City of angles

Art Carney and Lily Tomlin sleuth among the low-lifes in a scuffed-up L.A. noir.

By Charles Taylor

Published May 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The title of Robert Benton's "The Late Show" refers to both the television time slot that, by 1977, had become the refuge of film noir, and to the movie's aging private detective hero Ira Wells, played by Art Carney. Like the genre his story takes place in, like the L.A. he remembers from his prime, Ira is a relic, fading away in the confines of a shabbily genteel boarding house. He hasn't even bothered to update the young man's photo we see on his battered private investigator's license. Pushing 70, he's out of the game, until an old pal (Howard Duff) turns up gut-shot at his door and Ira promises to find whoever killed him. This casually sardonic thriller is about how Ira keeps that promise -- his way of honoring his dead friend, the receding past and his own dignity.

That may be the hardest quality for an actor to capture. The temptation with dignity is usually to sentimentalize or inflate it, or to confuse it with boring civic-minded stolidity. Often, the most dignified movie characters are ones who live in undignified circumstances. Their dignity comes from the way in which they acknowledge their limitations while refusing to be defined by them. One look at Ira Wells and you know that, even as a young man, he was never a tough guy. And now, with a bum leg, a hearing aid and a bleeding ulcer, he can't even pretend to be tough. Even the hunches he plays have already been figured out by the low-lifes and weirdos floating around the edges of the case. What Ira's got going for him is the pride that's kept him clean of the petty graft that's part and parcel of his business, and his stubborn determination to prove that he's more than a broken-down old shamus. At times, Ira suggests a detective-fiction version of De Sica's Umberto D., though without the stiff-necked vanity.

There isn't a second in the film where Art Carney seems to be acting. His large build is sheathed in the baggy, black suits that Ira wears even in the privacy of his room. Carney moves with the careful, lumbering gait of a man slowed down by age and bulk. Carney makes Ira's pride visible in small things, like the way he straightens up and buttons his jacket after an ulcer attack has felled him in a cheap diner. It's even visible in the way Ira carries himself as he walks to the laundromat (he's without a car -- in L.A.) with his wash in a pillowcase. Constantly swigging antacid to relieve his burning stomach, Ira, a loner, is beginning to feel a creeping fear in the face of his infirmities, in a world that's no longer quite as familiar to him. You see the exertion that goes into every step Ira takes. Carney never overdoes Ira's fear, he makes sure to keep it just beneath the character's surface of light sarcasm and '40s lingo, and he never commits the mistake of making Ira dear. Nonetheless, we come to care for this man very deeply. He humanizes the pulp conception of one true man walking the city's mean streets. It's enough for Ira to be able to walk them with his head held up.

"This town doesn't change," Ira says at one point, "they just push the names around." The comedy of "The Late Show" comes from seeing the remnants of Raymond Chandler's L.A. rub shoulders with the remnants of the counterculture and the hangers-on of the new Hollywood of the '70s. Newcomers have moved into the seedy poolside apartments and Spanish-style houses that have seen better days. You can recognize Ira's acquaintance, the failed talent agent Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy), as a sharpster of the old school, with his pencil-thin moustache and white patent-leather shoes. Macy conveys the lazy oiliness of a man who's settled into his own sleaziness. Taking a seat at a shoeshine stand, he snaps open a copy of "The Hollywood Reporter" as if he had just closed a deal at the Polo Lounge. But to Ira's amazement, almost nobody else plays the game like they're supposed to. Even the villain, a fence named Ronnie Birdwell (played by Eugene Roche with the cushy self-satisfaction of a baby Nero), spouts therapy-speak when he's filling Ira in on the woes of his philandering wife (Joanna Cassidy). "I tried that direct confrontation bullshit," he tells Ira, "and it got me nowhere."

Nobody epitomizes how the city has changed more than Lily Tomlin's Margo, whose kidnapped cat may hold the key to the murder of Ira's pal. Margo is an L.A. character who's fancied herself an actress, a talent scout, a dress designer. When times are tight -- and they usually are -- she's not averse to schlepping swag or selling grass. Tomlin's reactions, always a few beats later or a few beats earlier than you expect, give the movie the flakiness it needs around the edges (it might be too conventional without her). When she manages to out-drive a hood gunning for her dand Ira, her moonstruck exhilaration in the scene that follows is more breathless than the chase. The joy of watching Ira and Margo is that of seeing two mismatched characters make a crossed connection, and you can feel the actors' respect between Tomlin and Carney. Their disparate personas merge and the blend gives the movie its distinct hard-boiled funkiness.

"The Late Show" isn't a wild-card satire in the manner of Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" (though Altman produced it). Benton's film is actually a classically structured film noir. But he doesn't make the mistake of trying to pass off the barroom profundities of noir for a world view. He's true to the genre while recognizing that there are areas of experience its tough-guy attitude can't encompass. What "The Late Show" does share with "The Long Goodbye" is the realization that the characters are living in their own movie-fed fantasies. Not Ira, though, despite all his talk of dollies and who got the freeze put on him. No movie that admits the pain and fear Art Carney puts on screen, or the integrity that seals up the cracks in his facade, is going to content itself with fantasy.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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