Friday, August 10, 2007

After Dark, My Sweet (1990)

By Alain Silver

Bob Porfirio, James Ursini, Elizabeth Ward and I are in the midst of a complete revision of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. In place of the extended appendices of the 2nd and 3rd editions, we have restructured the book into two parts, classic period and neo-noir. Ably assisted by more than two dozen new contributors, many of whom have penned their own books on noir, 300 new titles will receive individual treatment (more information here).

This entry on After Dark My Sweet exemplifies the movies chosen for Part Two in that it echoes of the classic period in the source novel by Jim Thompson and reveals a firm grasp of the noir style by director James Foley, evident from his second feature the remarkable At Close Range.

Editor's note: This is part of the yet-to-be-published 4th edition of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.

Director: James Foley. Screenplay: Robert Redlin, James Foley, based on the novel by Jim Thompson. Producers: Robert Redlin, Ric Kidney. Director of Photography: Mark Plummer. Production Designer: David Brisbin. Music: Maurice Jarre. Editor: Howard Smith. Cast: Jason Patric (Collie), Rachel Ward (Fay), Rocky Giordani (Bert), Bruce Dern (Uncle Bud), Thomas Wagner (Counterman), George Dickerson (Doc Goldman). Locations: Indio, Ca. Released: Avenue Pictures, August 24. 114 minutes.

Collie, a punch-drunk prize fighter, is homeless after some time spent in an institution. His violent self-defense in a desert bar impresses another patron, Fay, who offers room and board if he will help her repair a house inherited from her ex-husband. She begins a sexual liaison with Collie, Fay’s Uncle Bud who is a local grafter recruits both of them into a scheme to kidnap the son of some wealthy local residents. When the plan goes awry, Collie realizes he has been used by his criminal partners and precipitates a deadly final confrontation.

Jim Thompson’s personages are often trapped in what he saw as their personal hells. Often they are also people whose business is deception, but others are the victims of physical or emotional turmoil such as “Collie” in After Dark, My Sweet. For Thompson and many of the filmmakers who have adapted his work, point of view is crucial. The credit sequence is an expressionistic rendering of the prize fight in which Collie kills his opponent. Midway through the titles, a sound-buffered jump cut takes the viewer to a tight close-up of him as he now is. After Dark, My Sweet is a first person film on several levels from the voiceover narration to the opticals and sound effects which intermittently externalize his troubled mental state. Employing these stylistic elements typical of the classic period permits all the narrative tensions to be effectively laid out within the first few minutes. A cut back from the close-up reveals the protagonist in a desert landscape coming out of an escarpment of large stones. As he shuffles across the highway, the narration rambles over shot: “I wonder where I'll be tomorrow...” The key phrase is, “I couldn't walk away.” As he enters the town, the sound of a train is heard and a sudden, sidewise camera move swings past him but holds the figure in a 180 degree arc, fixes his body in the sun-bleached highway. It prevents him from walking out of the shot, figuratively holding him as firmly as his troubled memories grip his mind.

Like all Thompson's characters, Collie is slowly dying in this personal hell. When Fay, a femme fatale in sandals and a stray hat, picks him up, she treats him like a stray puppy, patting the car seat and saying, “Come on, now, there's a good boy” to entice him in. Her directness—she wants to call him Collie because he reminds her of a shaggy dog—is what makes her ambiguous, what sets her apart in a Thompson-esque milieu of con men and petty crooks. The desert itself with its clean, brightly-lit vistas is in constant contrast to the emotional darkness within. But it is through Patric's performance, full of tics, stumbling, and false starts, that
After Dark, My Sweet evokes the hopelessness of both Thompson and film noir more forcefully than The Grifters.

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  1. I've always thought that this film captured Jim Thompson's words better than any other. The early 90s had some great sun-burned desert noir.

    Thanks Mr. Silver for an excellent article.

  2. Hello there...

    I had no idea this film was based on the works of a Mr Jim Thompson but am glad to have learned about it

    Terrific acting by Ms Ward I thought
    i.e. "People like us..!"

    and Mr Patric is simply mesmerizing with this acting ability

    No wonder Rogert Ebert praised this film highly

  3. It is the truest film adaptation of any Thompson novel. It captures all the complexity, and all the hopelessness, and reaching sadness of two souls, while retaining the hard boiled pulp edge.
    Jason Patric is simply spectacular in the part. It rates right up there, dare i say, with all the great American male creations. This performance stands alone with some of the great work of our greatest actors. Brando, Garfield, Tracy, Newman, and Pacino, would be proud to share this stage.
    Stunningly filmed as well.

  4. This is my favorite film of all time so I feel compelled to post a comment. I'm glad that Mr. Silver is giving exposure to this great, overlooked classic. Having watched this film many times, I disagree with some of his descriptions of the film. One example is that Faye is a widow, not a divorcee. I see some other inaccuracies, but I don't see a way to privately contact Mr. Silver. This is not to ridicule him, but to offer a more precise description, out of love for my favorite film.

    If I ever meet Mr. Foley or Mr. Brisbin, I'd love to ask this question about 'After Dark, My Sweet.' The colors blue, burgundy, black and white are used consistently throughout the film. These colors are the pallete of the film. Why these colors? What do they mean? For anyone that is interested, you may be as shocked as I was to see that in nearly EVERY scene of this film, these colors are used. IE Uncle Bud's jacket is burgundy, Bud's car is blue, the getaway car is brown and burgundy, on and on. If anyone has any insight into the reason for the use of these colors, I'd love to hear it. Or if anyone can pass on this question to others that would know, I'd appreciate it. Thanks.

    Shane Pickerill

  5. Rather than starting a sexual liason, she teases him repeatedly, making him very horny as well as demented.