James Foley is a very underrated director. He told the moving, true story of the Johnston gang in 1986’s At Close Range ,” he made Mark Wahlberg a psychopath in 1996’s “Fear,” and he portrayed lovable Dustin Hoffman as a memorable strip-club owner in 2003’s “Confidence.” He even directed an episode of “Twin Peaks.”
But one of his best directorial efforts, and probably the far most underrated, is 1990’s “After Dark, My Sweet,” starring Jason Patric, Bruce Dern, Rachel Ward and George Dickerson. It was based on Jim Thompson’s 1955 novel of the same name, and portrays film noir at its finest. Uniquely, it was filmed in Indio, California, making this more appropriately a desert noir.
This film tells the story of ex-boxer Kevin Collins (Patric), a bumbling, punch-drunk drifter whose awkward manner attracts Fay (Ward), a provocative, cynical, alcoholic widow whom Kevin meets in a bar. Fay proposes Kevin free lodging at her isolated home in exchange for yard-work. Soon, Kevin meets the shifty Uncle Bud (Dern), who takes interest in involving Kevin with his and Fay’s plan to kidnap a local boy for a fine ransom. Kevin obliges, and we as an audience learn that indeed, not everyone is as they seem.
In classic noir fashion, we are immediately suspicious of Fay, the femme fatale of the story, who condescendingly renames Collins “Collie,” in the way that he resembles an obedient dog. Uncle Bud, the mastermind of the ransom plan, also immediately appears a shady character with ill intentions of using Kevin for his benefit. However, what makes us want to see the film to its conclusion is our uncertainty of exactly who these characters are. We know nothing about Fay’s deceased husband, nor how her and Uncle Bud met, nor why Uncle Bud seems to linger at Fay’s home as if he has no place else to go. Of course as the antihero, Kevin is the character we feel the most sympathy for, and through his thoughts we learn, as he tells Fay in the beginning, that he’s indeed not as stupid as he might look, and he knows when he’s being manipulated. As the plot unravels with old-fashioned suspense, we are anxious to see what happens to Kevin, and we become ever-more curious about his mental faculties.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD!
Perhaps the most ambiguous character in the film is the creepy Doctor Goldman (Dickerson), who mysteriously meets Kevin in a local diner and immediately understands that Kevin is a mental-asylum escapee. He tries to provide Kevin refuge, and warns him not to return to where he was previously (with Fay) as it will only cause him trouble. Still, Kevin returns to Fay.
There are several scenes in the film which suggest the Doctor may actually be a facet of Kevin’s conscience. For one, he appears almost out of nowhere, and automatically seems to know all about Kevin’s nature although they had never met before. In addition, the Doctor calls him Collie, which only Fay had called him previously, while in the scene where the Doctor comes to Fay’s house and Kevin and Fay are also in the room, Fay never directly addresses the Doctor, suggesting he is not an actual person. Of course, the reason Fay runs from her home is supposedly because she received a call from the Doctor warning her about Kevin’s mental history, while in the conclusion Kevin hears the radio say that a Doctor was found dead from one blow to the heart (We see Kevin punch him in the previous scene). So, perhaps it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not the Doctor is real (while maybe those who read the book can shed some insight).
Some may have been confused about the film’s ending, which I won’t give away here, but viewers should pay attention to the monologue of Kevin’s thoughts after he parks the car and goes into the desert to think things through. Noir films also are known to not have happy endings.
Whether or not you’re a Jason Patric fan, the actor does a tremendous job playing the character of Kevin; as a fan of the actor I’d even say this is the best performance of his career. Besides his physical mannerisms (intensified by his hair being a mess the entire film), Kevin’s thought narrative provides us with a true sense of his eternal weariness and exhaustion — You can’t take your eyes off him.
This film also contains one of the most genuine sex scenes you’ll ever see in a movie, probably due to its proper rising of sexual tension.
Overall, noir fans should add “After Dark, My Sweet” to their list of films to see.
“Through that door, down the lane, onto the highway — “