The Late Show (1977)

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The Late Show
Dir. Robert Benton
Premiered April 22, 1977

I thought this was going to be about network television. I was wrong.

Art Carney plays Ira Wells, a veteran private eye who retires after the murder of his  partner (Howard Duff). At the funeral, he’s unexpectedly approached by his old pal Charlie (Bill Macy) to take on a new case for Margo Spelling (Lily Tomlin), a failed actress with a new age lifestyle and a dangerously naïve approach to her work as a wheelman for a local small-time bootlegger (Eugene Roche). Margo wants to get her cat back from a co-worker who’s holding him hostage. Wells would normally balk at such a lame proposition, but Charlie believes Margo’s employer is involved in the killing of Wells’ partner– and Margo finds herself eager for a piece of the action.

Everybody knows that when it comes to mystery movies, the mystery doesn’t matter– it’s all an excuse to have fun with the characters and setting– but this is only true to a point. The mystery in The Late Show really doesn’t matter; once Wells and Margo are together and start getting along, the plot completely loses relevance– a problem aggravated by the involvement of at least three key players who are never seen.

At the same time, the dynamic between the film’s partners is great. Art Carney and Lily Tomlin were two of the most likable personalities in Hollywood in 1977, and the way their characters grow to genuinely care for each other without it becoming a romance makes for one of the best team-ups of the decade. I just wish the periphery was a little more interesting.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Margo’s outfits are extraordinarily hideous in a very 1970s sort of way (think of a cross between a granola elementary school teacher and a marionette), and her new-age slang sounds oddly Jerry Spinelli-ish. Wells takes a local bus with an ad for the popular radio station KMET, where my mother worked at the time. Porno theaters exist. One character is shot while laying in a waterbed. Wells’ fogeyish disdain for Margo’s unwavering faith in psychoanalysis is meant as a cutesy commentary on then-current trends. But her fixation with Astrology inexplicably lives on.

How Did It Do?
Once again, I’m reviewing a film whose budget and box-office grosses are unknown. Once more, I’m giving a middling review to a film that every critic loved at the time, earning a 100% rating on RottenTomatoes. Much of the praise is mixed, though, with lots of love for the film’s stars and director, but not as much for the film’s overall impact, with lots of talk of it being a “little film.” The Late Show was a passion project for semi-rookie writer/director Robert Benton, realized with the help of producer Robert Altman (which makes all of the sense), and it paid off, earning Benton an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Carney and Tomlin won a bunch of other awards as well. Film noir throwbacks were all the rage in the mid-70s with movies like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye, but while they weren’t as universally well-received in their times, they’re better remembered than The Late Show.

Next Time: The Children of Theatre Street

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