Saturday, April 22, 2017


Neo-noir is the inevitable by-product of 1970s nostalgia-craze sentimentality colliding with post-Watergate pessimism. If inflation, the gas crisis, and a culture in constant flux (sex, religion, Women’s Lib, civil rights, drug use, youthquake) prompted much of America to seek comfort in the pop-culture romanticizing of the past and a so-called “simpler” time, then post-‘60s cynicism and Vietnam War malaise most certainly inspired many a filmmaker to outfit their rearview spectacles with a filter of healthy skepticism. A filter not at all certain that the Good Ol' Days were really all that different (or better) than the here and now.

With its distinct visual style and built-in fatalism, the 1940s film noir—particularly the ’40s private eye movie—proved a perfect fit for '70s revisionism. There were serious entries in the field: Chandler (1971), Chinatown (1974), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Robert Mitchum’s aging take on Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1978); some were seriocomic spoofs: Gumshoe (1971), Pulp (1972), and Peeper (1975); some were updates: Night Moves (1975); and some were broadly comedic: The Black Bird (1975), The Cheap Detective (1978), Murder by Death (1976). America's appetite for retrieving and redrafting the past was insatiable in the 1970s, and the updated film noir remained a plentiful and popular sub-genre, even if the results were sometimes wildly uneven.
One of the better films to come out of this era is Robert Benton’s The Late Show. Robert Benton is the 3-time Oscar-winning director/writer behind Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984) in addition to being a collaborator on the screenplays for Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Superman (1978), and What’s Up, Doc? (1972). The Late Show is Benton’s second feature as director (his debut was the 1972 western Bad Company) and his first solo screenwriting effort.

I bring all of this up because the first time I saw The Late Show (it opened at my then place of employment, San Francisco's Alhambra Theater, and was one of the last features I recall playing there before I quit to move to LA) I honestly thought I was watching a Robert Altman movie. In terms of tone, structure, appearance, and cast, The Late Show looks and feels like the best Robert Altman film Altman never made. To be fair, Robert Altman did produce, but like that strange alchemy that occurs with actors who appear in Woody Allen movies--resulting in all of them taking on Allen’s speech inflections and mannerisms--directors working on films produced by Altman (Alan Rudolph - Welcome to L.A. 1976; Robert M. Young - Rich Kids 1979) tend to make films that look exactly as though they were directed by Altman himself.
Art Carney as Ira Welles
Lily Tomlin as Margo Sperling
Bill Macy as Charlie Hatter
Thirty years ago, retired Los Angeles private eye, Ira Wells (Carney) was—to hear him tell it—one of the best in the business. A hard-boiled detective in the mold of any number of '40s tough-guy gumshoes dreamed up by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, Ira is still possessed of a steel-trap mind and continues to pepper his speech with the outmoded shamus slang of dime-store pulp novels. But Ira Well’s glory days are behind him.

Gray-haired, paunchy, outfitted with glasses and a hearing aid, Ira downs Alka Seltzers for his ulcer, limps due to a bum leg, and gets around town—a Los Angles he barely recognizes—by public transit. A self-styled loner, Ira rents a small room in the home of an elderly widow, one Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson), and spends his time reading the racing forms and writing his memoirs: “Naked Girls & Machine Guns: Memoirs of a Real Private Detective. 
Eugene Roche as Ron Birdwell
When former partner Harry Regan (Howard Duff, who, in the '40s portrayed Sam Spade on the radio series) suddenly turns up at his door, mortally wounded from a gunshot to the stomach, yet talking of a sweet deal that could mean “a lotta dough” for the both of them; loyalty compels Ira to embark on an investigation to uncover the identity of his friend's killer. This decision almost immediately brings him into contact (though not entirely by chance) with two fringe L.A. types not-so-tangentially connected to the mystery of the murder: oily Charlie Hatter (Macy)—a sometimes talent agent, full-time bartender, and equal-opportunity informant; and eccentric Margo Sperling (Tomlin)—one-time actress, now jack-of-all-trades dress designer, pot dealer, transporter of stolen goods, and would-be talent manager. 

At first glance, this motley trio of mismatched associates appears ill-suited to even tackle a task as elementary as unearthing the whereabouts of a kidnapped pussycat (which, as it turns out, is precisely the CATalyst [heh-heh] for the film’s labyrinthine murder mystery plot); but, much like The Late Show itself, the disparate tonal contributions of these brought-together-by-circumstance individuals makes for a uniquely harmonious alliance.
Circumstances propel this unlikely trio into situations that put them increasingly
at risk or in way over their heads. More often than not, both.

In retrofitting the tough guy conventions of the private-eye film to the laid-back rhythms of Los Angeles in the Me Generation ‘70s, The Late Show deftly juggles tonal shifts in the narrative accommodating mystery, comedy, and character study. The Los Angles depicted is a seedy, morally relative wasteland of faded Hollywood glamour populated by wannabes and small-time operators living unstable, anything-to-make-a-buck existences. 
By way of contrast, Ira Wells is a living throwback to another time. Amidst all the L.A. denizens chasing trends, half-hearted careers, and try-on-for-size identities, Ira is constancy personified. In fact, he’s consistent to the point of fossilization.
One senses that not much has moved forward in Ira’s life for some time, and he likes it that way. Ruled by a principled moral code and a personal sense of dignity that brands him old-fashioned from the outset, he lives a smallish, solitary existence that hasn’t made much room for the passage of time.
The Big Nap
Aging private eye Ira Wells has to remove his hearing aid before firing his gun,
ride the bus to his stakeouts, and do his own washing at the launderette 

The Late Show, with its irresistible blood-orange color scheme and glimpse back at the Los Angles I remember when I moved there in 1978, is at its best in its culture-clash scenes where the cool-headed Ira has to work closely with the excitable and rather spacey Margo. Ira's world of girls, gats, and goons seems an ill-fit for the faddish world of psychoanalysis, mood rings, crystals, and biorhythms, but Robert Benton's script and the film's exceptional cast do a remarkable job of making the incongruous blending of these two worlds as amusing as it is affecting.

Mismatched partners are a timeworn staple (read: cliché) of cop/detective films, but the generation gap sparring matches between Ira and Margo--conflicts born of both gender and personality--have genuine spark; much of which I attribute solely to the onscreen chemistry of Carney and Tomlin. (Although mutually respectful, apparently it took some time for the actors to settle comfortably into each other's method of working.) It certainly isn't lost on me that at times Tomlin's talkative Margo feels as though she could be the offspring of Art Carney's hyperactive Ed Norton character from The Honeymooners, and Carney's convincing underplaying of the hard edges of his character is reminiscent of how good so many comics can be when tackling drama (The Honeymooner's Jackie Gleason in The Hustler).
The Late Show is extremely funny and human, with witty, character-revealing dialogue and performances that ring so true-to-life that when the film occasionally explodes into unexpected bursts of violence, it’s not only startling, it’s upsetting. Without knowing it you've found yourself really caring about these people.
Joanna Cassidy as Laura Birdwell embodies the contemporary update of
the vulnerable-yet-dangerous femme fatale

Familiar to an entire generation as Jackie Gleason's sidekick, Art Carney was a Tony-nominated actor (Lovers - 1969) and multi-Emmy-Award-winning star who earned an Oscar for Harry & Tonto (1974), his first starring role in a feature film. In The Late Show Carney is simply a marvel. Not exactly an actor known for his tough side, Carney convinces as the aging, street-wise, former gumshoe compelled to solve just one more caper.
Although Robert Benton is said to have based the character of Ira Welles on his father, Carney—who was 59 at the time and did indeed wear a hearing aid and suffer a limp—brings so much strength, dignity, and frustration to the role, it’s hard not to feel as though it were written expressly for him.
Bill Macy (then riding high on the popularity of the TV series Maude) is The Late Show's most valuable player. In the tradition of supporting actors who enrich a film by supplying first-rate performances that rarely get the attention they deserve, Macy's double-dealing Charlie Hatter is pure gold. That's actor John Considine on the right, playing sadistic enforcer Jeff Lamar. Considine wrote and appeared in Robert Altman's A Wedding

I’ve been a fan of Lily Tomlin since first seeing her on the short-lived 1969 TV show Music Scene. From Laugh-In, to seeing her onstage in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, to Netflix’s Grace & Frankie, she is a truly inspired performer and gifted actor who always finds the humanity in humor. As per Grace & Frankie, seeing Tomlin in The Late Show portraying the kind of psychobabbling enlightened type we used to call a “granola,” Margo Sperling is like getting a look at Frankie: The Early Years.
One's enjoyment of The Late Show might depend on whether or not one finds Tomlin's character appealing or annoying. To me, Tomlin is nothing short of a comic genius (1978's Moment by Moment notwithstanding). She is an endless source of delight in this film and her scenes with Carney have a sensational, oddball rhythm

Art Carney won the National Society of Film Critics Award for his performance, and Lily Tomlin was nominated for a Golden Globe, but when Academy Award time rolled around only Robert Benton's excellent screenplay nabbed a nomination.
Like many a good detective thriller The Late Show has at its center a complex, if not convoluted, crime caper, one which I was only recently able to make sense of thanks to the replay benefits of DVD; but Benton's dialogue is the real star. The almost musical rhythms of the divergent speech patterns of Ira and Margo (a great deal of the latter attributed to Tomlin's not-always-welcome-to-Carney improvisational skills) is superb.
“Mr. Welles, I can understand your feeling that way. I mean, as an actress I understand it as a motivation…”

“My shrink says I’m a very conflicted personality…plus my astrologer.”

“And Brian’s not very evolved, in fact, he’s rather de-evolved. I’m very sensitive to the vibrations he gives out and I know what kind of karma he has."

"Do you know that people who play with guns are generally impotent?"

“Mr. Welles, a truly evolved person doesn’t go around ratting on her friends, if you catch my drift.”

"I am finished! Finalisimo!"

“It’s very lucky for you that I just happen to be a very self-destructive person.”

“This car is not only a toilet but you are the attendant!”

"Everything’s copacetic."

"If you lay a hand on me I’m telling you, you’ll pay for it in your next life.”

"I really cannot relate on this level." 

 The Wit & Wisdom of Ira Welles:
“Somebody puts the breeze on Harry Regan, next thing I know you show up at Harry’s funeral with some dolly and a song and a dance about a stolen cat and all that hot comedy. What’s it all got to do with Harry?”

 “Put that thing down Charlie, you haven’t got the ass to swing it!”

"Back in the '40s this town was crawling with dollys like you. Good lookin' coquettes tryin' their damnedest to act tough as hell. I got news for you...they did it better back then! This town doesn’t change; they just push the names around.”

The only real point that I can see behind making a film about the past as seen through a contemporary prism is to ruminate on the differences (if any) that time has wrought in people and places; to contemplate the advantages/disadvantages of youth vs. aging; or to ponder what has been gained and what has been lost culturally, with the inevitable passing of time. What’s remarkable about The Late Show is that it manages to hit on all of the above while weaving a pretty nifty crime caper.

Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) featured a movie hero who stepped out of the screen and tried to live in the real world with the same idealism and values his character possessed on the screen. Ira Wells in The Late Show is very much like that character. Wells is a self-styled throwback to the 1940s private-eyes in the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe mold who somehow managed to survive into the ‘70s with his old world values intact. But Ira's problem is that he's well aware of having outlived his time, and worse, he senses that he's also outlived his usefulness. 
The Late Show—humorously, with heart, and a good deal of bloodshed—makes the case that no matter how much time passes and how significantly things appear to change, all of's misfits, dinosaurs, and fringe-dwellers, have something unique to bring to the table. 

The film's credits sequence provides brief glimpses into Ira Welles' past.
In the photo on the left, Ira and partner Harry proudly stand before the offices of Welles & Regan: Private Investigators.  On the right, Ira and a woman we can assume to be his wife (whom we learn eventually left him) pose with their friend Harry
The woman in the photo that sits framed on Ira's desk beside his typewriter is actress Martha Vickers, who played Carmen Sternwood in the granddaddy of all private eye films, Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946).
Her entrance is particularly memorable

“That’s just what this town has been waiting for; a broken down old private eye 
with a bum leg and a hearing aid…and a fruitcake like you”

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2017


  1. Once again you take me down memory lane. I can recall this movie being advertised on tv when I was a kid and it was presented as a kind of slapstick comedy in the teasers. When I actually sat down to watch it, I was disappointed. Ms. Tomlin was certainly funny but most of the humor went over my head and I couldn't follow the plot at all. I was probably too young to pick up on it. The one scene I remember laughing at is when Carney and Tomlin's characters are in someone's apartment. Carney is interviewing a woman and Tomlin seems almost jealous. She goes to the refrigerator a couple of times, passively aggressively snarking at Carney and we are treated to the sight of a dead body in the fridge that she doesn't pick up on..not initially. But frankly my memories of the movie are vague. I may need to revisit it now that I'm older. One question, your mention of Tomlin and Altman made me think of the movie A Prairie Home Companion. I wondered if you had considered posting about that movie. I'd be interested in your opinion of it.

    1. Hi Ron
      In recounting your childhood experience of seeing THE LATE SHOW on TV I think you fairly summed up why (at least in part) the film proved a critic's darling but didn't fare as well with the public.
      Both Lily Tomlin and Art Carney were rather hot in 1977, and their pairing stuck obvious comedy chords with the public. THE LATE SHOW, an unorthodox blending of genres and more a character-based comedy, was a hard sell, so marketing was misleading in pitching it as an all out comedy.
      When I was usering I recall a couple coming out and asking (after watching almost the entire film) if they could go tot he movie playing next door (The Alhambra had split itself into two by that time) because THE LATE SHOW wasn't what they'd expected.
      It was darker and sadder than the ads led people to believe, and the central murder mystery was hard to follow. Critics took to the performances and witty script, but the general public was left scratching their heads.
      Your recollection of one of my favorite scenes (the interrogation of the beautiful mystery woman) is pretty spot-on, and Tomlin plays her inappropriate/appropriate emotions beautifully. Witch the whole dramedy thing being something of a staple now, I wonder of THE LATE SHOW would play different for you as an adult?

      As for "A Prairie Home Companion," thats a film I think I need to see again. I saw it when it came out, but despite it being far more recent than most of the movies I write about, I don't remember any of it. I just recall that I was rather high on Altman after GOSFORD PARK and THE COMPANY, and that I was disappointed by PRAIRIE because it had such a remarkable cast. Apparently the lesson here seems to be that expectations can blind you to what a movie actually is, maybe I need to give Altman's last film another chance!
      Thank you, Ron...for reading this essay and taking us down memory lane with you!

  2. Ken, Always meant to see this one. Just put it in my Netflix queue where it joins all the other movies I TRULY want to see in "Availability Unknown." I'm a good movie sleuth too, I'll find it!

    Just saw Martha Vickers in "The Big Sleep" recently. Fascinating as the sicko sister Carmen. And Vickers did not come to a good end, as I recall!


    1. Hi Rick
      *sigh* I know what you mean. I eventually had to drop Netflix as anything but a streaming site (need my Grace & Frankie and MSTSK fixes) because my "Availability Unknown" list was twice as long as my queue.
      I don't really recommend movies (or try not to, anyway) because my tastes are so particular, but I was mad about THE LATE SHOW from the first time I saw it, and it has only improved for me over the years. The pairing of Tomlin and Carney is irresistible to me, but their brilliant timing and delivery makes me laugh each and every time.
      I only saw THE BIG SLEEP in its entirety for the first time about five years ago. Funny to have a film totally live up t its reputation. As for Martha Vickers, she passed away in a hospital (no picnic, anyway) but I think you might be thinking of B-movie queen Yvette Vickers as having had the particularly bad end. Always so sad to read about.
      Thanks, Rick! And should Netflix ever get a copy and you check it out, you must report back!

    2. Ken, you're right about the Vickers' mix-up!

      Also, good point you made on the '70s movies that mixed nostalgia from Hollywood's golden years with the '70s realism, esp. post-Watergate. That appealed to me a lot as a teen...the best of both worlds!

      I am going to seek this one out,
      Cheers, Rick

    3. Some journalist pointed out that if we all survive this current administration, the cultural upheaval will produce a HELL of a lot of interesting films.
      Post Watergate disillusion will be nothing like post-Drumpf self-examination and self-reproach. Thanks, Rick!

  3. Oh goodness. One reason it's always a treat to read your stuff is to see pictures of actors I tenth-remember from childhood. In this case it was Bill Macy. I'm not sure I remember him from Maude as much as from My Favorite Year.

    On the paragraph below "The Stuff of Dreams"... have you seen Trainspotting 2? (I'm never sure if it's appropriate to mention any movies past 1980 here!)

    1. Wow...I'd forgotten Bill Macy is in MY FAVORITE YEAR! I haven't seen that one in ages.
      And it's certainly appropriate to bring up post 80s movies here (although they are woefully underrepresented), only the problem is my response is often "I haven't seen that one!"- which gets tiresome.

      Just today my partner and I were speaking of TRAINSPOTTING 2, with my relaying that I've (here it comes) never seen the original. I'm going to assume that the sequel relates to the points mentioned in the paragraph you mentioned?
      I always assumed I just wouldn't relate to TRAINSPOTTING, but if it's a worthwhile movie to check out, let me know.

    2. I think they're both quite good (first one a little better). I'm pretty sure they're both too male-characters-centric for you -- that's something consistent I've gotten from your writing. You're not going to learn too much about the human condition from them, unless those humans are Edinburgh junkies.

      I'm definitely not in favor of watching the first a first time, then watching the second a day later. Having many years' distance between the two is an important ingredient in the appreciation. Rather, I would propose walking into the second cold, and if you like it, backfilling afterward.

  4. Hi Ken,
    I don't know if you know this but later on "Magnum, P.I.", Eugene Roche played the recurring role of Luther Gillis, a self-styled hardboiled private eye from St. Louis, with all the 40s lingo to boot. Of course, unlike Carney with this film, this is largely played for laughs, as his old methods often resulted in trips to the holding cell with Magnum or run-ins with the villain of the week.

    1. Hi Chick!
      I didn't know that about Eugene Roche and MAGNUM PI! That's a pretty cool transition. I think I'd get a kick out of seeing him do the private eye bit. When THE LATE SHOW came out I only knew Roche from a series of TV commercials for some dishwashing liquid. He played a character very much like Mel in ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. He's so good in this, but it took me several years to knock that image of him from those commercials out of my mind.
      You know a lot about television so maybe you've heard of this:
      THE LATE SHOW had a short-lived unofficial TV series spinoff (according to Leonard Maltin) loosely based on the film's premise, titled: "Eye to Eye" starring Charles Durning. I don't recall it at all, but a brief clip on YouTube doesn't make it look promising.
      Thanks very much for your informative contribution to the comments section!

  5. I watched this a couple years ago and liked it very much, though the details of the plot escape me. Tried re-watching recently by streaming TCM on demand via Sling, which is always an exercise in frustration. Got to the funeral scene before it froze.

    Carney is pretty amazing in this and in Harry and Tonto--he always seems very natural, never "acting." (Every time I see him I remember an appearance on--I think--Mike Douglas where they brought out and Ed Norton hat for him. He was none too pleased, but put it on a couple seconds for the audience. All but threw it off-set after taking it off.)

    Eugene Roche is another great character actor. Able to do some very good work with the right part (e.g., Slaughterhouse Five).

    I don't think I've ever seen anyone reference Music Scene before! I forgot there was an ensemble before David Steinberg took it over.

    1. Hi MDG
      You're right about what was Art Carney's talent, such a natural screen presence. Even in comedy he appeared to be simply "being," not performing.
      That Mike Douglas interlude sounds hilarious and right in line with everything I've ever read about him.
      Your mentioning Slaughterhouse Five is interesting in that it is another film I saw when it came out and haven't seen since (nor do i remember much about it).
      I always write about the films that have stuck with me, perhaps one day I'll delve into why I think certain films have failed to leave their mark on me.

      And you remember Music Scene?! It sticks in my mind as the first post-Hullabaloo/Shindig music program that reflected the changing music styles. Because I loathed David Steinberg even as a kid, I stopped watching as soon as he became the main host. I wonder who owns those tapes? The show didn't last long, there can't be many of them. I suppose licensing all that music for DVD release would be prohibitively expensive.
      Thanks, MDG!
      Oh, and as for the details of the plot of The Late Show escaping you, I would bet that even fans of the film would have a hard time explaining the plot!

  6. Argyle here. I saw this for the first time a few months ago on TCM while I was in a Robert Benton research phase. I enjoyed it but was not transported; that’s always a dangerous expectation. I really liked the at-loose-ends mise-en-scene, the waiting for buses, the tired clothes, Art Carney in general. I have to say Lily Tomlin bugged me a little sometimes (I really like her!) She seemed to be doing her schtick sometimes rather than inhabiting a character. I hate to say that - and when I see it again - could have a whole different reaction. It’s a very delicate flower of a film. I loved the red apartment (Lily’s?) and grieved for the gun riddled woodwork in Art Carney’s little rented rooming house. That whole aspect of him living in a rented room with the sweet little old landlady was believable, relatable, sad, charming, a relief from so much unexplained prosperity (cars, houses, clothing, etc.) in most films. Always loved the Amsel publicity art for this and remember it from when it was released - the film was just not what I was into in 1977. Great to be able to discover it now. Mr. Benton has a such a strange filmography, from half writing the sublime “Bonnie and Clyde” to the questionable (for me) “Kramer vs Kramer” and “Places in the Heart”. I happened to see a little of “Still of the Night” again a while ago and couldn’t believe how close to camp it (and its star) were.
    Anyway, “The Late Show” is definitely a watch-it-again film for me. It has a nice, open quality that doesn’t try to explain everything. And I love (and would like to experience) the walkable, humble LA that it presents. It reminds me a little of John Huston’s “Fat City” in that way.

    Sort of related - I just finished reading “West of Eden: An American Place” by Jean Stein. It’s an oral history of five unrelated/related pieces of southern California history. It’s sort of like an Altman film maybe with a Robert Towne script, overlapping narratives, heavy tragedy, Jack Warner, Jennifer Jones (woah!), family blind-spots. You almost don’t want to watch another Hollywood film in you life! Thanks as always, Ken!

    1. Hi Argyle
      I enjoyed reading your impressions on The Late Show. I can totally understand how you could find Tomlin's character annoying and perhaps a bit "familiar" - like one of the characters from her act.
      I think a lot of what works with certain roles/actors is a kind of charisma/appeal an actor can strike with an audience. If it misses the mark with someone, then the entire role can feel contrived or at least artificial.
      There's something about Tomlin that always feels like it comes from an authentic place for me, so what worked was that her somewhat arch character blended with Carney's more natural one. His reactions to her gave the audience permission to find her annoying, then when she has those moments where she's not so "on," it felt to me like it became clearer that all of her shtick was part of an defense mechanism act developed to protect her vulnerability; much in the same way Ira’s old-school gangster patter does.
      The look of the film is very much on-point, and the conveyance of an authentically seedy Los Angeles is one of the more entertaining aspects of the movie for me.
      Like you I'm a little soft on Kramer vs Kramer. I wasn't too crazy about it when it came out and it's unlikely to be much different now.
      Still of the Night is a big favorite of mine even though I don't think it even works very well. I love Streep in it (mostly her look) but frustrated at the missed potential. Also, I have the hardest time with the rather grotesque (to me) womanizing old coot at the center. He's such a WTF? Lothario to hang a mystery on, I find the casting of the actor the hardest thing to get past.
      I've never seen the film Fat City, maybe it's worth checking out?
      By the by, that book you mentioned sounds fascinating. I think I'm going to check it out. Thanks for the tip, Argyle. And for reading my post! A pleasure hearing from you, as always.

    2. Argyle again. I have a feeling I'll "get" Lily next time around. What you say about her defense mechanism seems so right. I hope you'll do "Still of the Night" some day. I happened to catch a Meryl monologue and was slack-jawed. I think "Fat City" is definitely worth checking out. The photography is gorgeous and Susan Tyrrell is amazing. Hope you enjoy (wrong word?) "West of Eden". It was a little hard to keep track of whose kid was whose at times, but the general ambience is fascinating and sad. Thanks again!

    3. Argyle again. And now I see that Jean Stein has died.

    4. You beat me to it! Yes, I was stunned to hear the news, especially given that I had only become aware of Jean Stein due to your referencing her book. The sad ambiance of the book just got appreciably sadder.

      As for "Still of the Night," the stylized stiltedness of Streep's performance (and the weak screenplay) is not the best mix, especially if you catch snippets of it. I think it's an experiment in style that didn't pan out.

  7. Ken,

    The Late Show is a movie I had avoided for years because I thought it was going to be a wacky noir pastiche, and nobody has time for that. I was surprised at how good it was, and you're right, it had a strong Altman feel to it. Its mix of character-driven comedy; a complicated, but realistic mystery; and bursts of unexpected violence was artfully balanced. It felt that if one element was emphasized or down played by just a smidge, the whole movie would collapse. I was very impressed with the restraint throughout. In other movies, something like the scene of Birdwell swimming in his hat, for example, would most likely have been played for a big laugh but the scene was given just the right amount of emphasis.

    This was one of the best neo-noir movies I have seen. It eschewed the stylistic tics that a lot of modern noir imports from the films of the 1940s. The lack of fedoras, trench coats, Venetian blinds casting metaphorical shadows and cigarette smoke curling in a shaft of light was refreshing. I loved how everything was so seedy and frayed around the edges here. I think with a lot of 40s and 50s noir I get so caught up in the dark beauty of the images and I forget how grimy things must have been. There's no forgetting that in this movie. Noir in broad daylight is not quite so romantic.

    The acting was excellent throughout. I thought Eugene Roche was particularly good as the bad guy. There is something about a jovial crook that is much scarier than a bad tempered villain. And Art Carney and Lily Tomlin were excellent, as well. Your essay was excellent, as usual. It inspired me to see a fine movie I had overlooked, which is always a welcome treat, so thanks.


    1. Hi Michael
      Glad to hear you enjoyed the film. In your comments you highlight what I think is the film's chief asset: balancing a delicate mix of narrative tones. That balance is probably why it was a film that was so hard to sell. I've never seen a trailer for the film (I'll check out YouTube) but I could well imagine a poor selection of clips would leave a person thinking The Late Show is, as you described it, a wacky noir pastiche.
      I've seen it many times and I'm still impressed with how it manages to pull of what it does. The casting is ideal.
      Your citing of the cliche's the film avoids is as sharp as your being able to pinpoint what elements in particular worked for you.
      In my most recent viewing, Eugene Roche reminded me a great deal of a certain orange con man/public figure. Not only because of the doughy countenance and the wife who obviously hates him, but because, as written, he's an obscenely cruel and vicious man who nevertheless takes high-minded umbrage when confronted by anyone opposing him: "(Ira Welles) is behaving in a cheap, immoral fashion!"

      I thank you for your kind words and for granting us the opportunity to read how this 40-year-old film comes across to someone who once purposely avoided it, and who's now seeing it for the first time. Without all my nostalgia attached to it, your commentary might inspire a reader or two to check out the film.
      Thank you so much, Michael!

  8. Late to the Late Show party, Ken, but I've had such a good time reading about this. Have never seen it, though now I must. No wonder you thought this was an Altman film, with so many of his usual suspects...and as you note, Considine, Ruth Nelson, and Howard Duff are all in my all-time-favorite, little-known Altman - A Wedding (which YOU of course do know about!!) I did not know that Considine, who is so funny in A Wedding as the Secret-Service-type security guard, wrote the screenplay as well.

    I have never been an Art Carney fan, which kept me from ever checking this one out, but now, having read your essay, I am more than willing to give it a chance...excited, in fact. Thank you!

    1. Hi Chris!
      As an Altman fan, I think you will like The Late Show. Even not being an Art Carney fan might not prove a hindrance since there is a feel of the ensemble about the cast. I think most people who would have a problem with the movie would be those who have a short tether for Lily Tomlin. But she's light years away from what she does in "Moment By Moment," which challenges even MY fandom.
      I hope you get a chance to check this one out, and when you do, you enjoy it as much as I do. Thanks very much for reading this post, Chris!

  9. Ken, how can you POSSIBLY forget my all-time favorite Margo-ism: "Does the pope s--t in the woods?" Outrageous! Unforgivable!

    Great, great movie. You may recall John Simon, the critic from the 1970's who hated EVERYTHING, and who everyone hated (Sylvia Miles famously dumped a plate of spaghetti over his head at a restaurant)? I remember Simon used to criticize actresses in terms of their looks, in a manner that today would get him fired, but even HE admired The Late Show, writing, as I recall, "Lily Tomlin, who I have never previously liked, is very winning here". Which meant a lot coming from him, since he had once said Lily had the face of a horse.

    I always get sad at the end. Not that the ending is sad, necessarily, but because I will never get to see Ira and Margo again. Couldn't there have been a TV series, or at least a sequel? Maybe if it had been a hit, I guess. Perfect chemistry, between the two of them. Always leaves me wanting more...

  10. Hey Rick!
    Yes that IS a great Margoism! For all his rather pathologically misogynist preoccupation with the appearance of women, Simon is one of my favorites. When not harping on the superficial like the madman I'm certain he was, he often had such intelligent observations on film. I have a book or two of his work and I remember that he liked this film.
    I feel as you do about the ending, as well. The two are such likeable characters one feels ready to settle down to see what happens next (I felt the same at the end of PAPER MOON). I'm forever gald a sequel was never made, but I'd be shocked if there didn't exist at least a treatment for a TV series gathering dust somewhere (or perhaps an unsold pilot). The odd couple pairing and the private eye thing made it such a natural for CBS (their love of old folks solving crimes: Murder She Wrote, Barnaby Jones).
    Again, thanks for terrifically personal and informative comments, Rick!

  11. I love reading Simon, and I think he is one of the most cultivated and intelligent critics we've ever had in this country. His style is powerful, authoritative, and engaging, and his reviews are almost a tutorial in Western Civilization, taking in everything from Attic Drama to Post-Modernism. And he is very comprehensive, providing the reader with an in-depth consideration of practically every aspect of the film he is reviewing, as well as the film-making process itself.

    But a horrible snob. Sneering. Looking down his nose at everything. Very, very cold. And most of the time, I can't stand his critical taste. All of those judgments, those sweeping dismissals. His contempt for almost everything that is not a part of so-called 'High Culture.'

    His collection Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Film is a case in point. As I said before, Simon hates EVERYTHING. But the period he is covering, the 1970's, is considered to be more-or-less a Cinematic Renaissance, The Golden Age of American Film. But you don't get that at ALL from Simon. Page after page of sneering contempt for virtually every film released in this country between January, 1970 and December, 1979.

    And I get it, I get it. The man was trying to hold film to a higher critical standard. But there's a fine line between that, and sneering contempt.

    By contrast, consider Kael's writing during this same period. Simon is cold. Kael is warm, even hot. He's is shrill, scolding, she is irrepressible, enthusiastic. He's a hater, she's a lover. There's a good reason the titles she chose for her collected reviews are borderline obscene. As she once said, she practically made love to the movies...

    David Thomson once wrote a great piece, an obituary actually, about Kael practically having an orgasm during a screening of DePalma's The Fury, which isn't even a very good movie. No other critic can prompt a eulogy like that. But that's what you get from the woman. For all of her many faults, reading her, you sometimes get taken up, up and away. By contrast, Simon usually drags you down. A real BUMMER, as they used to say back in the early 70's...

    1. Superb delineation of the distinct differences between Simon and Kael. You capture precisely why as critics they were such a good balance for me.
      Reading their essays actually taught me how to look at film because I learned to appreciate my passionate, emotional take on a film, while through Simon I learned that there can be two truths at once in everything we see. Because they were so different and rarely saw
      eye to eye, together they cured me of the need to "agree" with a critic, instead concentrating on manner in which subjective opinions were expressed.
      I relate most to Kael, because I too thought Simon to be a snob of the worst sort, but I learned a wealth about how to analyze and look at film from him.
      I've got a collection of nearly all of their books (thanks, eBay) and I visit them often when I tire of online film "reviews" that amount to little more than the person writing "I liked it" or "It sucked." Zzzz