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Warner Home Video presents
"This town hasn't changed. They just pushed the names around."
DVD ReviewOld private dicks never die. They just limp along toward the old Pinkerton's in the sky. The Late Show is a mid-70s spin on one of the most tried and true of Hollywood genres, the detective picture. But what's novel here is that the detective has grown old along with the story in which he finds himself—this isn't Sam Spade forever fixed in a '40s noir, but an incarnation of the same character further along, Jake Gittes in his geriatric years or something. The film was written and directed by the redoubtable Robert Benton, a decade after his invigorating script for Bonnie and Clyde, and just two years prior to directing Kramer versus Kramer—he's become Hollywood old guard in recent years, with films like Nobody's Fool and The Human Stain, but here you sense that he's one of the film generation, feeling his oats. Not incidentally, the film was produced by Robert Altman, and the picture engages the history of its genre in much the same way that Altman's reconstituted noir The Long Goodbye did. If The Long Goodbye was Philip Marlowe as Rip Van Winkle, The Late Show is the Marlowe figure cashing his Social Security checks.
Art Carney plays Ira Wells, a detective with a hearing aid, a limp, and a fondness for the old days, which of course are growing more and more distant. He can't throw back slugs of rye anymore, due to a perforated ulcer; he's a private eye who bellies up to the bar and orders an Alka-Seltzer. A late-night visit from a buddy isn't to reminisce, though; Harry Regan shows up at Wells's door with a belly full of lead, and a secret that he doesn't get out before he passes. At poor Harry's funeral, Wells gets the offer of what seems like a parody of a case: Margo (Lily Tomlin) is all bent out of shape because her kitty, Winston, has been kidnapped. (You have been warned, Intrigo.) Spade gets a black bird; Ira gets to chase a cat, and for $25 a day, plus expenses. Of course, there's more to the mystery than that, and Wells gets himself caught up in the case, with the unspoken but palpable feeling that this is one last hurrah for the old man, before he hangs up the .45 for good.
The facts of the case, then, are a whole lot less important than the atmosphere and the characters, and happily, The Late Show is rich in both. Tomlin is appropriately daffy as Margo, sort of a hippy dippy take on the noir dame, a Lauren Bacall into channeling past lives and getting her head shots together—there's a hint of a romantic connection between her and Ira, but Benton wisely doesn't make it more than that. But the real star here is Carney—there shouldn't have been any doubt any more that he was a whole lot more than merely Ed Norton, and boy, is he good in this movie. His Ira Wells is human and frail without being maudlin or pathetic; like most movie detectives, he's not much given to self-reflection, and in the groovy Los Angeles of the 1970s, he's even more of a square peg. He even talks like a Raymond Chandler novel—women are invariably "dolls" or "dollies," and he prefers to be addressed as Mr. Wells, thank you very much. It's not really a terrifically memorable story, though Wells is especially notable as one of the few L.A. private eyes in movie history to use public transportation exclusively. Mortality is very much in the air all throughout the film, especially in one of the very last scenes, in which we see a sign with the word "cemetery" spelled wrong. This is either a big old goof by the art department, or a wise and knowing wink to us from the rapscallions behind and in front of the camera—both, probably.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: This seems to be a sloppy transfer from a damaged print, which means that it's full of scratches, discolorations, and badly faded and unpleasant colors. It's too bad, because we're as far from the 1970s now as this film was from the era that inspired it; it's not much of a document of the time, unfortunately, and could have used some more care in coming to DVD.
Image Transfer Grade: C-
Audio Transfer Review: Limited range and some hiss on the mono track, but everything is audible.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Extras Review: Aside from the original trailer, the only extra is a clip (04m:52s) of Tomlin promoting the movie on Dinah!, with a title card billing it as "A Special Visit with the Doobie Brothers and Their Friends." You can almost smell and will feel the need to waft away the clouds of pot smoke.
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsCarney's performance is the centerpiece of this muted and mournful 1970s noir, more memorable for its characters than its passable story.
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