After classic film noir ended with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958, what became known as neo-noir emerged in the mid-1960s and continues to be made to this day. There is some debate as to when it became a full-fledged genre with some arguing that this didn’t happen until the 1980s with films like Against All Odds (1984), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and Blood Simple (1984). The genre really took off in the 1990s with Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and numerous Elmore Leonard adaptations.
That being said, 1990 might have been the best year for neo-noirs with The Grifters, The Hot Spot, After Dark, My Sweet, and The Two Jakes all coming out to varying degrees of success, both critically and commercially. Perhaps the most underrated film from the class of ’90 is After Dark, My Sweet, an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1955 novel of the same name by James Foley, no stranger himself to the crime genre with his critically-acclaimed film At Close Range (1986). Cast in the three pivotal roles were Bruce Dern (The Driver), Rachel Ward (Against All Odds) and Jason Patric (The Lost Boys). The end result was a bleak but absorbing crime drama that was well-received critically, but flopped at the box office, failing to make back its modest $6 million budget. It’s too bad, really, as After Dark, My Sweet is one of the very best neo-noirs of the ‘90s.
“I wonder where I’ll be tomorrow. I’ll wonder why I didn’t stay where I was a week ago and a thousand miles from here.” So muses Kevin “Kid” Collins (Jason Patric) in his world-weary voiceover narration. He is a traditional noir protagonist who lives on the margins of society. He’s a former boxer that took one too many shots to the head. It left him unstable and hospitalized, but he managed to escape and spends his days hitchhiking from one desolate small town to the next, “walking away from things for a long time,” as he puts it.
With his rumpled, disheveled look and shuffling gait, Kid is an unassuming punch-drunk guy that most people figure is kind of dumb by the way he talks. One day, he wanders into a bar and tries a down-on-his-luck story on a beautiful woman named Fay (Rachel Ward). He catches her attention after cold-cocking the pushy bartender and she takes him home. Like Kid, we immediately wonder what Fay’s angle is as she takes in a guy she initially rebuffed at the bar, but hey, with Rachel Ward’s looks, he doesn’t wonder too hard. She puts him to work reviving her expansive yard littered with weeds and a swimming pool that looks like a science experiment gone awry.
Fay introduces Kid to the smooth-talking Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern), a guy who knows people – “I know what they’ll do and I know what they won’t do.” In a few minutes, Bud expertly tap dances around pulling off a scam and warns Kid to stay away from Fay – it’s an impressive bit of verbal acrobatics that Bruce Dern pulls off effortlessly. Kid tries to cut loose of Fay and Uncle Bud. He even stays with a kind doctor (George Dickerson) who recognizes the young man’s unstable mental state. However, Kid is drawn back to Fay, unable to resist her allure, and is roped into Uncle Bud’s kidnapping scheme. After Dark, My Sweet plays out in typical noir fashion as the scheme becomes complicated the more Fay, Kid and Uncle Bud distrust one another and it is only a matter of time before someone gets double-crossed. It’s a guessing game for the audience as we try to figure out who’s conning whom and why.
Done early in his career, Jason Patric was desperate to shake free of the heart-throb image that he was tagged with after making The Lost Boys (1987). He saw an independent film like After Dark, My Sweet as a way to show he had some real acting chops by playing a deeply conflicted character. He offsets his matinee idol good looks by adopting body language that suggests a damaged person and speaking in such a way – slow with pregnant pauses – that only enhances Kid’s flaws. However, as the film progresses, Patric shows us that there is more to Kid than meets the eye. There’s a moving scene where the drifter, lying alone in bed, breaks down, still haunted by the memory of killing a man in the boxing ring. In a diverse career, After Dark, My Sweet is still his best performance.
In the ‘80s, Rachel Ward played a quintessential femme fatale in Against All Odds and a parody of one in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), but her character in After Dark, My Sweet is a bit more layered. Fay is something of an enigma. She refers to a deceased husband on several occasions, but we’re never sure what exactly her relationship is to Uncle Bud – are they related? Lovers? Partners in crime? Ward is the film’s suntanned femme fatale who catches Kid’s eye with a pair of cut-off jeans shorts that leaves little to the imagination. She doesn’t wear the typical fatale garb – she’s more casual with outfits like a red bathrobe, a flower print dress, and so on, but Ward has the figure that makes it all work and it’s easy to see why Kid is unable to resist Fay’s allure for long. The sexual chemistry, especially as the film goes on, is almost tangible.
The great Bruce Dern adds another fascinating character to an already impressive roster. Right from the get-go we know that the glad-handing Uncle Bud can’t be trusted, but the veteran character actor disarms us with his charm, much as he does with the understandably wary Kid. But as with many of Dern’s characters, the charm is a façade for something darker and volatile underneath.
James Foley is an interesting director who has made some very memorable crime films, including the aforementioned At Close Range and Confidence (2003) as well as an excellent adaptation of the David Mamet play Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). However, Foley remains largely underappreciated by cineastes. In After Dark, My Sweet, he makes good use of the widescreen aspect ratio, especially in the outdoor scenes as he captures the desolate California desert landscapes. Foley doesn’t get too fancy with the camerawork, allowing the actors to do their thing, which is crucial to a film like this where the relationships between the main characters are what drive the story.
After Dark, My Sweet received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert ranks it as one of his “Great Movies” on his website and called it, “one of the purest and most uncompromising of modern films noir. It captures above all the lonely, exhausted lives of its characters.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby felt that the film “ought to push Mr. Patric's career into the big time. It's not often that a young actor as conventionally handsome as he is has a chance to demonstrate his talents in a role as rich, colorful and complex as that of Collie. The role is pivotal to the film's success, as is Mr. Patric's performance.” Newsweek’s David Ansen praised Foley’s direction: “Here he resists the temptation to overstylize Thompson's blunt, black style: he keeps action taut but gives his actors breathing space to work out their feint-and-jab rhythms.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott called it, “a miniature classic, a pulp tragedy.”
However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman felt that it was “cool and compelling for about 45 minutes, but it has a clinical, hothouse garishness that grows oppressive.” USA Today gave it one-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Nothing works, though, in this over-elaborate let's-kidnap-a-kid melodrama. Jason Patric (Lost Boys) plays the drifter, and is in some ways an apt choice; even at the end, we're never certain how smart, stupid or calculating this chump really is. But ultimately, Patric degenerates into a one-note whose studied deliveries help expand the running time.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “Everything in the picture is sanitized. Because there's no stink of the back alley in it, its fatalism becomes a kind of chic affectation. It's designer cynicism. When his characters sweat, it's as if they're sweating Dom Perignon.”
There is a melancholic vibe that hangs over the entire film as Kid, Fay and Uncle Bud are all headed nowhere. Fay seems resigned to this fate while Kid is indifferent and Uncle Bud is in denial, still planning the score that he hopes will set him up for life. Of course, Bud thinks he has all the angles figured out, including Kid by having Fay keep him in check, but they all make the classic mistake of underestimating the young man. With After Dark, My Sweet, Foley has created a character-driven crime film that wouldn’t look out of place in the 1970s, like something Bob Rafelson might’ve done (and did with Blood and Wine in 1996). At the beginning of the film, Kid wonders where he’ll be tomorrow and by the end, he sees things clearly – “When a man stops caring what happens all the strain is lifted from him.” – and knows what he must do. Like most noirs, it ends tragically for most involved, but there’s an element of self-sacrifice that provides one last, intriguing twist to Fay and Kid’s relationship.