The Late Show

The Late Show. Warner Bros. 1977.

Before watching the movie:

I picked this up because I was curious why there was a talk show highlights compilation on the fiction movies shelf.

Art Carney and Lily Tomlin sold me. Apparently it has a reputation as a drama with a lighter tone, but it’s positioned like a noir farce, so I’m interested in trying it.

After watching the movie:

Ira Wells used to be the best private detective in LA, but that was thirty years ago. One night his former partner Harry Regan arrives at his home fatally shot, and Wells swears he’s going to get the guy who killed Harry. At the funeral, Wells’s regular information man Charlie brings Margo Sperling to him, who offers him $25 to steal back her cat from the business associate who kidnapped it as loan collateral. At first Wells is insulted by the case, but then he realizes that Harry must have been on that case when he got killed, and soon finds a web of stolen goods, murder, and blackmail, with Margo as his reluctant partner.

This is a very well-defined story about getting things done when past one’s prime. Ira is a hard-boiled 40s detective living in 70s LA, and Margo operates as a foil to him by being as modern as he is set in his ways. Margo is new-age, “highly evolved”, and frank about sex, drugs, and illegal activity, and Ira calls her a “dolly” and just wants her to try to act like a lady and maybe wear a dress. She doesn’t care for his blunt methods, but she needs him to get the job done, and he needs her to pay him his fee. Carney is a very solid straight man, but Margo’s eccentricities aren’t played for a lot of laughs. Their bickering is fairly low-key.

I’m not sure about the hint of attraction between them later on. On the one hand, romance subplots are overdone and older-man/younger-woman relationships are a particular problem in the medium, but on the other, it does play to the theme of overcoming ageism to make a difference, and the notion is very clearly and gently dismissed, because this isn’t a pure “recapture the old days” fantasy, more of a last hurrah.

This is an entertaining mystery that’s about more than most pulp detective fiction and makes a pretty good stab at updating an older genre for the modern day. It’s not hilarious, but it sets a tone and sticks to it, and explores a post-Hays Code LA underbelly through a man the world has passed by.

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