Ira Wells (The Late Show)

Created by Robert Benton

“If you lay a hand on me, I’m telling you, you’re going to pay for it in your next life.”
— Margo threatens a thug

Robert Benton’s The Late Show (1977) is simply a great private eye flick — part-parody, part-tribute and a full-blown proud addition to the whole genre.back-and-forth

IRA WELLS (played to irascible perfection by Art Carney) is an aging, semi-retired private eye, cranky and cantankerous, with a bad gut, “a bum leg and a hearing aid.” He smokes too many Camels, drinks too many drinks, and chomps through a whole lot of Alka Seltzer, bitching and snarling out hard-boiled one-liners all the way. So when he’s asked by local Los Angeles wingnut Margo Sperling (Lily Tomlin) to rescue her cat, he’s not impressed.

But this thirtyish piece of hippy-dippy Hollywood flotsam, a dress designer/actress/agent and sometime transporter of stolen goods may have gotten Ira’s old partner killed, and Jake feels obliged to find out the truth.

There’s no way in hell that this sour old coot and this New Age flake should get along, and yet, by the end of the film, it’s pretty clear to everyone that they’ve begrudgingly developed a little mutual affection for each other. Not that the course of true love would ever be likely to run smoothly, with these two. After all, Ira is still Ira.

As in:

“Jesus Christ, would it kill you if once in a while you wore a God-damned dress?”

There are some great touches here, such as Howard Duff, (radio’s Sam Spade) in a bit part, and a solid, if not too flashy, plot, full of treachery and deceit, that borrows from The Maltese Falcon and other classics of the genre. Toss in a few more great characters, a hilarious car chase, and a snappy line of patter, and this comedy/drama goes down awful easy.

It was a concept that evidently served as the basis for, or at least the inspiration for, an extremely short-lived 1985 TV series, Eye To Eye, which was a little harder to swallow.

Screenwriter and director Benton, who was also behind Kramer vs. Kramer, Nobody’s Fool and Places in the Heart, returned to the P.I. genre, and many of the same themes, more than twenty years later with 1998’s Twilight , starring Paul Newman as another aging eye. Also highly recommended.


  • “God damn you, Harry, letting someone come up and drill you like that-point blank…Nobody can palm a forty-five. Jesus Christ, you never had the brains God gave a common dog…sorry, you’re going off, pal…you were good company…the best…the very best.”
    — Ira, to his dying former partner
  • “Harry Regan was a pal of mine close to twenty four years. Whoever killed him is going to be God-damned sorry.”
    — Ira
  • “Back in the ’40’s this town was crawling with dollies like you… good-looking cokeheads (or is it coquettes) trying their damnedest to look tough as hell. I got news for you — they did it better back then… This town hasn’t changed, they just push the names around…same dames screwing up their lives just the same way.”
    — Ira
  • Ira, just prior to gun battle, to his landlady: “Mrs. Schmidt, I’ll be using the living room for a few minutes if you don’t mind.”
    Mrs. Schmidt: “That’s fine, Mr. Wells, just don’t make a mess.”
  • Margo, urging Ira to run after a suspect: “You could get him!”
    Ira: “I could get a heart attack, that’s what I could get”
  • “One more thing, doll…about my fee…I get twenty-five dollars a day, plus expenses…Listen, sweetheart, you’re talking to Ira Wells, not some low-rent gumshoe. I’m the best and I get paid like the best.”
    — Ira
  • “This car’s not only a toilet but you’re the attendant.”
    — Margo, to Charlie, a professional snitch
  • “You’re an actress. Act calm.”
    — Ira, to Margo
  • “I’m sorry, doll, but I never told you…this is the hardest damned way in the world to make a buck.”
    — Ira
  • Margo: “I feel like I just dropped acid… Have you ever dropped acid?”
    Ira: “Well, not in the last ten minutes.”
  • “It’s my gut, it’s my life. I won’t let anybody call me a God-damned coward.”
    — Ira
  • “It’s raining everywhere these days, lady.”
    — Ira
  • “I’ve been in this business for thirty-one years, give or take a couple of months. I always played it on the up and up. Call the cops.”
    — Ira
  • “Jesus Christ, would it kill you if once in a while you wore a God-damned dress?”
    — Ira


  • THE LATE SHOW | Buy this videoBuy this DVD  | Watch it now!
    (1977, Warner Brothers)
    94 minutes
    Written and directed by Robert Benton
    Produced by Robert Altman
    Starring Art Carney as IRA WELLS
    and Lily Tomlin as Margo Sperling
    Also starring Bill Macy, Eugene Roche, Joanna Cassidy, John Considine, Ruth Nelson, John Davey, Howard Duff, Lothar Lambert, Beate Hasenau, Cihan Anasai, Dagmar Beiersdorf, Dorothea Moritz, Erika Wilde


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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