audiences of the time.  With those two leads I was expecting a lot of zaniness especially with the pairing of such divergent characters. There is some subtle humor at times and one instance where Margo drives a van throw the front yards of some houses while escaping the bad guys, but overall the emphasis is really on the characters and the mystery. On this end it is okay. The mystery is intriguing enough to keep you involved and has a few nice twists and an array of weird suspects. Eugene Roche is the most amusing as Ron Birdwell, a man who is constantly trying to sell merchandise that he has stolen and has cluttered throughout his house.

The two lead characters propel the film and are well developed. Both actors play their parts well. I thought this was quite possibly Lily Tomlin’s best performance. It is also one that mostly closely resembles her true personality.  I enjoyed how at first both disdain the other, but then quietly come to appreciate each other and even grow a certain fondness and attachment.  However, I was disappointed that the film did not go further with this.  I thought the characters were highly believable and would have liked to have seen more conclusion as to what happens with their budding friendship. Personally I would have liked the first hour of the movie dealt with the initial case and then had them team up to solve an even more complex one in the second hour. A sequel or series would have been even better as it is certainly a potent premise.

One thing that really impressed me was writer-director Robert Benton’s keen eye for detail even with the little things. Although not always consciously noticed by the average filmgoer, the little things such as lighting, set decoration, and staging can having a very strong effect as to whether the film succeeds, or not.  A good director will always pay close attention to this while the poor one will overlook it, or cut corners. One example of this is Ira’s bedroom, which had the cluttered look most people’s homes have, but most movies fail to effectively recreate, as well as pictures and artifacts from years past that helped explain the character in a visual way. There is also a scene where Ira is doing his laundry at the local Laundromat while Margo talks to him about the case. I thought this was a nice touch as usually movie characters are never shown doing mundane daily tasks even though it is something most regular people have to spend a lot of their time doing. I noticed that he put in his clothes first and then the detergent, which I thought was a mistake. I presumed it was because actor Carney was just going through the motions and not paying attention, but then Margo mentions the error. This might have been an ad-lib on Tomlin’s part, but it is nice that they left it in as it helps accentuate the reality and shows even further how meticulous the detail was. I appreciated the scene involving actor Bill Macy who plays a bartender. Being a recently trained bartender I can attest that he mixed and served the drinks in the correct way, which isn’t always the case in other movies.

The Ira character also wears a hearing aid as did actor Carney in real life. There is one scene where Ira aims his gun and gets ready to shoot at a fleeing suspect, but just before he does he takes out his hearing aid. This makes sense as the loud sound from the blast at such short range would probably destroy the mechanism. The scene is so unusual that they added it into the film’s trailer and actress Tomlin even mentions it when she is interviewed about the film on the Dinah Shore show, which is part of the DVD’s special features. The only quibble I had here was that on the very next shot Ira has the hearing aid back in his ear and I thought it would have been too quick for him to have done that.

The only area where this film fails is in the use of the blood, which is a problem in a lot of movies. Blood is always a very dark red and yet here it is a bright red and looking almost like cherry syrup. When Ira investigates a murder scene he finds a long streak of this bright red stuff going along the carpet that looks quite evident that it was put on with a paint brush.

If you like a mystery that closely resembles the feel and pace of an old Phillip Marlowe case than you may enjoy this. It is technically well made in just about every aspect, but I still went away feeling that the films from the 30’s and 40’s end up doing it better.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 10, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Benton

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD