Criterion Prediction #215: The Late Show, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Late Show
Director: Robert Benton
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Art Carney, Eugene Roche, Bill Macy, Joanna Cassidy
Synopsis: Aging private eye Ira Wells (Carney) reluctantly allies with a young would-be actress turned hippie Margo (Tomlin) as their two very contrasting lifestyles cross over into an unexpected case. Ira’s out to find the guys who plugged his old partner in the gut while Margo desperately needs to find her cat, Winston.
Critique: You know that wonderful feeling when you watch a movie and are overtaken by that incredible sensation that a film was made just for you? The Late Show feels like a proverbial case of the self-serving “if I ran the zoo” mentality applied to the noir conventions. This feeling is consistent with revisionist interpretations of film noir; the same goes for Chinatown, Night Moves, The Long Goodbye or L.A. Confidential but there’s a different distinction that accompanies Benton’s The Late Show.
While the story sounds like a gimmicky “what-if” scenario–pairing a hippie chick with a crusty, aging private eye as if pandering to a broad generational demographic with the old school/new school themes and cast–The Late Show is anything but schtick. Benton’s script and direction are rooted in revision but the film’s self-consciousness and referential awareness is a mere structural bracket. Carney casually embodies the hard-nosed private dick. You can tell he ran with the best of them in his day but he didn’t catch a bullet. Nor is he in the slammer. He’s an old man. Wells knows his way around, can smell a scheme and can navigate his way through the criminal underworld but he’s got ulcers, a limp and he’s losing his hearing. Carney’s faults are inherent pitfalls of age. When he has a pistol trained on someone, he’s gotta turn his hearing aid down before pulling the trigger. Wells and Margo take the bus or catch rides. He doesn’t have a slick ride like Mike Hammer.
The Late Show is clever in that it avoids jockey shorthands. Ira isn’t a jumping-off point for ageist humor and the blossoming friendship between him and Margo plays with a rare sense of sincerity, mutual admiration and unexpected respect. Tomlin is simply a marvel on-screen, riding that distinctive energy that’s defined her career. Margo is playfully kooky and a little impulsive but she’s not a flake. As the two seemingly mismatched partners put the case together, Tomlin’s spirited performance radiates as we see Margo adapt to the world of sleuthing.
Benton’s mature brand of storytelling is purely entertaining with thrilling exploits and a pair of career-defining performances.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: There are a few standard qualifiers for The Late Show to get a Criterion release: Underrated, underseen and there’s no Blu-ray to speak of in the works–one that we’re aware of anyhow. Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle by Peter Yates or The In-Laws by Arthus Hiller, The Late Show is a low-key masterpiece from a casual auteur from the 70s.