We love a contribution here at the Outpost. Nothing makes us happier than when one of our Outposters sends in something for publishing about a movie they feel so passionate about that they wanted to share it with all of us, here. One of our Outposters, Wrenage, loves a Retro Review. However he has been suffering from writers block. That blockage has now shifted, so here’s Wrenage once again with a retro review of After Dark, My Sweet:

After Dark, My Sweet

I’ve been looking for a movie to write about for the last few weeks. I watched Fantasy Island and thought about writing a ‘well-they-tried’ review, but it basically boiled down to casting mistakes. Mr. Roark must exude continental gravitas, charm, mystery, and perhaps, threat.

They cast Michael Pena.

They. Cast. Michael. Pena.

As Mr. Roark…

Let that sink in for a moment.

You know how they have societies that help poverty-afflicted children and abused pets? Perhaps we should start a society that helps studio executives suffering from brain loss. We can get a former NFL player like Robert Smith to be the spokesperson. You want someone with a name but not someone with a big name that will require only brown M&Ms in the dressing room or something.

“Each year, hundreds of studio executives make baffling decisions. Some may blame too much cocaine. Others may—what’s that? Too much cocaine IS to blame? For sure? If we raise money for them, won’t they just buy more cocaine then? What’s that? Just smile and look handsome? Okay. Got it…”

By the way, the Fantasy Island executives also cast Maggie Q as an everywoman. I suppose Maggie Q could play an everywoman… if that everywoman pulls a blowgun out of her garter belt at some point and reveals that her earrings double as poison darts and then assassinates a wealthy industrialist.

Waging Noir

Suffice it to say, writing about Fantasy Island was a failure. I then got it into my head to watch some neo-noir films. I’m a sucker for noir, even though I admit I’m not exactly sure what the word noir means. I understand that noir can mean a certain visual style, but I typically think of noir in terms of storytelling. For me, noir stories usually take one of two paths. On one path, you have a hard-boiled detective trying to solve a mystery. On the other path, you have morally corrupt characters trying to pull off a scheme. Often, dour endings lie at the end of either path.

I eventually settled on four films: The Last Seduction (1994), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), The Croupier (1998) and After Dark, My Sweet (1990). The winner of earning a write-up was After Dark, My Sweet, but we will touch on the other three briefly because we all have time to kill while time kills us.

The Last Seduction starred Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg, and Bill Pullman. Fiorentino plays a woman with pretty much no redeeming qualities whatsoever. She steals some money from her drug-dealing husband and aims to keep said money no matter what it takes.

Fiorentino developed some Oscar buzz for her portrayal. Unfortunately, she was ineligible for a nomination because The Last Seduction aired on HBO before being released to theaters. She did fine, but I don’t know if her performance was Oscar-worthy. If Sharon Stone didn’t win for Basic Instinct, I doubt Fiorentino would have won for The Last Seduction.

I know, I know, it’s an honor just to be nominated…

Peter Berg plays Fiorentino’s patsy. Berg was on the verge of being a thing with Shocker — maybe — but found his true calling behind the camera. If Berg goes back to a starring role, it must be a co-starring role with Kevin Dillon, who could play his brother. The two have similar mannerisms to me.

Bill Pullman stars in The Last Seduction as Fiorentino’s husband and does a solid job. Pullman is better as a sleazeball and a doofus (Ruthless People) than President of the United States. I’m still not sure why he got cast in that role in Independence Day. Maybe he was cheap and had sufficiently good hair.

Overall, The Last Seduction feels very 90s straight-to-video. One expects Eric Roberts of C. Thomas Howell to pop onscreen at any moment. The 90s had a real love affair with neo-noir. It seems like Showtime had low-budget, neo-noir movies on every other timeslot at that time.

The Spanish Prisoner was written and directed by David Mamet. The movie is about a guy who develops a “process” that will allow a group of businessmen to make a bunch of money, so much money that the camera won’t even show the amount onscreen. Since these businessmen stand to make so much moola, they decide they would rather steal the “process” than pay its inventor for it.

Steve Martin is in The Spanish Prisoner. Whereas The Last Seduction tries to be a bit sleazy, The Spanish Prisoner tries to be a bit prestige. I found the plot of The Spanish Prisoner interesting, but the movie felt like it needed another layer to the intrigue.

I will spoil The Spanish Prisoner to explain. Basically, Steve Martin pretends to be a rich dude who wants to help the inventor of the “process” out and make sure he gets his fair share. However, Steve Martin is actually part of an elaborate ruse to steal the “process.”

All of that is fine, but it is obvious enough that I expected another flip to counteract the obviousness, as in Steve Martin was actually a member of a watchdog third-party, who simply did not want the “process” to get out because it would wreck the world economy or something.

But, no, it was only Steve Martin trying to steal the “process” for the businessmen all along.

The Croupier stars Clive Owen. Apparently, it was the movie that put him on the radar as a possible James Bond. I never thought Owen was Bond material pre-Craig, but after Craig, I can see how Owen could have played the role. Owen and Craig are kind of similar to me in their style.

The Croupier is about a wannabe writer who becomes a blackjack dealer to help make ends meet. In the process, the job reawakens his morally-gray areas, along with his propensity for voiceovers. I have no real complaint about The Croupier. It was solid as a neo-noir film down the line. When it comes to simple watchability, it was maybe the most accessible of the four movies.

I’m not sure what was up with Owen’s hat, though. He looked like an emo teen who decided to go with the Quaker look during that awkward phase of 16 to 35…

Noir Is Hell

Onto After Dark, My Sweet… Frankly, the movie is not without its problems, but I found it the most interesting of the bunch. After Dark, My Sweet was based on a book by Jim Thompson, noir writer extraordinaire. Thompson also wrote the book The Grifters (1990) film was based on, if you are familiar with that movie. The Grifters stars John Cusack, Anjelica Houston, and Annette Benning.

The Grifters might be my favorite neo-noir movie. Something darkly fascinating exists about watching con artists operate. They are outside the system. They don’t have to worry about jobs or taxes. They live by their wits and the challenge of how much money they can scam out of someone. They aren’t tied to anything, and they can pull up stakes at any time if things aren’t going their way…or if they cross the wrong people and are in danger of ending up at the bottom of a lake with cement shoes.

This fascination is similar to the dark attraction of post-apocalyptic movies. Suddenly, all societal rules are gone. All one has to worry about is food, drink, and shelter, rather than diets, bills, and commuting.

After Dark, My Sweet was directed by James Foley, who, in a fun coincidence, also directed Glen Glengary Ross, which was written by David Mamet. It’s all connected!

After Dark, My Sweet is about a drifter, who was a former boxer and may or may not have mental issues. He winds up in a small town and gets embroiled in a kidnapping caper.

The plot delivery of After Dark, My Sweet is a bit muddy. The character behaviors are a bit muddy. The setup is a bit muddy. I am hard-pressed to say whether this muddiness is a detriment or if it somehow elevates the whole. We sort of witness the story unfold like we are dropped onto a running treadmill, rather than having everything spelled out. I have not read the book, so I can’t say how things line up against that either. Despite these problems, After Dark, My Sweet still ended up being more interesting than Fantasy Island, The Last Seduction, The Spanish Prisoner and The Croupier.

After Dark, My Sweet has a palpable tone to it. Whether it was talent or by accident, Foley captured souls on celluloid. The location feels real and ethereal at the same time, like this small town exists, but it exists in The Twilight Zone…or maybe it is the famed El Ray, which was also invented by Thompson, a place where desperadoes can flee and live like kings, which is maybe just reigning in hell. The dust of this town irritates your eyes and throat. Getting inside and out of the sun feels cool on your brow. The characters might not exactly make sense, but they leave something behind as they pass in front of the camera. I liken it to the metaphysical equivalent of sitting in a chair someone vacated. There’s no one there, but the seat is warm. A transfer of some sort happened.

At the end of the day, that must mean the director did his job, and the actors did theirs, and any muddiness that happens along the way is maybe because unknown depths have been stirred up.

After Dark, My Sweet has three main characters.

Bruce Dern plays Uncle Dan. Who the character is an uncle of, the audience doesn’t know. How he came to know the femme fatale, we don’t know either. All of these characters simply exist. Ebert had a great quote about them in his review of After Dark, My Sweet. He said:

“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.”

Bruce Dern has a great slimy, ratty quality to him. He even killed John Wayne (The Cowboys). Not many people can say that. Despite this, Bruce Dern is not overly Dernsy in After Dark, My Sweet. On a Dernsy Scale of 1 to 10, he perhaps operates at a 5. He basically plays the lever character on which the movie swings. It is his plan that ultimately sets everyone on their course.

Rachel Ward plays the femme fatale, but her femme fatale is not particularly fatale, nor is she particularly femme. Ward doesn’t even appear to wear much makeup in the movie. She is a widowed drunk, who, while not overtly psycho, obviously has some screws loose. I’m not even sure she knows where the screws belong. They simply rattle around in her inner being as she drinks her days away with a good-natured dedication to booze.

Jason Patric plays the drifter. I am an unabashed fan of The Lost Boys, but Jason Patric is an odd duck to me. I’ve never seen him in a movie where I feel like he completely belongs in the role. Even in The Lost Boys, Patric felt like a different species of human from the other actors. Patric is simultaneously young and old, handsome and wormy. I like the guy, but from a casting standpoint, I’m not sure what Patric’s lane is exactly. He occupies spaces in between rather than archetypes.

Nevertheless, Patric does an excellent job in After Dark, My Sweet. He plays the drifter with a slack-jawed, bed-hair, lovelorn quality that masks an essential self that is not as stupid as advertised. The character might be dangerous. He might be harmless. He is what his personal code demands in the moment. For whatever reason, the Patric character falls for the Ward character, and she is screwed up enough to reciprocate the affections of a man who may or may not have mental issues.

With those two in orbit of each other, the Dern character then has the troupe he needs to carry out his plan, of which the Ward character says:

“His scheme’s been cooking for months, and if you go away, it will keep right on boiling until it boils away.”

But the Patric character doesn’t go away, and they all go down the slippery slope together. Ebert says:

“The last 60 seconds are brilliantly complex, as [Patric] 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.”

I disagree with Ebert here. I don’t think Ebert is wrong. What he speaks of is open to interpretation. I personally don’t believe the Patric character improvised. I believe he told the truth about himself. He never was mentally ill. Mental illness was simply an effective cover for his darker tendencies.

One of the character’s quotes seems to hint at this:

When a man stops caring what happens, all the strain is lifted from him. Suspicion and worry and fear, all things that twist his thinking out of focus are brushed aside, and he can see people exactly as they are at last.”

In the end, After Dark, My Sweet manages to be somewhat poetic. It is not a fully-formed narrative poem, however. I’d call it a grim haiku. It is an impression of things, and the audience member is left to fully sort them out. After Dark, My Sweet might be one of those movies that rewards repeat viewings. Ebert said he watched it four times. I would take that with a grain of salt, however. It is similar to the superlatives for Chinatown. I genuinely enjoy Chinatown, but I also accept that 9.9 out of the 10 people I ask to watch it with me will fall asleep.

One final note from Ebert:

“After Dark, My Sweet” is the movie that eluded audiences; it grossed less than $3 million (on a $6 million budget), has been almost forgotten, and remains one of the purest and most uncompromising of modern films noir. It captures above all the lonely, exhausted lives of its characters.

We at The Last Movie Outpost salute you, After Dark, My Sweet. We mock movies. We trash movies. We critique movies. We love movies. We hate movies. But we don’t forget movies…

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