The Late Show
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Art Carney won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Harry and Tonto (1974), a late career shift from the type of role most people associated with Carney. Of course, the role most people associated with Carney was Ed Norton on the classic Jackie Gleason television show, The Honeymooners. In fact, Carney had only done a handful of theatrical films before Harry and Tonto and none of them leading roles, so his Oscar came as a kind of double shock to most people in the industry. It shouldn't have been a shock, though, and it shouldn't have taken so long. Carney was one of the best actors of his era and when, three years later, he got the role of Ira Wells, an old time private detective barely making his way through life, in the movie The Late Show (1977), he gave the best performance of his career.
The Late Show is a movie that feels both of a time and out of time. It takes place in Los Angeles in 1977 and we recognize the period in fashion and setting. But the tone is that of a noir set in the '40s, only with the world weariness ramped up a hundred times. The opening scene of the movie not only sets the stage, it builds an entire universe in one scene, and Carney, with just a few short words to his dying partner, blows every other performance of 1977 out of the water. And we're only five minutes into the movie.
In the opening scene, Ira's old partner, Harry (the great, underused and underrated Howard Duff) shows up with a bullet in his gut and a mystery for Ira to solve. He came here because he knew Ira wouldn't let this slide and Ira is as good as his word. He may be world weary and tired but he's still better at this business than anyone in L.A. and Harry knows it. Ira starts to track down the leads he's gotten in the hopes of finding Harry's killer and also finding out what it all means.
Right away, anyone familiar with the genre recognizes the setup. The hero's partner has been killed and he's going to make sure his partner didn't die in vain. It's a setup we're used to seeing Humphrey Bogart take on, and The Maltese Falcon is an obvious influence, at least as far as the setup goes. We also expect a woman to show up and ask the P.I. to solve a case, entirely unrelated, or so we're led to believe. In this case, it's Lily Tomlin, as Margo Sterling, but all she wants to find is her cat. Did I mention Harry and Tonto is about Art Carney's character and his cat? The movie is twisting noir tropes into celebrity in-jokes while envisioning the over the hill investigator all at once. Add in the great Bill Macy as Carney's friend and Margo's acquaintance, and you've got one of the great detective, thriller, suspense, comedy, relationship movies of the '70s. In all honesty, you've got one of the best movies of the '70s, period.
The mid-'70s was a transitional period for Hollywood. The New Hollywood, as it was called when it started in the '60s, was filled with independent-minded actors and directors breaking out of the studio mold. Filmmakers like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Bob Rafelson joined performers and writers like Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne to bring a new sense of urgency to American filmmaking. But by the mid-'70s, with blockbusters by some of those same New Hollywood types, like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the studio was reasserting itself and smaller, offbeat films like The Late Show were already starting to suffer. Lily Tomlin, in particular, was a talent waiting to explode in the movies, having commanded the screen in Altman's Nashville just two years prior, but the types of movies she excelled in weren't the kind the studios were eagerly backing anymore.
Robert Benton wrote the screenplay in the mid-'70s and wanted Robert Altman to direct. Altman, after reading the script, agreed to produce but thought Benton should direct it himself. Benton did and showed an immediate talent for tight direction. Here, as in his later efforts like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984), there isn't any filler or wasted moments. The movie doesn't drag at any point and the editing, by Peter Appleton and Lou Lombardo, is precise.
The Late Show has some of the finest talent assembled in the '70s. In addition to Art Carney, Lily Tomlin and Bill Macy, there is the always superb Eugene Roche, a staple of '70s cinema, Joanna Cassidy, Ruth Nelson, and the already mentioned Howard Duff. All of them make The Late Show a pleasure to watch from start to finish but Robert Benton, as director and writer, and his editors, Peter Appleton and Lou Lombardo, make this one of the tightest detective dramas of the decade.
Director and Writer: Robert Benton Producer: Robert Altman Music: Kenneth Wannberg Director of Photography: Chuck Rosher Film Editors: Peter Appleton, Lou Lombardo Cast: Art Carney (Ira Wells), Lily Tomlin (Margo Sterling), Bill Macy (Charlie Hatter), Eugene Roche (Ron Birdwell), Joanna Cassidy (Laura Birdwell), John Considine (Lamar), Ruth Nelson (Mrs. Schmidt), John Davey (Sergeant Dayton), Howard Duff (Harry Regan)
By Greg Ferrara