Thursday, May 21, 2015

More Film Gris than Film Noir

Film: The Late Show
Format: Streaming video from TCM Watch on laptop.

There are few joys in watching a new movie like seeing a septuagenarian character beat the crap out of a guy half his age. That’s one of the perks of The Late Show. This was a “target of opportunity” for me; it was streaming on TCM’s site and it’s a film not currently available on NetFlix. When a movie like this shows up, it only makes sense to save myself the trouble of tracking it down later and to watch it right away.

The Late Show is a very unusual neo-noir. Imagine Sam Spade 30 years older with a bleeding ulcer, living in a boarding house and looking to get out of the detective game. As the film opens, aging detective Ira Wells (Art Carney) is visited by an old friend named Harry Regan (Howard Duff). It soon becomes evident that Harry has taken a bullet and is about to die.

At Harry’s funeral, Ira bumps into Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy), an old associate who seems to have a knack for finding whatever information is needed whenever it is needed. Charlie introduces Ira to Margo Sterling (Lily Tomlin). Margo is flighty and goofy and is currently in a situation that requires a private detective. She owes a sum of money to someone who, wanting his money back, has kidnapped her cat. Ira is uninterested at first, but eventually decides that if Harry died trying to get Margo’s cat back, that he owes it to the man’s memory to get to the bottom of his murder.

Like any good film noir, things get complicated very quickly. In fact, that’s one of the defining characteristics of a film noir. Ira follows the path of the kidnapped cat, which leads him to Ron Birdwell (Eugene Roche). Birdwell is a fence who seems very much to be hiding something. He’s also got a bodyguard named Lamar (John Considine) who isn’t above roughing up an old man. It’s evident to Ira that Birdwell is probably tied into everything that’s going on.

In the law of the cinema, there aren’t a lot of red herrings here and everything that happens is all tied together. Everything is wrapped up in everything else, and pulling the string of trying to locate Margo’s cat leads to a couple of murders, a case of a stolen stamp collection, blackmail, adultery, and more. And at the center of it all is Ira—old, unhealthy, wanting to retire, and getting angrier by the minute.

The glue that holds the movie together is also the glue that almost ruins the experience for me. I tend to like Lily Tomlin, but Margo Sterling is a tremendously annoying character. This comes mainly in the form of a constant verbal diarrhea that involves complaints, comments about her horoscope and/or aura, threats, and random ideas. Fortunately, she’s not on screen for large chunks of the film, and again, it’s difficult for me to dislike Lily Tomlin completely.

So what’s the sell? Art Carney, hands down. He is both the perfect noir detective and the antithesis of same. His attitude is exactly in line with the genre. He is, as mentioned above, like Sam Spade getting ready for retirement. He can still take a punch, he’s smarter than anyone gives him credit for being, and he seems to always know what is going on. At the same time, this is an old, overweight guy who gets winded going up a couple of flights of stairs. As much as he is mentally and emotionally the perfect noir gumshoe, he’s a physical wreck and the complete opposite of who you’d want guarding your back on a serious case.

What stops The Late Show from being a great film and leaves it merely in the realm of a pretty good one is the tone. It’s evident that this is intended both to be a neo noir, but it’s also intended at least in part to be a parody of the same. The arrival of Birdwell’s estranged wife Laura (Joanna Cassidy), the reality that this is both homage and spoof becomes evident. And yet there’s just not enough humor here to really make it work. My guess is that Margo’s logorrhea is intended as comedy, too. The problem is that it comes out as annoying and not funny.

This is a fun little film, but it’s not one that really merits more than a single watch. If I do watch it again, it will be for the scene in which Ira retaliates against Lamar and bloodies him up a little bit. That, and there’s some great classic noir dialogue here. I’m a sucker for that stuff.

Why to watch The Late Show: A unique neo-noir with a very unusual hero.
Why not to watch: It’s tonally strange.

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