""The Late Show" (1977), Robert Benton's valentine to the 1940's detective film genre has it all: the structure, the language, the grit and noir, plus something more--humor and heart. Long overlooked and drastically under rated by 1970's reviewers, the film and especially its title seemed to dredge up images of some old B&W flick that belonged on late night TV and perhaps didn't fit the mold of being "with it" or of being retro-slick in a then-generation of the Think Young, Drink Pepsi (not Alka Seltzer) society it reflected. Yet what most critics seem to have missed about the title alone is its play on words which embraced not only the old, late night TV movie idea but also the spirit of the tribute writer/director Robert Benton presents here: the vernacular of 1940's detective speak, where "show" meant a client or a job, and, "late" meant late, as in beyond the time someone or something is expected to arrive. Thus, the slang title refers to both Ira Wells (Art Carney) and Margo Sperling (Lily Tomlin), who are thrown together, quite unexpectedly, at a crucial time--before it's really too "late" (as in "dead"). Carney brilliantly (yet so unassumingly) plays 'Ira Wells,' a set in his ways broken down old heat packing (private) detective with "a bum leg, perforated ulcer, and hearing aid," who's been living out what's left of an empty and lonely life in a rented bedroom in an older widow's home. Resigned to this seeming fate, Ira believes his best days, times, and friends are all behind him (especially at the rate people he's known are "kicking off"). Ira can see his own end, which is brought home even more forcefully when his former PI partner, Harry Regan (Howard Duff), who seemingly arrives for a long over-due visit after a bender, dies in Ira's rented bedroom bed from a gunshot to the gut (yet spilling nothing save for blood). Enter Charles Hatter (Bill Macy), a chiseler and con artist, along with a wonderfully zany and off-beat wannabe actress, Margo Sperling (Lily Tomlin). They show up with a stolen cat "case" for Ira Wells at Regan's funeral entombment--and the game of cat and mouse, or, rather, rat, is almost ready to begin--again--for Ira, who says only he's "out of the business" and never uses the word "retired." But this will not be "just another case," it will be THE case, coming in the nick--and Nora--of time to make a difference and a change possible in the lives of two people. Of course, hindrances loom immediately: old-school/generation collides with new, language usage throws up an initial barrier as does Ira's 1940's mind set about women ("dolls") and how they're supposed to act. Yet all this goes by the boards when Ira and Margo start to work the related cases of the missing cat and Regan's murder together. These two people turn out to be an unlikely team that has needed the likes of one another all along. Their differences are far outweighed by what they have in common--such things as character, dignity, regard for others, loyalty, caring, and inner strength. They complement each other which tends to bring out the best in both of them. Ira has not ever had a pal, partner, buddy, or romantic interest who wasn't simply out for himself or herself until Margo; and Margo hasn't ever met anyone quite like Ira, who inspires her, looks out for her, and not only encourages but trusts her to sleuth with him, the pro, even before he discovers she could really excel at it and is more savvy about life and things than even he expected. He becomes enough at ease with Margo. though, that when pressed, he emotionally reveals his inner most fear with her--the scene between the two at the diner, after Ira collapes and Margo wants to take him to the hospital, should have earned Art Carney an Oscar nomination alone. But will they solve the murder? Will they ever team up? "The Late Show" is as much a story of the human condition as it is a noir murder mystery to be solved. Even the bad guys like Ronnie Birdwell (Eugene Roche) and Charles Hatter (Bill Macy) have real dimension and differences--and are portrayed as likeable louses with their own problems in life. The plot is skillfully and painstakingly developed with twists and turns which cover, much as the detective films of the 1940s did, mystery, which can turn to comedy, then switch to tragic drama, and even twist to include a hint of romance. Robert Benton deserved the Oscar for this original screenplay, not simply the nomination. The only remaining question is: when will the director's cut become available on video or DVD so that audiences can discover the rather obvious chunks of missing footage from the film including (but not limited to) John Davey as 'Sgt. Dayton'?--Lenore Hutton Normal, Illinois"
Another Great Detective movie!
skipmccoy | Los Angeles, CA USA | 09/18/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Along with Night Moves,(and obviously Chinatown) this one of my favorite detective films from the 70s. Art Carney and Lily Tomlin are a great pair and they help make a good movie even better. Robert Benton(Bad Company, Nobondy's Fool, Twilight) has made a great film here that is at once a tribute and a commentary on Raymond Chandler-type films. Carney is great as an aging PI who is hired to find a cat and ends up embroiled in a much larger story. The dialogue here is so well done-it's very stylish-throwback dialogue if you will. I love this movie and it seems that so few people have seen it. I own it and any fan of the Maltese Falcon or the Big Sleep should too."
A forgotten gem
skipmccoy | 12/09/1999
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I can't believe no one else has reviewed this fine movie. Art Carney has never been better, even in Harry and Tonto, and Bill Macy does a fine turn as a small-time con man. Lily has some classic lines, like her description of Macy's trash Cadillac; ``This car is a toilet and you're the attendant''. Partly a send up of private detective movies and partly a charming buddy movie (Art and Lily), this belongs in anyone's collection. And if you've never seen it . . . well, you're in for a treat indeed."
An Endearing, First-Rate Murder Mystery
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 11/24/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"An endearing murder mystery, with great chemistry between Art Carney and Lily Tomlin. Carney is an aging, gruff private eye with a bad leg, a bleeding ulcer and a hearing aid. Tomlim is an off-kilter woman who believes in reincarnation and occasionally sells a little dope. She wants to hire Carney to find her cat. From there we have belly shots, beatings and blackmail. It's a nice, complicated mystery. Tomlin has a great scene with a refrigerator. And the ending is satisfying.
If people ever thought Tomlin wasn't a skilled actress, they should watch this film and Nashville. Shame she hasn't had more of a movie career. I think she's an attractive woman, but no Hollywood starlette type. She's got a long face, a skeptical intelligence about her, and wicked humor. On the other hand, she could play with great vulnerability (Nashville).
First rate movie. First rate actress. Carney was certainly her equal in the film, and Bill Macy plays a memorable sleaze."
Excellent Detective Homage
David Baldwin | Philadelphia,PA USA | 06/10/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I'm sure the powers that be didn't know how to market this quirky gem then or now. If you go to the video store they usually file it in the comedy section which is the furthest thing from the truth. For sure, there are comic elements in "The Late Show" but if you blink you miss them. The film is a mystery, rather, a homage to the work of Chandler and Hammet. Like the best tributes "The Late Show" stands on it's own as a great film. The film has it all including a brilliantly woven mystery penned by writer-director Robert Benton and terrific acting. Art Carney ingeniously underplays detective Ira Wells, an old school detective out of place in Seventies L.A. suffering from a perforated ulcer and a bum leg. Lily Tomlin matches him as new age kook Margo who employs Ira to find her cat. Despite the generation gap there is palpable chemistry between Carney and Tomlin. Check out how Benton cleverly ends this yarn. There's a non-flashy low-key quality to "The Late Show" which shouldn't be surprising because it was produced by the master of understatement, Robert Altman. Catch this film before it possibly goes out of print."