Tuesday, August 24, 2010

 

Sun-baked noir drawn from a dime store novel


By Edward Copeland
As I watched After Dark, My Sweet again, in preparation for this 20th anniversary piece, I was struck once again by the melancholy that often hits people like myself who have spent much of their lives trying to devour works in various fields of artistic endeavor. My readers realize my film obsession and my brief and expensive addiction to New York theater, as well as to various television shows. I've also tried to be a voracious reader, which I have been for most of my life except for frequent periods when severe headaches interfered. There simply isn't enough time in the day to watch and read (and listen: I like music too) and then write about them. I feel like Burgess Meredith in the classic Twilight Zone episode, though at least my eyesight is holding out so I don't have to worry about breaking my glasses after the bomb falls. Anyway, among the many regrets in my life is that I've never read any of the classic Jim Thompson pulp fiction novels, which enjoyed a resurgence in terms of film adaptations in the late 1980s and early 1990s of which James Foley's After Dark, My Sweet was the finest example. Even though my finances always hover in a precarious state and Thompson's books can't be bought for two bits anymore, after I rewatched the film, I did put out $7 to read the novel before sitting down to write this tribute. Of course, I had heard Thompson's words before because he'd also worked as a screenwriter, most notably on Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and Paths of Glory.


What makes Foley's film work so well is its casting of Jason Patric in the lead role of former boxer and recent mental institution escapee Kid Collins. One difference between the novel and the movie: His first name in the book is William, but the screenplay by Foley and Robert Redlin christens him Kevin, though it hardly matters since he's almost always referred to as Collins or, once he encounters the widow Fay Anderson (Rachel Ward), Collie. The book also describes him as blond, which the dark-haired Patric certainly is not. The movie, which like the novel, is narrated by Collins, doesn't make it clear what his problem is. Has he been punched a few too many times in the ring? Did guilt over killing another fighter in the ring set him off? Maybe he just has criminal tendencies, though at times he seems as gentle as Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Still, he's also prone to sudden rage that you don't want to find yourself on the receiving end of. On the first page of the novel, Collins shows the reader the classification card that has accompanied him through four mental institutions:
William ("Kid") Collins: Blond, extremely handsome; very strong, agile. Mild criminal tendencies or none, according to environmental factors. Mild multiple neuroses (environmental) Psychosis, Korsakoff (no syndrome) induced by shock; aggravated by worry. Treatment: absolute rest, quiet, wholesome food and surroundings. Collins is amiable, polite, patient, but may be very dangerous if aroused...

Except for the name change and the updating of the time period, the film sticks fairly closely to the book. Both are narrated by Collins, except the book shows that he isn't the swiftest guy in the world in terms of mastery of the English language while some of the internal lines the film gives him come off as a bit too well-formed for the character. The novel also makes his motivations much clearer than the film which by leaving things out make some scenes seem like a cheat or purposely vague. In a way, the Collie of the film is even more of an unreliable narrator than the Collie of Thompson's novel.

Of course, noir purists might dismiss a story set in modern time and filmed in sun-drenched color (to match its southwestern locale, it even includes a nice score from Maurice Jarre, the great composer of Lawrence of Arabia), but it hits all the marks. Still, as good as Foley's film is, Patric holds the key to its success in his portrayal of Collins. It's the best role of the talented actor's odd film career. Whether Collie has just been hit in the head one time too many or is just naturally mentally unbalanced (or perhaps he's smarter than we think and it's all a put on), Patric handles the turns of uncertainty in his part beautifully. The year following After Dark, My Sweet he had another good role opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh in Rush playing an undercover cop who becomes too involved in the drugs he is investigating, but that film and performance were overshadowed by Patric's tabloid fame as the man who broke up Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland before they could wed. Given that Patric also is Jackie Gleason's grandson and the son of Jason Miller, Oscar-nominated actor for The Exorcist and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of That Championship Season, I can't help if all that attention has played a role in a purposeful obscurity. If so, it's a shame, because Patric has remarkable talent that's not seen nearly enough as it's on display in After Dark, My Sweet or in a handful of other films such as Your Friends and Neighbors.

The plot's engine ignites simply enough. Collins steps off the hot road into a saloon to get a cold beer from a disinterested bartender named Bert (Rocky Giordani) while sitting further down the bar is an attractive woman whose name he'll learn is Fay (Ward). Collins, as is his habit, tends to ramble, but in a good-natured way, telling about how he's lost track of his friend Jack Billingsley, but he's certain he'll wander in that bar at some point. Bert and Fay, recognizing that Collins may be a bit slow, have a bit of fun at the kid's expense, until it ceases to be fun for them anymore because Collins just won't shut up. Bert grabs the beer back before Collins can even finish it and tells him to get out. Collins insists that he hasn't done anything wrong: He's a veteran and just waiting on a friend. Bert doesn't care and reaches across the bar and grabs Collins' shirt. That's a mistake. Before you know it, Bert lies sprawled and Collins has hit the road again. He's surprised when Fay pulls up alongside him in her car, offering a ride. He thinks it's a scam and she'll take him back to the bar and the cops, but Fay insists that Bert is the last person who wants to be involved with the police. Reluctantly, Collins climbs in the vehicle and they drive to Fay's rundown plantation.

At her place, Fay reveals to Collie that she's a widow (she doesn't need to reveal that she's an alcoholic; even someone as slow as Collins can figure that out) and offers him a trailer on her property as a residence. As the two are getting acquainted in the main house, a car pulls up and Fay rushes out to see the man, almost as if she wants to steer him clear of Collie. That doesn't last long. As Collie and Fay go out that night, the man stumbles upon them again. His name is Garrett Stoker (played with a wonderful sleaze quotient by Bruce Dern), but everyone knows him as Uncle Bud. Thompson's, i.e. Collins', description of Uncle Bud in the novel truly hits the mark in a delightful introductory sequence:
You meet guys like Uncle Bud — just over a drink or a cup of coffee — and you feel like you've known them all your life. They make you feel that way.
The first thing you know they're writing down your address and telephone number, and the next thing you know they're dropping around to see you or giving you a ring. Just being friendly, you understand. Not because they want anything, you understand. Sooner or later, of course, they want something; and when they do it's awfully hard to say no to them. No matter what it is.

Uncle Bud says he's a former police detective and, yes, he does want Collie for something: to be part of a scheme he's been trying to sell Fay on for several months: kidnapping the young son of a wealthy family and collecting a big ransom. Fay and Collie both humor Uncle Bud, but later at Fay's house, she tells him that Uncle Bud has been trying to find a third for his cockeyed plan for a long time and it would be in Collie's best interest to get as far away from both of them as fast as he can.

Collins takes Fay's advice and stops off at a diner, where he bring his own booze much to the counterman's anger (as well as his usual spiel about waiting for Jack Billingsley). The counterman asks him to at least go wait in an out-of-the-way booth so he won't get in trouble and Collins complies, though being slightly tipsy, he stumbles into the booth of a man who turns out to be a doctor named Goldman (George Dickerson). The doctor recognizes the signs in Collins of someone who's been in a mental health facility and offers him some help. Collins refuses, though the doctor gives him his card anyway. Later, without any prospects, Collins looks up Doc Goldman, figuring he has nothing else to lose, so he might as well work some odd jobs and maybe find a nice place to stay for awhile. The doctor, who practices out of his home, is glad to see him and lets him do yard work in exchange for room and board. He tries to talk to Collins about his past and whether or not he needs to go back to an institution or, at the very least, quit boozing, but Collins isn't receptive to the idea. The biggest problem concerning Collins is that he can't get Fay out of his mind and he wonders if she's safe from Uncle Bud's plotting. His worry eventually leads him to flee again, back to Fay and getting himself neck deep in the kidnapping plan.

While After Dark, My Sweet exists at its core as a thriller and contains the many twists you'd expect, Foley's keeps his pacing loose, yet it never loses your attention. I'll spare you the details, in case you haven't seen the film or read the book, but it's riveting and suspenseful without building tension so taut it breaks. The one misstep I think Foley makes is an extended sex scene between Patric and Ward. It is important for a plot development, but the romp wastes too much screentime and almost brings the film to a halt. In the novel, Thompson accomplishes the same thing in a mere paragraph that's mostly allusion but the film's version goes on way too long. As Orson Welles once famously said, the two things that always look fake on film are praying and making love, and Foley certainly proves that adage with the length of the boinking here.

Still, that criticism is a minor one for an otherwise great film anchored by such a magnificent performance. Since I read the novel after having seen the film multiple times, it's hard to say which is better, though the book certainly makes things clearer and works more efficiently. Foley managed to come up with a more ambiguous ending than Thompson did and how often does that happen in a film? Not nearly enough anymore really, but 20 years ago it did and thank goodness that Foley cast an actor as talented as Jason Patric to pull it off. I just wish we got to see Patric put his gifts to use in worthy projects more often.


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Comments:
Between this and THE GRIFTERS, Thompson had a pretty good run as far as adaptations went in the 1990s. But you're right, Patric is what makes this film so good. Of course, he is more than ably supported by the lovely Rachel Ward (still have a crush on her from AGAINST ALL ODDS) and the always fascinating to watch Bruce Dern. The '90s was a really solid decade for pulp novel adaptations/neo noirs with also THE HOT SPOT getting a pretty decent adaptation from Dennis Hopper.

This was a really good review and definitely makes me want to watch this film again.
 
You nailed it, Edward, both for its strengths and one singular weak spot. I too will set about reading Thompson and watching it again with pleasure.

One feature of Patric's outstanding performance is Collie's gait: part shamble, conveying an indeterminate degree of brain-damage, and part boxer's dance on the balls of his feet, circling his opponent and ready to feint, dodge or land that king-hit.

Was there a certain homoerotic tension in the befriending by the doctor? It's left ambiguous like so many other key elements of the narrative and is an interesting question to pose about Thompson's novel.
 
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