I heard about this film when it first came out, but I didn’t see it. A few years later I saw it on cable and wondered why I hadn’t seen it before.
Who’d have thought that Art Carney would be a leading man in his late 50’s, but he was. In 1974, he starred in a small film called Harry and Tonto and won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Suddenly, he had a hot film career. Carney, best remembered for The Honeymooners, was essentially a television actor, but Harry and Tonto changed that. For the next 20 years he had a fine film and television career.
In The Late Show, Carney stars as Ira Wells, a retired private investigator who falls into a case when his former partner shows up with a very serious bullet wound. Like deadly serious. At the funeral, Wells is asked to take the case, which involves a missing cat, owned by Margo, played by Lili Tomlin. Instantly, there is another murder, right outside Wells’ house. On the dead man are some stamps, that may have been involve in a recent robbery/murder where a large collection of stamps went missing. Who knew that a cat could stir up so much murder?
Margo is a bit of a flake, and a pot seller, but Wells takes her case. Despite his reservation, he and Margo team up on the case. Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy) is the one who refers Margo to Wells, and tips him to the stamps, which carries a sizable reward. One of the suspects in the robbery is a guy named Birdwell (Eugene Roche), a small-time fence, who Wells pays a visit. He was involved in the cat theft. Wells gets roughed up in the process, so it won’t be the last time that Birdwell comes up in the story.
They find the cat at the apartment of the other stamp robbery accomplice, but they find him dead. Hiding in the bathroom is Birdwell’s wife (Joanna Cassidy), who is holding the murder weapon. She tells Wells that she was being blackmailed by the dead man over an affair she was having with the man who was robbed of the stamps. Confusing? She escapes from the dead man’s apartment, and as they attempt to find her, are pursued by Birdwell’s associate, but Wells and Margo get away. Still confused? The Late Show is like a fast-paced film noir of the 1940’s.
During the course of the film, Wells and Margo learn to like each other, they are an odd match, since he’s so much older and she’s a bit weird. He’s a loner and she needs a connection with another person, maybe him.
Hatter enters the story again, as he is confronted by Birdwell, who wants the gun that killed the guy with the stamps. Birdwell’s wife shows up at Wells’ house at night, which gets him in trouble with his very proper landlady. Birdwell’s wife claims she was blackmailed because her gun (but not her) killed the stamp collector’s wife. So she and Wells go to the stamp collector’s apartment but he’s been murdered. I don’t think the cat is the suspect this time.
Birdwell’s wife left the gun, the one that killed the stamp collector’s wife, at Wells’ house, which Margo finds. Margo calls Hatter, looking for Wells. She tells Hatter about the gun, the one that Birdwell told him to find. Hatter brings Birdwell and his henchman to Margo’s apartment to get the gun. Hatter thinks he will collect a reward for finding the gun.
Wells begins to put together the pieces of this tangled mystery. Everyone meets at Margo’s apartment where the story is resolved. It was Birdwell who killed Wells’ friend, and his wife who killed the stamp collector’s wife. I won’t spoil the ending but it involves gun play, but the cat is not involved.
As the film ends, Wells is being evicted by his landlady. Since Margo has an empty apartment next to her, he wants to move in there, but Margo has conditions. He needs to talk to her more and stop calling her dolly, which he does all the time. He asks her to wear a dress once in a while.
The Late Show, written and directed by Robert Benton, and produced by Robert Altman, is one of those films about the underbelly of Los Angeles, full of odd, slightly nutty characters and rundown neighborhoods. Benton, Altman and Alan Rudolph specialized in these films. Benton was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and won several other writing awards for this film. Benton would go on to win Academy Awards for Places in the Heart and Kramer vs. Kramer. He was also nominated for writing Bonnie and Clyde and Nobody’s Fool.
The Late Show starred Carney, Tomlin, Macy (Maude), Roche, Cassidy, John Considine, and Howard Duff.
The Late Show has a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It may sound like a slight film, it was in terms of production budget, but the story is twisty and engrossing, the clues stack up on top of each other but what do they mean? These are small-time characters living on the edge of society. This is not ritzy L.A., it is the seedier part of town. If you like whodunit films, this is a good one to watch on a quiet night.