For those who do not know, the 11:30 spot on KNXT (CBS here in the LA market back in the 60s) was filled with old movies five nights of the week. I saw many of the greats from the 40s and 50s on this, The Late Show. I watched the Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Murder, My Sweet (based on Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) and many other old movies. This is what the title refers to, not the talk show with David Letterman or Stephen Colbert.
Ira Wells is a retired private detective living in a rented room on Beachwood in Hollywood. He has been writing his memoirs, titled “Naked Girls and Machine Guns”, on an old Underwood manual that Dashiell Hammett might have used. He has logged thirty one years on the mean streets of LA after he became a private eye shortly after his discharge after WWII.
Ira and his partner Harry Regan might have had offices at the Bradbury Building, or in the same building as Philip Marlow on Cahuenga in Hollywood back in the ’40s. Hollywood was always in need of detectives. You seldom know what went on in Tinsel Town, and often needed someone to find the way; like who is blackmailing you, or to find the roll of missing negative from your latest epic, mysteriously missing from the lab.
Ira did not know it, but he was looking to get back into the game, despite a bum leg and a bleeding ulcer. It’s a good thing he retained his Colt Official Police .38, realizing he might need it one night. The reasoning is that Harry Regan (Howard Duff, who played Sam Spade on the radio) arrived at Ira’s home, bleeding from a .45 round in the breadbasket.
Regan had been on the trail of a kidnapped cat, owned by a “ditsy dolly”. Margo Sperling (Lily Tomlin) is “ditsy” that you would find in Hollywood in the 1920s, and every decade since. Starting as an actor, she had descended to the Hollywood lowest rung; she become a talent agent.
Margo would bring him the biggest caper of his career, dumped into his lap by an old pal Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy). She wanted him to find her cat, a victim of a kidnapping. This seemed relatively harmless, but this is the same job that got Regan shot.
The poor feline has been kidnapped and held as collateral by an old boyfriend because of the $500 Margo owed for a dope deal. Ira doesn’t care one way or another about the cat, but like Sam Spade, he wants to know who murdered his partner, who was his version of Miles Archer.
The whole case, including the murder, turns on blackmail. The action begins with a murder in front of Ira’s home and then on he follows the leads, with Margo becoming his new partner (Hey! beats being an agent). The leads take him to the home of a charming fence, Ronnie Birdwell, charming in a loathsome sort of way, played by Eugene Roche, and he lives in a house that packed with stolen merchandise.
Singing the praises of Colgate cleaning products (Stronger than dirt!), Roche had been a familiar face in television commercials. In a role like the fence Birdwell, Roche’s main virtue is the appearance of being harmless. His returning line is, “I know this is going to cost me”, or simple variations of that theme. Birdwell is aided in his life of crime by a dimwitted gunsel, Lamar, played with homicidal bewilderment by John Considine (“You were born dumb and you’re going to die dumb”, Ira tells him).
Birdwell’s errant wife Laura, the lovely Joanna Cassidy is the key to the mystery. When she confesses to tell Ira the whole truth, he knows she is lying before she says a word. She was just too sincere.
The Late Show is very much a 1940s film noir, and I wonder what the casting would have been if it were made, with adjustments to the period, in 1947. I’m just thinking of the noir classics Laura and Fallen Angel. Dana Andrews would be a perfect Ira. He had that quality of world weariness even when young. As the ditsy dolly Margo, how about the noir darling Gloria Grahame? Porter Hall would be a good fit as Ira’s loser Hollywood pal, Charlie Hatter. (Charlie has his own agenda.)
The role of the fence Birdwell would need an actor who proved himself as a reasonable homicidal maniac, like Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo as Johnny Rocco (“Yeah. That’s it. More. That’s right! I want more!”). William Bendix as Birdwell’s dimwitted gunsel Lamar. Lamar is cut from the same bolt of ugly cloth as the sadistic henchman Jeff in The Glass Key.
Claire Trevor would make a dandy Mrs. Birdwell.
And who to direct? Jacques Tourneur. Camera: John Alton. Two of the creators of the dark, shadowy world of noir. The story would be a perfect fit if made thirty years previously. That includes the cast.
Both Art Carney and Lily Tomlin were best known for comedy (The Honeymooners for Carney and Laugh-In for Tomlin, respectively) and easily bring that talent to drama “Dying is easy, comedy is hard”, is what the great character actor Edmund Gwenn said on his deathbed.
Lily Tomlin is the standout among that group of fine actors. The camera likes her and she holds it as long as it suits her, for the benefit of the audience. The chemistry between Carney and Lily Tomlin is so good you have to wonder how The Last Show escaped becoming a television series.
There is a short scene at a shoeshine stand outside Hatter’s office where Ira explains his decision to take Margo’s case. That is 6601 Hollywood Blvd. I recognized it, as I walked past it many times when strolling down Hollywood Blvd. To my knowledge it is still there.
You can catch The Late Show on Amazon Prime or at YouTube Movies