Monday, March 14, 2011

The Late Show

My love affair with the 1940's began with Raymond Chandler, pages and pages of prose as lyrical as anything you'll ever read, filled with sentences so gorgeous and evocative that the pleasure of reading them might conceivably take the top of your head off (if you're greedy, and don't pace yourself). It is work grounded deeply in its place and time. Human nature may be changeless, but the digs in which it occurs can be catalyst for the best and worst of its expression; the new urban landscape that birthed Le Fleurs du Mal drove Eliot to despair, Yeats to the artifice of eternity, Pound to the artifice of the fascista, and poor Hart Crane, who desired to create something bright and new from a cultural vacuum, to the very real depths of the Gulf of Mexico.

This new reality was confronted directly by numbers of new American writers in the latter days of the (first) great depression, writers untroubled by the mythos of some unrealized shining city on the hill, who scarcely acknowledged remembering the existence of other centuries. Chandler was best of these, by far, and not only because of his poetry. His detective, Marlowe, waded into the corruption, and did what he could; and though he girded himself with sarcasm, irony, and cynicism, he could be counted on to confront the inhumane with every bit of humanity he can muster. It was usually enough, though not always—yet another example of how Marlowe—whose name is an allusion to one as morally ambiguous as as the mean streets of prewar America that Chandler's hero travelled—was a man for his time.

Oh, and Chandler could write!—paragraphs like this:

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge." (from Red Wind)

I just finished re-watching a film that is criminally underseen, and underappreciated, Robert Benton's The Late Show, starring Art Carney, and Lily Tomlin. Though it was made in 1977, it captures every every essence of what I love about the art of the 40's.

Carney plays Ira Wells, a sixty-something retired PI with a limp, a flowering belly, and an ulcer that's kind of like Mt. St. Helens. While he doesn't exist mainly on heat (like General Sternwood in The Big Sleep), he does make do on vanilla ice cream and canasta, along with the occasional visit to Hollywood Park. It seems that everything about Ira is passe, in late seventies LA, from his rumpled suits to his square-cut neckties, his hard-boiled sensibility, his inviolable moral code. He is an anachronism, and that's okay with him; the world is a stinking place, and Ira's reached a stage in his life where he's just waiting it out.

When his partner from the old days shows up at the door one day, with a .45 slug in his gut, and a death-stunted boast of a grift on his lips, Ira is moved to action. He discovers that his friend was working on a penny-ante cat-napping case for Margo (Lily Tomlin), a thirty-something new-age hippy-type screwball, introduced to him by an information peddler from the old days, Charlie. He agrees to finish the job, thinking that it will lead him to the murderer. Which, of course, it does.

I should mention that in spite all of the noir elements I spoke of, this is a film chiefly about human relationships, about Ira and Margo, two misfits adrift in an era too pleased with itself by half. Along the way, they find one another, in a way that is surprising, screwy, and tender, maybe the best commentary one can make about these zeitgeist-addled times: There can always be hope, if you will look for it.

Everything about this film works, from the funny, stylized, literate screenplay, to the superlative performances, beginning with the two leads, Carney and Tomlin. Ii's well worth your time, and I urge you to see it (available, on DVD, from netflix).

Occurred to me, as I watched the last minutes of this picture, that it might be seen as a swan song, of sorts, for the 40's, all those great films, those great actors and writers—Chandler, Hammett, Bogart, Bacall, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Mike Mazursky, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., John Payne, Ella Raines, Brian Donlevy—so many more. And it's rather moving, the way the best of an era can be epitomized by the best of its pictures—even when they're released 30 years late.

So, yeah. Like Ira said, there's too damn much talk in the world as it is. Put this picture in your queue, you'll thank me later, I promise.

One more Chandlerism, the way out the door:

"What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill. You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now."

Yeah...*sigh*...Now on to the The Late Show trailer....

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