BACK IN 1923, when a character named Race Williams opened his yap and began saying things like "I squeezed lead - and the show was over" and "Dead? He was as cold as an old maid's smile," not too many people noticed.

But when Ira Wells looks out over the schizoid seaminess of Los Angeles more than 50 years later and talks about how he means to have the louse that nailed his buddy, about how being a private detective is "the hardest goddam way in the world to make a buck," the results cause a sensation.

"The Late Show," starring Art Carney as Mr. Wells, bids fair toattract the same kind of crowds in Washington it is luring in New York, where Variety calls it "the hottest item in town." Yet, though Race Williams isn't exactly well-known, the thin red line that runs directly from his to Ira Wells the never-ending malleability of a once-scorned genre, the hard-boiled detective movie.

Carroll John Daly's Race Williams stories in Black Mask magazine are considered the first of the lot, but it was not until the arrival of Raymond Chandler in the mid-1930s that the hard-boiled detective got the classic "tired knight" image that "The Late Show" plays off of so successfully.

Chandler's Philip Marlowe was a tough man, a cynical man, but as Chandler wrote in one of his letters, "his toughness has always been more or less a surface bluff." Basically, he was a man with a personal conscience, who did what was right just because it was right, and in the rootless, valueless gloom of the Depression, there was a great need, as critic Philip Durham has written, "to be assured that somewhere - if only on the pages of a pulp magazine - there were heroes who cared."

That same kind of gloom and moral uncertainty obviously is around again, for the last few years has seen a staggering resurgence of interest in hard-boiled matters. Chandler and his peripheral works alone have accounted for half-a-dozen new books, including a biography by a man who last tackled Ford Madox Ford. And at least two new detectives have surfaced - Moses Wine of "The Big Fix" and "Wild Turkey" and Jake LeVine of "The Big Kissoff of 1944" and "Hollywood and LeVine" - whose exploits are essentially no more than loving homages to those early classics.

It is in the movies, however, that a hard-boiled revival has really taken hold, showing how surprisingly well the form yields itself to handling, and sometimes manhandling, by directors with radically different sensibilities.

In "Chinatown," for instance, Roman Polanski's deaths-head cynicism was the prevaling mood, the director even forcing a starkly sinister ending on his unwilling screenwriter. In "Farewell My Lovely," a nostalgia-crazed director turned Robert Mitchum into a waxworks dummy, while in "The Long Goodbye" Robert Altman attempted to totally trash the genre, casting Elliot Gould as a drip who couldn't even tie his shoelaces. There is even more to come, when Nicholas "The Man Who Fell To Earth" Roeg, who apparently knows not from dramatic structure, films "Hammett," a novel by Joe Gores in which the real-life writer/detective solves a fictional crime.

Yet it is only "The Late Show," bless its heart, which completely understands and smoothly exploits what has always been the basic appeal of hard-boiled novels: They are romances for cynics, sometimes more, never less.

For cynics need that touch of romance as much as other folks, and an antagonism toward goo of the "Elvira Madigan"/"A Man and a Woman" school doesn't mean a lack of sensiblities willing to be touched. What is often wanted, and what "The Late Show" delivers, is imperfect, not to say off-the-wall, protagonist - world-weary but with hidden reserves of strength and even nobility.

Ira Wells, for instance, has memories of days before people considered him merely "a low-rent gumshoe." But after 31 years on the job, his old sources have died, he drinkd Alka-Seltzer instead of scotch, and he is even reduced to riding the bus, which in L.A. is some reduction. Yet "The Late Show" has the grace to allow us to see the craft and competence that remains in him. Wells may be old, but he's hardly a joke, and Carney manages to invest the man with tremendous dignity and style - just hearing him call women "doll" is a treat all by itself. In fact, Carney does a better job of looking like an old Philip Marlowe than three or four generations of actors have done trying to look like a young one.

In Lily Tomlin's Margo, the eternal woman-with-a-problem, Wells finds a foil. A babbler, a strident whiner, the perfect model of the modern neurotic, Margo is a sometime actress, sometime clothes designer, sometime personal agent, sometime dope pusher - only when she needs money for her psychiatrist - a "weird around the edges" person who tries to frighten off thugs by saying, "If you lay a hand on me, you're going to pay for it in your next life." Yet she manages to be quite appealing despite all that, and in the canniest touch of all, she is really nothing more than an updated version of the inexplicable, flippy women that Marlowe was always jousting with, a fact that Wells recognizes at once. "This town doesn't change," he tells Margo. "They just push the names around."

The same goes for the hard-boiled genre, which though pushed around a bit by "The Late SHow's" modernisms, has no trouble at all retaining its steely integrity. For though Race Williams would surely be surprised to hear it, he and his kind have become the basis of the quintessential modern fairy tale, and the cynical/sentimental hero Raymond Chandler said "must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world" turns out to be the man we'd most like to have in our world as well.