There is something wrong with Collie, but it’s hard to put your finger on it. He tells the bartender he pours a good glass of beer, and the bartender feels like throwing him out of the bar. He looks like a bum, clutching that parcel wrapped in brown paper, but he’s young and handsome and will tell you that he’s an ex-serviceman with a year and a half of community college. He walks unsteadily out of the blinding sunlight of the desert and into a run-down suburb of Palm Springs, where his destiny is sitting in the same bar, smoking a cigarette.
Her name is Mrs. Fay Anderson. She is pretty clearly an alcoholic. Why else, after Collie beats the bartender senseless, would she follow him down the street in her car and offer him a ride? She does this not because she is drunk, but because widowhood and drinking have put her into the orbit of Uncle Bud, a man whose moneymaking plans require someone like Collie: Needy, vulnerable, presentable, persuadable. Individually, these three people are hopeless loners. Together, they are a danger, because they are just smart enough to think up plans they’re stupid enough to try.
“After Dark, My Sweet” (1990) tells their story as an inevitable progress toward failure and doom. What makes the story fascinating is the subterranean way Collie understands everything that is going wrong, understands Mrs. Fay Anderson is a good person and needs to be protected, and protects her in a way so subtle she may still be wondering if he did what she thinks he did.
The movie, based on a novel by Jim Thompson, the poet of circa-1950 pulp noir, has a stubborn, sullen truth to it, focusing on its handful of characters during the course of a particularly incompetent kidnapping. The story is so intimate that everything depends on the performances, and Jason Patric, Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern, and a character actor named George Dickerson, bring a grim, poetic sadness to the story. Film noir, we are reminded, is not about action and victory, but about incompetence and defeat. If it has a happy ending, something went wrong.
After Fay (Ward) picks up Collie (Patric), she offers him the use of a house trailer at the far end of her dying palm plantation, a kiss on the doorstep, and a lot of drinking companionship. Through her he meets Uncle Bud (Dern), who says he is a former police detective with “connections on the force,” and who seems to have no life at all apart from sitting in Fay’s living room enlisting them in his scheme to kidnap the son of a rich local man. Fay tells Collie to get away, get out of town: “His scheme’s been cooking for months, and if you go away, it will keep right on boiling until it boils away.”
Flashbacks inform us that Collie is a former boxer who was in one fight too many — both for his own mental acuity, and for the life of the fighter he beat to death. In an all-night diner, he stumbles into Doc Goldman (Dickerson), who takes one look at him and guesses, correctly, he is AWOL from a mental institution. The Doc has a concerned and kindly manner, which masks sexual desire; he invites Collie into his home, offers to let him stay, gives him employment. But Collie cannot take that form of captivity, and returns one morning to Fay’s door.
Now Uncle Bud goes into overdrive. He briefs them on his kidnap plan as if it were one of those clever strategies in a heist movie, and not simply a matter of sending Collie to pick up a rich kid in a schoolyard. Collie wonders if maybe there’s a way to get the money without the kidnapping: Like, maybe, Uncle Bud could foil the kidnapping and collect a reward. The problem, says Uncle Bud, is that the plan doesn’t look right unless the hero produces the kidnapper. That would be Collie. At the same time Bud rejects the plan, Collie senses that he sees an angle in it. Get rid of Collie, and the money is only split two ways.
It may seem I’ve revealed too much of the plot, but “After Dark, My Sweet” is not about the plot but about the personal and moral decisions that Collie and Fay make in light of how the plot unfolds. The closing 20 minutes of this movie contain masterful storytelling, with important decisions arriving silently, by implication. The last 60 seconds are brilliantly complex, as Collie steps a few feet away into the desert to think things through, and does, and improvises a chain of events that is inevitable, heroic, sad and flawless.