Author Jim Thompson created some of the darkest pulp crime fiction ever to land between the covers of greasy paperbacks left in two bit diners on dark rain soaked nights. He was a writer whose tales were filled with sleazy grifters and psychopaths. An alcoholic himself, Thompson’s works featured characters that drank too much booze, like it was a life-saving device.
Many of Thompson’s protagonists first appear to be dim bulbs; working with one cylinder missing, however beneath the facade, there’s a psycho who is calculating, devious and most likely a killer. In 1955, Thompson published “After Dark, My Sweet.” Some thirty-five years later, James Foley directed, and co-wrote with Robert Redlin, a screenplay, producing a near faithful adaption of Thompson’s hard-boiled novel. Having read the novel, I can verify the screenwriters used much of the original dialogue; it’s all pure, down and dirty, as an uncompromising a tale as any film noir from the golden age. Sadly, this film, when released in 1990, died at the box-office, virtually forgotten today.
Kevin “Kid” Collins, recently escaped, from a psychiatric hospital. We learn in flashbacks, Collin’s is a former boxer who had been in the ring one time too many affecting his mental status and the life of his opponent in his last fight when he beat to death. Since leaving the hospital, Collins has been drifting west. He stops at a local dive near the desert town of Palm Springs. It’s easy to see something is wrong with Collins. He walks, or rather drags his feet, oddly carries a brown paper bag wherever he goes, and talks a lot, mumbling about being an ex-serviceman and looking to meet up with a non-existent friend named Jack Billingsley.
In the dive, he meets Fay Anderson, (Rachel Ward) an alcoholic widow who lives nearby in a modest rundown estate left to her by her deceased husband. Oh yeah, she is drop dead gorgeous and sarcastic as hell! Their fates are soon to be intertwined. Despite the fact she just watched Collins punch the bartender’s lights out after he tried to toss him out of the bar, she offers him a ride and a place to live. Why? Well, she is lonely and Uncle Bud (Bruce Dean), not really her uncle or anyone’s uncle, whose path she has crossed has plans, big plans for big money and he needs someone just like Collins to complete the scheme. Together, these three form a triangle of losers destined to put out each other’s flame.
Collie, Fay’s nickname for The Kid, comes to live in a trailer on her property doing odd jobs. There is a sexually electric spark between the two, but for the moment, at least, it stays under control. It’s at Fay’s house Collie meets Uncle Bud, a former cop, who claims to still have “connections.” These days Uncle Bud’s life seems to consist of working on a plan to kidnap the young son of a local wealthy man. The scheme has been boiling for months waiting for the final piece to fall into place, and that’s Collie. Fay warns Collie to forget about Uncle Bud’s scheme and get out while he can. Why does Fay stay involved with Uncle Bud? He is obviously a hustler, and an inept one at that. She has no life other than her drinking and she needs the money to keep up her decaying house and land. That said, she still thinks Uncle Bud is a fool.
The kidnapping plan goes into overdrive but Collie, we begin to sense, is not as “slow” as we, and the other characters, are led to believe. Collie suspects Uncle Bud’s plan includes sacrificing him to the law and splitting the ransom money between himself and Fay or even maybe by himself.
Some viewers have complained the film moves at too slow a pace; however, this is really a movie about characters and not as much about plot. Yes, there is little action, but there is plenty of suspense and tension. A lot is going on, plenty of it is visual. Read the facial expressions of one character toward the other. Trust is not a word any of these characters have in their vocabulary. The final part of the film is superbly done with a flawlessly constructed series of events leading to our three leads final destiny.
There is a subplot involving one Doc Goldman, whom Collie meets in a diner. The Doc, correctly surmises, Collie has run away from a mental ward. The Doc attempts to help Collie, wants him to go back to the hospital or at least stay away from Fay. Doc is a decent fellow, the only one in a film filled with slime. Sadly, he will meet an undeserved tragic end.
Jason Patric, as Collie, may have given the best performance of his career, so far, in this film. He gives us a convincingly complex look at an intriguing character. Rachel Ward is touchingly tragic as the lost, somewhat desperate alcoholic Fay, who is well aware of Uncle Bud’s shortcomings and his poor plan yet has nowhere else to go. Bruce Dern, always great in off kilter roles, gives Uncle Bud a colorful false sincere desperate sensitivity that like, Collie’s mental condition, is a facade. You can’t trust anything this slug says. He cares about nothing but himself and his money making plan.
Director James Foley is not a filmmaker whose name will come to mind easily and that’s sad because he has made some of the most intelligent, sophisticated works in recent memory. He is a director who has extracted outstanding performances from many of his actors. Think Dustin Hoffman in “Confidence,” the inspired performances of Al Pacino, Alex Baldwin and Jack Lemmon in “Glengarry, Glen Ross” and Sean Penn in “At Close Range.”
Foley, and co-writer Redlin, did update the film from the 1950’s to the present day (1990) and some critics of the day did not approve. I had no problem with it. “After Dark, My Sweet,” still has that noirish sun-baked, drenched with the California sun look where underneath lies a corrosive bleakness we have come to expect.