body and soul
by Douglas Messerli
James Foley and Robert Redlin (screenplay, based on the book by Jim Thompson), James Foley (director) After Dark, My Love / 1990
The other day I accidentally stumbled upon a 1990 film that I’d never before encountered, James Foley’s sun-drenched noir—the contradiction is essential for comprehending the film—After Dark, My Sweet which absolutely astounded me in its cinematography, acting, and thematic significance as if it were a lost classic.
Clearly, some critics had noticed its qualities upon release, most notably Roger Ebert who after watching the film four times, claimed “it only deepens with the retelling.”
To date, I have watched it only once, although I am certain I will want to revisit it again in a few more weeks or months, but just thinking about it over the past couple of days I realize how it keeps opening its narrative up to deeper and deeper meanings.
Given the context in which I was reading
it, as a work of possible interest to the LGBTQ community and those who follow
it, it certainly didn’t seem to offer much: the possible queer figure, a
doctor, Doc Goldman (George Dickerson) who not only immediately diagnoses the
problem with our hero, Kevin “Kid” Collins, better known as “Collie,” (Jason
Patric) and offers
Everyone in this desert world into which Collie has literally stumbled seems to be lonely, while seemingly doing everything possible to make sure they stay that way. A less hospitable town outside of Black Rock—the hostile community of John Sturges’ 1955 film Bad Day at Black Rock—is hard to imagine. Not that the ex-boxer who has just escaped from an insane asylum makes it easy to immediately start up a breezy conversation. As Ebert correctly observed:
“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.”
But then no one in such noir films is ever very friendly. And certainly one never quite knows what motivates their eccentric and often inexplicable behaviors in this genre. Why does the alcoholic sexy ex-housewife whose husband has—one senses her relief in the fact—just died, demean the boy the moment she meets him, taunting him for his lack of mental abilities and a few moments later encourage him to get into her car and spend a few weeks at her house in a backyard trailer hidden among her dried-up date palm field. Evidently her actions also stem from loneliness and lust, and since Collie is obviously heterosexual, immediately intrigues him far more than his later amiable relationship with the Doc.
In fact, although the entire narrative of this film is told from Collie’s perspective, we don’t truly know that much about him either. What we do know is that while almost losing a boxing match, Collins suddenly became so enraged that he beat the other fighter to death, the act which caused him to be sent off to the asylum from which, as a model prisoner, he easily released himself.
Given that almost all his bodily contact has evidently been only with men, both before and during the film’s narrative, provides us with an insight about Faye’s deadly allure. Like everyone in this film—except perhaps for its true villain “Uncle Bud” (Bruce Dern)—he also is consumed by lust and loneliness. But far important, she has taunted him about having no brain, or, to look at it in another way, no soul. And as one of the most soulful characters ever put to screen—when was the last time you saw a man cry himself to sleep in a US movie?—Collie is out to prove her wrong. If everyone, including the film’s passive voyeuristic audience, sees Collie as a body, he is out to demonstrate that he is also a being with a soul who cares about the others around him, and through his intellect might even be able to save them from their various manifestations of self-destruction.
To be fair, both Faye and Doc attempt as
long as they can to keep away from Collie’s body and keep him away from their
own, even sending him away with the hope that the act might more easily drawn
him in and back. Yet both of his would-be lovers also ultimately foil their
relationship to the “Kid,” which frustrates and angers the man as much as each
other. As long as he remains
For Faye’s friend “Uncle Bud” the ex-boxer also serves as a much needed body, but in this case not one to fulfill his sexual desires but rather his lust for money. For a long while, evidently, this seedy and shady ex-cop has been plotting to get rich quick by kidnapping the child of a wealthy family living near this Palm Springs suburb. And Collie is the perfect somebody to carry off the deed—a man unknown to the community, of great physical strength, and good enough looks that he can get away by acting as the family chauffeur to pick up the physically ill boy from his childhood golf lessons.
But even in this rather pedestrian act, another child gets in the way, a doubling match to Doc and Faye, who instead of being sickly as is the assigned child, Jack (Corey Carrier), is a fast-talking young bully who escapes his golf playground escapades by jumping into Collie’s car, asking him to take him around the block in order to temporary escape the immediate repercussions of his acts. There is something about Collie that attracts seeming opposites, males, both young and old, who desire his company as equally as the weaker, confused more feminine figures of this film.
The seeming mistake has a devastating effect on the kidnapping plot, and Collie must now return the other boy and pick up Jack, whose real chauffeur arrives a few moments after, forcing Collie to knock out yet another contender, one who can now identify him and lead the police to “Uncle Bud” and Faye.
Another problem arises because of Collie’s stereotyped presumptions about both women and children, figures which he simply presumes his must save and protect. If his careful attentions to a frail boy who, previously unknown to them is suffering from diabetes indeed reveals Collie’s depth of caring and through his recognition that the boy immediately needs insulin, proof of his having a perceptive mind, he has nonetheless, highly misjudged Faye. So used to the male queer world he has previously inhabited, he has not fully been able to imagine what might lie behind a woman’s exterior. Not only is she not “weak,” but, so he discerns, possibly cold-hearted enough to perhaps leave the boy in the wilds to die or be discovered by others. He washes up the boy and returns him to bed.
Moreover, we must ask what is her relationship to the despicable “Uncle Bud” who most certainly is nobody’s uncle or “buddy”? How has Faye come to know him, and what is her part in his plot, which, as Collie cleverly perceives, involves his being sacrificed not only to dissociate Faye and Bud from his actions, but to increase their own percentages of the ransom paid? And finally, we wonder what is Bud’s connection to the bartender of the first scene, Bert, who we later observe killing Bud at the airport pickup of the cash, a secondary player obviously aware the kidnapping plot?
As in so many noirs, connecting all the various dots of plot and human relationships is never an easy or even plausible goal. Things happen that cannot be explained simply because things in life, without any logic to them, often make no sense. When it comes to evil acts, there are seldom simple explanations, not even loneliness or lust.
At least we might imagine that since “Uncle Bud” has been cooking up this plot for a long a while, he might have purposed his schemes to Bert at an earlier point.
But about Faye, even Collie by film’s end is not certain of her guilt or innocence. And certainly she is no weak creature in need of his salvation. Or is she? Deluded or not, he does manage to save her from going to prison for her part in the crime by forcing her to hate him, to imagine him as a being so vile, so without soul, that he would kill the boy so they might escape.
But for him the sacrifice was his proof that he not just a man possessed of a body but a being who harbored a powerful soul and an ability to think. As he tells her, in his last words, “You did the right thing.” So, in a strange way, this is a sunny noir, a noir with a sort of happy ending.
But then, we now discover we have yet another unexplained dilemma. If Collie is now dead, who has been telling us his story; perhaps the same man drowned in the swimming pool at the end of Sunset Boulevard.
Los Angeles, June 6, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (June 2021).