Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Video: The Late Show (1977)

Character actor Eugene Roche passed away last month. Most of his obituaries focused on his lengthy television career, including a stint as the Ajax man in a series of commercials. For me, his work in this Robert Benton film stands out as a highlight.

Art Carney stars as Ira Wells, a retired Los Angeles private eye. His ex-partner turns up dead on his doorstep one night, plunging Ira into a case that starts with a ransomed pet cat and leads to blackmail and murder. The mayhem revolves around the wealthy fence played by Roche, a man who’s the best salesman of whatever swag he has lying around. MAUDE’s Bill Macy makes a memorably sleazy impression as a man with his fingers in any number of half-baked pies. The cast also includes Joanna Cassidy, who in a just universe would have been a huge star.

Lily Tomlin plays the flaky woman who wants her cat back. Her SoCal shtick gets tired quickly, but then I’ve never warmed to Tomlin as a performer. The DVD’s sole extra is a clip of Tomlin appearing on the Dinah Shore show with some portion of the Doobie Brothers. (I don’t know how many Brothers there were, so I can’t tell if it’s all of them.) In the clip she refers to the film as a ‘spoof,’ which brings up my only problem with it. As enjoyable as THE LATE SHOW is, at times there’s an unmistakable whiff of parody about the proceedings. I get the same feeling watching 1973’s THE LONG GOODBYE, which was directed by this film’s producer Robert Altman. There’s a nagging sense that the filmmakers think of the genre as somewhat beneath them, that they heap on twist after twist more to satirize Raymond Chandler’s knotty storytelling than to keep the audience guessing. Which is unfortunate, because THE LATE SHOW’s plot ultimately resolves itself nicely.

It’s hard to imagine a movie like this being made in today’s youth-obsessed Hollywood, although Benton pulled it off with 1998’s TWILIGHT. Despite the presence of Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and an all-around stellar cast, that movie flopped at the box office. It has its moments, but it doesn’t crackle the way THE LATE SHOW does. Watch it to enjoy Art Carney in top form, and to pay tribute to Eugene Roche, an actor who improved everything he appeared in.