After working as the art director of “Esquire” magazine, as well as co-writing books and the libretto for a Broadway musical, American filmmaker Robert Benton penned his first film script (with fellow “Esquire” editor and frequent collaborator David Newman) for one of the most significant movies of the 1960s—Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which earned the two screenwriters an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. What ensued were further collaborations on scripts for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1970 western There Was a Crooked Man... and Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball comedy What's Up, Doc? (with third co-writer Buck Henry) before Benton finally decided to give directing a go. His debut was the 1972 western Bad Company (co-written, of course, by Newman), followed by the critically acclaimed 1977 neo-noir comedy The Late Show. Lo and behold, The Late Show brought Benton his second Academy Award nomination, again for Best Original Screenplay (this time sans Newman). Robert Altman decided to produce the film after Benton had shown him the script in 1976. It is also worth mentioning that Altman regarded The Late Show as a sequel of sorts to his neo-noir thriller The Long Goodbye (1973) that successfully subverted the genre. In Benton’s own words, Altman was the reason why Benton changed his entire approach to working with actors: “He taught me to loosen up. He was a great teacher. He believes you allow a film to happen, that you stand there and control it, but don't make up your mind ahead of time and stick rigidly to that. Let the actor bring something to it. Altman's the one who said to me ‘The only heroes in movies are the actors.’ It's easy for me to stand behind the camera and tell you a lie. But if the actor can't make my lie into truth, then it won't work...”
Lucky for Benton, the actors he chose for The Late Show were more than capable of turning his fabrications into believable realities. Widely known for his portrayal of Ed Norton on the sitcom The Honeymooners before snatching both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor thanks to the 1974 movie Harry and Tonto, actor and comedian Art Carney stepped into the shoes of Benton’s male protagonist. Lily Tomlin, whose film debut in Altman’s 1975 movie Nashville earned her an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress, played the female lead. The two actors initially did not get along, primarily because Tomlin was big on ad-libbing, whereas her co-star was more inclined to stick to the script. The actress eventually managed to get into Carney’s good graces by showcasing her professionalism, whereas the director encouraged the actor to go along with the improvisations. On working with Tomlin, Benton stated: “On The Late Show I remember I gave Lily Tomlin some direction on how to throw a pot at someone. She said, ‘I wouldn't do that.’ I don't know why, but I really heard her. I said to myself ‘Okay, she wouldn't do that. She's the character. She knows the character.’ What she was going to do was real, and much better than what I wanted. And in that moment, a door opened up for me about acting. I learned how to shut up and watch, and only interfere if I know it's not working and trust my actors.”
The Late Show opens with a shot of an old typewriter. Someone has clearly been using it, for the paper that can be found in the carriage reads “Naked Girls and Machine Guns, Memoirs of a real private investigator, by Ira Wells.” It is an ingenious way of letting us know that we will be following an aging private eye who had obviously seen a thing or two in his day. We are more than willing to take the bait hook, line and sinker and allow Benton to properly introduce us to the author of such an intriguing title. Is Ira Wells everything we hoped for, and more? He sure is. With a hearing aid, a bum leg and a perforated ulcer, the L.A. detective is seemingly but a shadow of the man he once was. But his clearly uneventful life soon takes a turn for the dramatic when his friend and former partner Harry Regan shows up at his doorstep, bleeding from a gunshot wound. At the funeral, Wells is introduced to Margo Sperling, a woman who begs him to find and rescue her kidnapped cat. Margo is the P.I.’s exact opposite—quirky and free-spirited, she came to L.A. in pursuit of an acting career (as one does) but quickly figured out that she was not cut out for it, prompting her to become a freelance clothes designer who pushes some Mary Jane on the side. It was, as we will soon find out, the illicit activity that led to her cat being taken. At first, Ira is reluctant to help Margo (is searching for a missing feline really all he is good for nowadays?), but finds himself taking the case anyway and getting sucked into something much bigger than he bargained for. But Ira is not easily intimidated. He might be an old man with quite a few health problems, but his aim is near perfect and he can still throw a punch or two.
Yet, the biggest surprise The Late Show holds in store for us is not its complex labyrinthine storyline that includes murder, robberies, deceit, love affairs and several idiosyncratic but highly entertaining supporting characters—Benton’s biggest surprise is the tender and unexpected relationship between the two protagonists that unfolds before our very eyes. Although Margo and Ira are, at first glance, as different as two people can be and have close to nothing in common, the condition that irrevocably unites them is their palpable loneliness. The old P.I.’s lone wolf status was never brought into question—in fact, it was made blatantly obvious in the movie’s first scene. On the other hand, Margo’s extraverted exterior might have fooled us for a second, but it becomes perfectly clear that the progressive woman who openly and unabashedly talks about karma, her period and her shrink has no close relationships. Both of them are outcasts the world has chewed up and spit out. And while Ira’s time has long passed, Margo’s life has never really taken off—so even though their trajectories differed, their destination was the same. Together, they experience one life-threatening adventure after another, with the very real dangers they face proving to be worth the thrill that is accompanied by a sense of vitality and purpose.
The Late Show is a true masterclass in multifaceted storytelling, effortlessly blending multiple genres and themes into a single extraordinary piece of cinema—part merciless neo-noir, part comedy, part character study on loneliness, part social commentary, Robert Benton’s second directorial endeavor does it all and has it all. His film manages to simultaneously entertain and delight. It keeps us on our toes and never once stops being exciting and thrilling. But most importantly, it makes us genuinely empathize and care. The film’s tagline described it best: “The nicest, warmest, funniest, and most touching movie you’ll ever see about blackmail, mystery, and murder.” If that does not sound like one hell of a ride, I do not know what does.
Josh Olson on THE LATE SHOW