"If you took the whole country and stood it on edge, all the loose nuts would roll to California."
Frank Lloyd Wright's Continental Tilt Theory
Directed and cleverly written by Robert Benton (Bad Company (1972), Still of the Night (1982), Nadine (1987), Billy Bathgate (1991)). Cinematography was by Charles Rosher Jr. (Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), 3 Women (1977), The Onion Field (1979)), and some excellent moody music by Kenneth Wannberg.
|Ira Wells (Art Carney)|
|Margo (Lily Tomlin)|
1964), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)) as fence Ron Birdwell, Joanna Cassidy (The Outfit (1973), The Laughing Policeman (1973), Blade Runner (1982), Lonely Hearts (1991), Too Late (2015), as Laura Birdwell, John Considine (The Detectives TV Series (1959–1962), The Twilight Zone TV Series (1959–1964), The Outer Limits TV Series (1963–1965), The F.B.I. TV Series (1965–1974), The Rockford Files TV Series (1974–1980)) as sadistic goon Jeff Lamar, Ruth Nelson (A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) as Mrs. Schmidt, the quaint landlady, and Classic Noir veteran Howard Duff (Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), Shakedown (1950), Private Hell 36 (1954), While the City Sleeps (1956)) as Ira's old partner Harry Regan.
|Harry Regan (Howard Duff)|
|Charlie (Bill Macy)|
|Ron Birdwell (Eugene Roche)|
|Lamar (John Considine)|
|Laura Birdwell (Joanna Cassidy)|
At Harry's funeral Ira runs into a former associate, sleazeball Charlie Hatter (Macy), a film/theatrical agent/part time bartender, scam artist and useful flunky. Charlie has a dolly named Maro Sterling in tow who has a cat (Winston) that's been stolen and held for ransom by Brian Hemphill.
|"This little kitty is just a little honey bun. Give this little cat a break!"|
Margo Sperling: This little kitty is just a little honey bun. Give this little cat a break!
Later at the shoeshine stand at Charlie's office building Ira gets the skinny from Charlie that Reagan was working for Margo when he stumbled upon a much bigger swindell. At Iras boarding house Margo tells her story while Charlie fills in the details. Harry Regan while looking for Winston stumbled onto the perpetrators of Whiting Case a murder robbery with a big insurance reward for a stolen stamp collection.
Margo: Well, OK, as long as we are going to be working together. Umm you see Brian had this creepy friend, and far be for me to go around passing judgement on people, but Ray Escobar is truly pittsville, and he had some kind of arrangement see a deal going with this guy named Birdwell.
Charlie: Ronny Birdwell?
Charlie: He's a fence, new since your day got a setup on Sunset Place.
Ira: Check around the street Charlie, see what you can pick up on Escobar.
Charlie: Can do.
Ira: One more thing, doll, about my fee... My fee. I get paid $25 a day, plus expenses.
Margo Sperling: What's he talking about?
Charlie: Listen, sweetheart, you're talking to Ira Wells.
Ira: Not some low-rent gumshoe. I'm the best, and I get paid like the best.
The facts Ira picks up from Margo leads him to Ron Birdwell (Eugene Roche) who lives in a Sunset Place mansion/warehouse filled with stolen goods instead of furniture. Lamar (John Considine) Birdwell's goon roughs up the unsuspecting Ira when he rings the doorbell. When Birdwell finds out that Ira knows less than he does he sends him on his way, with a stolen shirt, after telling Ira Hemphill's real name Hampton.
Ira and Margo next go to Escobar's apartment, there they find, along with Laura Birdwell (Joanna Cassidy) hiding in the shower, Escobar dead and stuffed in the fridge, a one way ticket to Noirsville.
The films highlight is the totally believable way Robert Benton juxtaposed the Hard Boiled 40s & 50s relics Ira and Charlie with the denizens of the Age of Aquarius 70s. The two fossils Ira and to a lesser extent Charlie have a hard time making sense of "enlightened" Margo's tangential mumbo jumbo psycho-babble ramblings.
Ira (to Charlie and Margo): .... if you two clowns would simmer down and tell me what's going on I'd appreciate it.
Margo: OK, you wanted to take a meeting with Brian right? So He called me and I'm listening to him very carefully because I've know him a long time, and Brian's not very evolved in fact he's rather de-evolved, and I was talking to him and I'm very sensitive to the vibrations he's giving out because I know what kind of karma he has....
Ira (to Charlie): What the hell is she talking about?
The film also has a nicely convoluted plot that ranks right up there with the film versions of the works of Chandler and Hammett.
Art Carney's performance in this and in 1974's Harry and Tonto are eye openers. Just like his comedy partner Jackie Gleason (Requiem For a Heavyweight & The Hustler), he shows his acting chops. He is excellent as Ira the street smart, quick thinking, but a bit rusty and age battered PI. He brings strength to the role and personifies Raymond Chandler's man "who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it."
Lily Tomlin shines as the eccentric free spirit, too cool Margo. But she's not dumb, she's quick to pick up that Ira and Charlie are always making her come up with the scratch, when they all got a stake in the reward.
Margo: You know what I had to go through to hassle up this dough? I laid off four ounces of pure red Colombian for $15 an ounce. I mean, it's disgusting. Some freak over on Pico thinks I'm Santa Claus, I swear to God. $15 an ounce... $15 an ounce. This grass was so great, I can't tell you. There was so much resin in it, it made your lips stick together.
Tomlin's non stop seemingly free association chatterbox palaver is quite humorous, it wouldn't be hard to believe that some of it is ad libbed.
Margo (hanging up the phone and addressing Ira and Charlie): Aaaah, Pit City, I mean Pit City. Not only did I still not get my cat back, thanks to you, not only did I almost get mowed down here tonight, not only did I sit here in the livingroom with yellow socks (Charlie) and perjure myself in front of practically the whole Los Angeles Police Department, but on top of that I promised this singer I managed that I would be there tonight for a very important audition, and of course you can probably tell I am not there, and on top of that I got my period.
Bill Macy is great as the slightly hipper, slightly bent, oldster Charlie. He looks like a seedy used car salesman and drives a two tone 1954 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.
Eugene Roche's Birdwell is a nice piece of work. He's a sort of a big marshmallow. A muppet version of a tough guy. Roche infuses the character with an oddly idiosyncratic compulsive sales pitches, always trying to close a deal on the hot merchandise he has.
The rest of the cast are spot on in their portrayals. Considine as the low IQ mod-ish heavy Lamar, and Ruth Nelson is almost homaging Katie Johnson's old lady Wilberforce from The Ladykillers. Joanna Cassidy is the eye candy of the film. If I had a wish I would have had just a tad bit more of noir vet Howard Duff. It's also great to see the low rent characters getting around by either walking riding on public transportation or driving a few 10 year old junkers , Margo's '64 Dodge A-100 van, and Lamar's '68 Toyota Corona.
Screencaps are from the Warner Archive Collection DVD. Café au lait Noir 7/10