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The Late Show

Actors on long-running television shows often worry about too indelibly etching into the audience's consciousness one particular character with which they'll forever be identified. When they finally attempt the transition to the big screen, they're faced with two options: play to their well-established strengths or shatter the carefully constructed façade. Both approaches are laden with pitfalls which have tripped up some of television's biggest names (e.g. Tom Selleck, John Ritter, Don Johnson), but none of these guys had it as tough as Art Carney, who came of age as an actor on one of the most watched shows of all time, "The Honeymooners." It's little surprise then that Carney waited well over a decade before trying to distance himself from his Ed Norton persona on film, biding his time on the New York City stage where he began his career. Once he did resurface, it was to Academy Award winning effect in Paul Mazursky's Harry and Tonto (1974), but good as he was in that weeper, he really demolished his amiable image as retired gumshoe Ira Wells in Robert Benton's revisionist film noir The Late Show (1977). Once one of Los Angeles's most formidable detectives, Wells has been reduced to renting out a back room in the house of a kindly spinster (played by theatrical legend Ruth Nelson). But he's roused out of inaction when his old partner Harry Regan (Howard Duff) turns up at his door shot in the gut. Though Regan was involved in some kind of grift, Wells feels bound to avenge his pal's murder, which forces him to pair up with the flaky, New Age-ish Margo (Lily Tomlin), who simply wants the detective to track down her missing cat. Wells's investigation quickly leads him to Ron Birdwell (Eugene Roche), a two-bit crook who uses his fenced goods as bribes. Birdwell's backed up by a sleazily masochistic henchman (John Considine), who isn't above working over the elderly Wells just to send a message. While Wells is understandably rusty due to his long layoff — most of his old connections are now deceased — he still has a creased ace in the hole in Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy), an enterprising, jack-of-all-bogus-trades informant (he moonlights as everything from a producer to a real estate agent) who's got the inside scoop on Birdwell's racket. But Wells still has to contend with the flighty Margo, which threatens to crimp his already flustered style; thus, exposing both of them to even more danger. Benton's script for The Late Show is steeped in a healthy respect for the genre, laying on the convoluted twists and double-crosses as Wells's investigation wears on, but in the tradition of the best noir pictures, it's the performances and the grimy milieu that keeps the viewer invested in the proceedings. Carney's Ira Wells is an exhilaratingly original creation, a geriatric tough guy who's still got the spirit for the dirty work, even though his body can barely muster the effort. Whether it's fidgeting with his hearing aid before firing off a few shots at a fleeing car, or badly sucking wind after pummeling Birdwell's bodyguard, Carney makes Wells a uniquely endearing and commanding character who couldn't be further removed from his "Honeymooners" work. It's rare enough for an actor to evince such astounding versatility throughout their career, but rarer still for a television actor to so effectively break with his typecast past. It's a shame Carney didn't get better material in the years following this triumph. As for Benton, he's since etched out a respectable career of similarly smart adult entertainments, the best of which, Nobody's Fool and Kramer vs. Kramer, show off his facility for memorably off-kilter characters. Benton would also revisit the aging private-eye premise to diminishing returns with Twilight. Warner presents The Late Show in a so-so anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with equally mediocre Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras are limited to Lily Tomlin appearing on "Dinah!" alongside the Doobie Brothers (5 min.) — scintillating stuff. Theatrical trailer, snap-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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