Armed with a carafe of coffee and a tin of Penguin mints, Judge Bill Treadway stayed up into the wee hours to bring you this review—only to find that it was a murder mystery/comedy thing.
The nicest, warmest, funniest, and most touching movie you'll ever see about blackmail, mystery, and murder.
This quintessential film of the late '70s was both long out of print on home video and unseen on television for many years. The only way one could catch The Late Show was if your local video store carried an old copy on VHS. Even that became increasingly difficult as the Blockbusters ate up the mom 'n' pop stores by the dozen.
Fret no more, fans. Warner Bros. has at long last issued Robert Benton's 1977 classic on DVD. The transfer could have been better, but the film still holds up.
Facts of the Case
Retired private eye Ira Wells (Art Carney, Going in Style, Harry and Tonto) is watching the late show when old friend Harry Regan appears at his door, bleeding to death. Ira is at a loss as to what happened. At Harry's funeral, he is approached by another friend, Charlie (Bill Macy, The Producers, My Favorite Year), who introduces Ira to Margo (Lily Tomlin, Nashville, All of Me). Margo begs Ira to take on an unusual case: finding her cat. Ira laughs it off, but eventually he decides to take the case. What he uncovers is a labyrinth of double crosses that would make Raymond Chandler proud.
The Late Show is one hell of a film. It is many things, sometimes all at once. It is a comedy. It is a thrilling murder mystery. It is a unique human drama. The film also has action set pieces as exciting as anything since Bogart's heyday. What is amazing about Robert Benton's screenplay is that the tones don't fall atop each other in the race to appear first. This is a well-written, well-structured script with an equal emphasis on character and plot. As is the case with all great mysteries, there are the traditional red herrings and double crosses. That leads me to the other great thing about Benton's screenplay: the human touch he gives the proceedings. He isn't afraid to show real human emotions such as fatigue and anguish. He also adds a streak of comedy. Remember what made the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series so much fun? It was the comedy relief that relieved the tension. Benton remembers that element, and the result is a masterpiece, unafraid of taking chances.
Benton also directed the film, his first since Bad Company (1972). Some critics have criticized his direction, claiming it eschews flashy visuals. It is true that Benton is not concerned with visuals. His concern is guiding his actors to give fine performances, and I think he did a fine job here. It perplexes me when some critics say that a director does a marvelous job with the actors but not the visuals. For some films, the visuals are unimportant. The main show is the acting.
Art Carney became famous playing Ed Norton on the classic television series The Honeymooners, but few realize what a brilliant actor Carney really was. His Oscar win in 1974 for Harry and Tonto raised many eyebrows, but it was a well-deserved win. Carney brings many of the same elements to this performance as well.
Most mysteries seem to think that their hero has to be this invigorated, energetic person. Carney's Ira is a tired old man thrown into a plot of intrigue. His performance incorporates a lot of that feeling, even throwing in his real-life limp. He also cracks one-liners with the skill he accumulated working on the classic series for which he is loved to this day. He deserved to win a second Oscar for this performance, which was the most impressive male performance of 1977.
The rest of the cast is fine. Lily Tomlin follows up her Oscar-nominated work in Nashville with another Oscar-worthy performance. Margo is a kook, but a lovable kook. She provides much of the comedy in the film, all of it through simple gestures. A scene in which she reveals how she managed to raise the money needed to pay Ira is one of the biggest laughs in the history of cinema. Bill Macy is appropriately slimy as Ira's friend Charlie, who may or may not be involved in the crime. Eugene Roche is menacing yet benign as Birdwell, a mysterious figure who may or may not have committed a crime.
The film was produced by Robert Altman, who made the best film of 1977 in 3 Women. His strength as a producer is to let his director do what he does best. In other words, he leaves him alone. That type of trust is unheard-of in modern Hollywood, where films are slapped together by committee with no regard for the audience's intelligence. Altman realizes that Benton has something here in The Late Show, and he let him make the movie that needed to be made. Amazing!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer leaves a lot to be desired. While the colors have been restored to their original tones, the rest of the image suffers. Grain is ever-present, even creating a fog in some scenes. Blemishes such as scratches, specks, and reel marks appear too often. After doing some fine work on The Sunshine Boys and Going in Style, it is a shame Warner shortchanged The Late Show.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. It is far from a great audio track. I found I had to keep raising the volume just to hear the dialogue in some scenes. The overall sound has a tinny, muddy sound to it. In a film in which confusion is an important element, it should not have carried over onto the sound mix.
Warner has included some extra content. The original theatrical trailer, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, is in extremely rough shape. It also shows you how not to market a murder mystery/comedy. The best nugget is a segment from the Dinah! talk show featuring Lily Tomlin. It is worth watching from a historical perspective (and to see how a talk show should be done).
Despite the shortcomings of the transfer, I recommend purchasing The Late Show. The film is a masterpiece, the likes of which we will never see again. It shows how to tell a story with multiple tones coherently, without insulting the intelligence of the audience. The $19.99 retail price may appear steep at first, but since most stores offer a discount, don't hesitate to pick it up.
Warner is found guilty of presenting a lousy transfer of an enduring classic. Since they usually do consistently good work, I'll let them off with a warning this time.
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