“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, “film noir” was a term known only to dedicated classic cinema aficionados, and urban-based movie mysteries involving cynical, hard-boiled private detectives were considered relics of the past. (Two attempts to revive Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective hero Philip Marlowe, Marlowe, Paul Bogart’s 1969 film adaptation of The Little Sister, and Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye, both failed dismally at the box office.) But after Roman Polanski’s Chinatown proved to be a major financial winner for Paramount Pictures in the summer of 1974, private eye mysteries enjoyed a brief resurgence in movies (Dick Richards’ 1975 adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) and on television (City of Angels, The Rockford Files). “Film noir” was suddenly ‘in.”
Among the most interesting off-shoots of this subsequent revival were a trio of films released by Warner Brothers (none of which came anywhere close to repeating Chinatown’s business): Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), which, like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, was a total deconstruction of the genre; Stuart Rosenberg’s The Drowning Pool (1975), a belated sequel to Harper (Jack Smight’s 1966 adaptation of Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target); and, best of all, The Late Show (1977), written and directed by Robert Benton, best known at the time for co-writing the screenplays of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972). (The Late Show was Benton’s first solo script.) But to imply that The Late Show was a kind of knock-off of Chinatown would be grossly unfair to a unique, one-of-a-kind film that lived up to its advertising tagline, “The nicest, warmest, funniest, and most touching movie you’ll ever see about blackmail, mystery, and murder.”
Although set contemporarily in the dreary, colorless Los Angeles of 1977, memories of the 1940s haunt The Late Show (a mood immeasurably enhanced by Ken Wannberg’s subtle, melancholy jazz score). Make no mistake, however; this is no nostalgia piece pining for lost times. The film’s main character, ex-gumshoe Ira Wells (beautifully played by Art Carney), has no desire to live in the past. With his bad leg and hearing aid, Wells simply wants to live out his final years in peaceful retirement, with perhaps an occasional day at the race track for diversion. (Benton based Wells on his own father, who preferred downing one glass of Alka-Seltzer after another rather than having his perforated ulcer operated on a second time.)
It’s worth noting that Robert Altman, who produced The Late Show and assigned Benton to direct it after buying his script, saw it as a kind of sequel to his own The Long Goodbye, complete with that film’s salt-and-pepper team of homicide detectives Dayton and Green (John S. Davis and Jerry Jones, respectively) putting in a reappearance (before winding up on the cutting room floor). In fact, Wells’ standard attire is identical to that worn by Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in the earlier film: black suit and tie with a white shirt. (In an interview connected with the release of The Late Show, Altman joked that he was going to keep remaking The Long Goodbye until he got it right.)
Fresh off of his Best Actor Oscar-winning turn in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto (1974), Carney gave an even better performance playing a role unlike any he’d ever done previously. Before his Oscar win, Carney was, of course, best known for playing the role of Ed Norton on Jackie Gleason’s seminal TV sitcom The Honeymooners. But, although he was a prestigiously versatile actor who felt equally at home doing comedy and drama, Carney had never been cast as a tough guy (or even a former tough guy) before. As Carney himself put it, “I’ve got the hearing problem… I’ve got the bum leg. I’ve got the paunch, the middle-age spread. I mean, I really brought my paunch to the part. I’ve got cataracts. And for the perforated ulcer, I’ve got my hiatal hernia… I mean, the character was well defined before we got started. I told Benton, ‘You’ve got the right guy.’”  (The way that Ira’s physical infirmaries make him particularly vulnerable is one of the film’s main sources of suspense.)
The other star of The Late Show was another brilliant, unique talent, Lily Tomlin, who had received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Altman’s Nashville (1975). Tomlin played Margo Sperling, a former Hollywood actress wannabe, burned-out “flower child,” and free-spirited kook already becoming a crazy cat lady. Margo barely makes ends meet by freelancing as a clothes designer and a manager for performing artists of dubious talent (sort of a hippie version of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose), in addition to periodically peddling some reefer. (“This grass was so great, I can’t tell you. There was so much resins in it, it made your lips stick together.”) As Margo, Tomlin gave arguably her finest film performance ever. (Both Carney and Tomlin should’ve won Oscars for The Late Show.)
Initially, there was some friction between Carney and Tomlin, due mainly to Altman and Benton allowing Tomlin free rein to ad-lib her way through scenes. According to fellow cast mate John Considine, “Art had a lot of trouble with Lily, because of her improvising.” Carney was an actor of the old school who believed in following a script to the letter and had problems in the past with actors who didn’t, most notably Gleason and Walter Matthau (his co-star in the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple). Carney was eventually won over by Tomlin’s professionalism and Benton’s encouragement to improvise along with her.
The Late Show opens with a sepia-toned image of the 1940s version of Warner Brothers’ “shield” logo. Instead of Max Steiner’s familiar musical fanfare, however, we hear a nightclub audience applauding and a piano begins playing the first few notes of the movie’s theme song, a sultry torch number called “What Was,” composed by Wannberg with lyrics by Stephen Lerner, and sung by Bev Kelly.
But when the first shot fades in, the setting isn’t a nightclub; it’s Ira’s modest rented room (the song continues in the background). We see a typewriter on Ira’s desk (a piece of paper in the typewriter shows the first words of a manuscript: “NAKED GIRLS AND MACHINE GUNS, Memoirs of a real private detective by Ira Wells”) and, beside it, a framed photo of actress Martha Vickers (best known for her role as Carmen Sternwood in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep). The camera then wanders around the room, taking in, among other things, old photos taped to a mirror (cleverly utilizing actual photos of Carney and Howard Duff in younger days) while the credits are superimposed over the shot. By the time the credits and the song are over, the camera settles behind Ira, sitting before his desk. Then a cut to a medium shot shows Ira perusing a newspaper, pencil in hand (obviously picking out his bets for his next visit to the track), while an old movie depicting a World War I dogfight blares on a portable black-and-white television set behind him.
There’s a knock on Ira’s door and, outside, Ira’s elderly landlady Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson, a founder of the Group Theatre) announces that he has a late-night visitor. Ira opens the door to reveal Mrs. Schmidt and his ex-partner, Harry Regan (Duff). Harry’s disheveled appearance automatically leads Ira to think he’s drunk (“They’re gonna have to put a night shift on Jack Daniel’s just to keep up with you.”), but when Harry opens his mouth to speak, the only thing that comes out is blood. Interrupting Mrs. Schmidt’s screams with an urgent plea to call for police and an ambulance, Ira leads Harry to his bed and sets him down. Prying away the raincoat that Harry’s clutching over his belly, it becomes immediately apparent by the bloodstain spreading across Harry’s shirt that he’s dying from a gunshot wound.
Harry: “It’s not as bad as the time in San Diego… Ira, got a deal for us…”
Ira: “Harry, who did it?”
Harry: “It’s chance for us to make a lotta dough…”
Ira: “Harry, you’re dyin’. Who did it? How did it happen?”
Harry: “Don’t worry, Ira. I’m cuttin’ you in. Fair deal. Just don’t try to throw a scare inta me. I won’t work. I’ll lay it all out for you. Just get me to a hospital…”
Ira: “God damn you, Harry! Lettin’ someone just walk up to you and drill you like that, point blank. Nobody can palm a .45. Jesus Christ! You never had the brains God gave a common dog!” (sadly) “Sorry you’re goin’ off, pal. You were real good company. The best.”
Harry: (starts to respond, then breaths his last)
Ira: “The very best.” (sighs)
The day of Harry’s funeral, Ira bids farewell to the mourners, then starts to head out of the cemetery. He’s stopped by an old acquaintance, Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy), an oily promoter, talent agent, and part-time bartender who’s the epitome of a bottom-feeding weasel. He introduces Ira to Margo. She wants to hire Ira to find her cat, Winston, who’s been kidnapped by a thug named Brian to whom she owes $500. (“So pay him!” Ira says exasperatedly.) When Margo gets bent out of shape by Ira’s indifference and offers him all of $25 for the job, Ira keeps his temper in check, tells Charlie that he appreciates his presence at Harry’s funeral, and that he should teach his friend “to show a little respect for her elders.” Then he stalks off to head for the track, with Margo waving a photo of Winston at him and wailing sorrowfully, “This little kitty’s just a little honey bun! Give this little cat a break!”
Later that day, Ira confronts Charlie at the shoeshine stand in the seedy building his office is in. “How long has it been since I’ve last seen you, Charlie? Close to a year, isn’t it?” Ira asks, “Somebody puts the freeze on Harry Regan, next thing I know, you show up at Harry’s funeral with some dolly, a song-and-dance about a stolen cat, and all that hot comedy.” Charlie tells Ira that Harry was the first shamus Margo hired to find her cat.
Next stop: Margo’s apartment in La Paloma. “Harry Regan was a pal of mine, close to twenty-four years. Whoever it was that killed him’s gonna be goddam sorry,” Ira declares. (Ira’s quest to find his partner’s killer deliberately echoes Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The Late Show’s overtones of that uber-private eye saga don’t stop there.) Margo reveals that the catnapper’s full name is Brian Hemphill (“He’s this guy,” Margo says, “He’s really sort of a tuna.”), and that she used to “shlep” hot merchandise for Brian and his “partner” and wound up “borrowing” the last payment for said property. Ira sizes Margo up on the spot.
“Back in the 40s, this town was crawlin’ with dollies like you, good-lookin’ cokeheads, tryin’ their damndest to act tough as hell. I’ve got news for you: They did it better back then. This town doesn’t change. They just push the names around. Same dames, screwin’ up their lives, just the same way.”
Ira tells Margo that, the next time Brian calls, he wants her “to set up a meet,” and leaves it at that.
The “meet” goes disastrously. Charlie and Margo show up at Mrs. Schmidt’s house with bad news: Margo told Brian over the phone that Ira was “gunning for him,” and Brian is now on his way over, armed and dangerous. (“Brain’s not very evolved,” Margo explains, “In fact, he’s rather de-evolved.”) Ira immediately breaks out his old revolver and loads it. But, as Brian approaches the house, he’s confronted by another man, who shoots and kills him and takes off in a car. Ira goes outside to pursue the killer. He aims his gun at the fleeing car while turning down his hearing aid (a wonderful image). One of his shots punctures a rear tire, and the car crashes and bursts into flames, but the murderer still manages to escape on foot.
While awaiting the arrival of the police, Ira demands Charlie to hand over “whatever you took off the stiff.” (“Jesus, kid, you always were the best,” Charlie says admiringly, then adds to Margo, “Didn’t I say he was the best?”) The “whatever” turns out to be a small leather folder containing rare stamps. Ira immediately puts two and two together.
Ira: “The Whiting job.”
Margo: “What? Who?”
Ira: “About ten days ago, somewhere out in the valley.”
Margo: “Whiting? Who is that?”
Ira: “That Whiting had a stamp collection worth almost fifty grand.”
Margo: “Who is that? Who’s Whiting?”
Ira: “There’s a murder one tied to it, right?”
Margo: “Okay, don’t tell me. What do I care?”
Ira: (patiently, as if explaining to a child) “Two guys broke into a house out in the valley. They tied up Whiting and his wife and started to lift the stamps. Then something must’ve gone wrong because they beat up Whiting and killed his wife.”
Margo: “Oh, how disgusting! I don’t want to hear any more.”
After Ira threatens to turn him over to the cops, Charlie comes clean: While looking for Margo’s cat, Harry stumbled onto info about Brian and his partner pulling the Whiting robbery, and he and Charlie planned to turn them in and split the fifteen thousand dollar reward the insurance company was offering for the stamps. Obviously, someone involved with the crime found out what Harry was up to, so exit Harry.
From there, the trail leads Ira to Ronnie Birdwell (Eugene Roche), a slimy, porcine wheeler-dealer in stolen merchandise and black market goods whose descriptions of the hot products he fences sound like he memorized them from the Sears catalogue, and Birdwell’s sadistic but fastidious strong arm goon Lamar (John Considine). (In his Trailers From Hell commentary on The Late Show, screenwriter Josh Olson describes Lamar as “a gunsel in every sense of the word; look it up.”) Birdwell also has a faithless, promiscuous wife, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), who is obviously this film noir’s obligatory femme fatale.
As Ira’s investigation progresses, the dead bodies continue to pile up, (one corpse is discovered inside a refrigerator), and the intrigues and double-crosses he uncovers multiply. (On a positive note, Winston is recovered, alive and unharmed, but Margo is convinced that he’s been traumatized by his temporary stay with murderers.) All the while, the initial animosity between Ira and Margo develops into a genuine friendship based on their mutual admiration for each other’s ingenuity. They bond even closer after successfully eluding a couple of thugs who were pursuing them in a high-speed car chase.
Margo: “Ira, I feel so high. Just so incredibly high, I can’t even tell you. I feel like I’ve dropped acid, I mean, have you ever dropped acid?”
Ira: “Well, not in the last ten minutes.”
Margo: “You know, I get this feeling, I mean, do you know, can you see anything about me that’s different, I mean, like my expression, can you see a different kind of expression on my face?”
Ira: (deadpan) “You look higher.”
Margo: “I look high? Do I, right now? Well, I am high. I’m telling you, I am high.”
On a roll, Margo proposes getting herself a private investigator’s license so that she and Ira can go into business together.
Margo: “I feel like The Thin Man.”
Margo: “You know, Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford.” 
It seems that the apartment next to Margo’s is vacant, so she thinks that they can make it the office for their new detective agency. But, ever the loner, Ira shoots the idea down, and, in the film’s most poignant moment, Margo tries to hide her disappointment while struggling to keep from breaking down.
For the climactic scene, all of the suspects wind up in Margo’s apartment. (In the movie’s most stylish visual touch, the camera does a 360° turn around the apartment, starting with the open front door while the building’s ancient elevator is heard beginning its ascent, panning past the faces of those gathered there as they await Ira and Mrs. Birdwell’s arrival, and coming full circle with the elevator noise ceasing and Ira and Laura walking in through the door.) Per mystery movie tradition, Ira details all of the evidence and explains who did what to who, resulting in the guilty parties either ending up behind bars or joining Harry in the cemetery.
As for what happens to Ira and Margo afterwards, that question would’ve been answered in Benton’s proposed sequel (to be titled, of course, The Late Late Show), in which Ira moved into the vacant apartment next to Margo’s and they opened that detective agency she dreamt of. Certainly, the uniformly positive reviews The Late Show received (with raves from Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and Vincent Canby, among others) would seem to have justified continuing Ira and Margo’s adventures. But, unfortunately, Warner Bros. only half-heartedly promoted the film, and The Late Show quickly faded into undeserved obscurity. (According to Olson, there were only two other people in the theater when he saw in on its opening Friday night in Philadelphia.)
In 2004, Warner Home Video issued a bare bones single-disc DVD release of The Late Show, the only extras being the theatrical trailer and a brief 1977 television clip of Tomlin plugging the movie on Dinah Shore’s afternoon talk show Dinah! while surrounded by that day’s other guests, the Doobie Brothers. (The only real value of this clip is to serve as a reminder of how dead on the money the satirical series SCTV was when it skewered TV talk show banalities.) In reviews of the DVD, there have been some complaints of the print looking “grainy” and the colors being rather faded, but having seen The Late Show about half a dozen times in the theater during its first release, I can assure you that the movie has always looked like that. (In fact, graininess and muted colors were practically among Altman’s trademarks in his own films, so it’s safe to assume that these aspects of the film were deliberate.)