After Dark, My Sweet / One False Move September 19, 2018
Dick Powell had to lobby hard to star in the 1944 detective noir Murder, My Sweet. For more than a decade, Powell, who was a good singer and decent dancer, had become a major box-office attraction usually typecast in pretty-boy parts in musical films. He was confined to wholesome, romantic roles; he was a dependably boyish screen presence.
A handful of years into the 1940s, though, Powell began getting stir
crazy, partly because of the monotony, partly because he was edging toward 40, and felt like he was no longer suited to cinemusical-enforced chastity. Rebelliously, he fought for the leading role in the hardboiled thriller Double Indemnity (1944), in which he would have played an insurance salesman seduced to kill the wealthy husband of a bottle-blonde femme fatale. That didn’t pan out: RKO preferred the cleft-chinned Fred MacMurray.
Powell, then, looked in the direction of the upcoming cinematization of the Raymond Chandler-penned detective novel Farewell, My Lovely, which was centered around an investigation headed by Chandler’s famed protagonist, a private dick named Philip Marlowe. The movie would be directed by Edward Dmytryk; it would, like Double Indemnity, be produced by RKO. It was going to be a stringent, violent movie, too — unlike anything in which Powell had starred.
RKO was unsure of the actor’s involvement; Dmytryk recoiled. "The idea of the man who had sung ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ playing a tough private eye was beyond our imaginations,” Dmytryk would later deadpan. But Powell’s fervent attempts to snag the role paid off: he was cast. Principal photography lasted for about 44 days, and the movie would generally stay true to what Chandler originally wrote.
When it was first screened on Dec. 18, 1944, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, though, concerns that unknowing audience members might see a semi-flowery title like Farewell, My Lovely, with Powell’s name attached to it, no less, and turn away, assuming they’d be in for yet another trifling, romantically tinted musical. So at the bigger opening, in the spring of March, 1945, in New York City, Farewell, My Lovely's title was changed to Murder, My Sweet in an effort to ensure that audiences knew they were not, in fact, in for another lark.
I was reminded of the Murder, My Sweet backstory while watching After Dark, My Sweet, a noir-tinged melodrama released, on a smaller scale, 45 years later. Not just because the last two words in the titles of both films replicate the other, but also because the moniker is, in a way, meant to sway us in a certain direction before the opening credits can so much as flicker on. Farewell, My Lovely was changed to Murder, My Sweet to make it clearer that the movie in store was a dark thriller; After Dark, My Sweet, itself an adaptation of a 1955 novel by Jim Thompson, seems to use the title to make us believe that we should be prepared for a pulpy neo-noir of the Chandler kind.
Not so. Aside from archaic character names — Kid Collins, Fay Anderson, Doc Goldman — and a plot-driving romantic relationship reminiscent of the one found in Double Indemnity, After Dark, My Sweet is less a playful pastiche of film noir’s golden era as I was expecting and more a story powered by imminent doom. It is about hopeless people attempting to get ahead in their crummy lives by brushing aside the virtues of morality, only to pay the price for it.
After Dark, My Sweet was co-written and directed by James Foley, and it is astonishing how little joy he siphons from the material. Not a moment goes by during which we aren’t certain that this is, possibly, an unwitting tragicomedy. In After Dark, My Sweet, Jason Patric, strong-jawed and beefy, plays Kevin “Kid” Collins, a quondam-boxer-turned-drifter who has recently escaped the
mental hospital where he’s been kept for a short period. It's clear that Collins is disturbed — traumatized. Because he's so preternaturally attractive, though, most people crossing his path are prone to considering him a reticent, Clint Eastwood-like specimen.
He happens upon an angularly built widow, Fay Anderson (Rachel Ward), at a bar on the outskirts of Palm Springs as the film opens. There seems to be an attraction. Later, while driving home, Anderson spots Collins, who left the bar after having gotten into a bare-fisted argument with the bartender, walking down the side of the road. She pulls over, pitying him. She also sees an opportunity.
Anderson, an alcoholic, offers Collins, whom she likes to call “Collie,” a job. How would he like to fix up the decaying estate her husband left her? He can even stay in the trailer parked out back.
Collins accepts. There is an underlying motivation behind his hiring, however. Anderson is in cahoots with Bud (Bruce Dern), a small-time criminal who has conceived a get-rich-quick scheme that involves the kidnapping of a local magnate’s prepubescent son. They need a guy like Collins — anonymous, and with little to lose — to help them pull it off. Soon, it’s brought up. Collins is intrigued.
Nothing goes well in After Dark, My Sweet. A little into the criminal plot’s unwinding, Collins kidnaps the wrong child and has to go back and hastily retrieve the correct one. Collins and Anderson subsequently start sleeping together, though it’s obvious that the love Collins begins to feel isn’t reciprocated. Bud may have more going on behind the scenes than he’s letting on.
It's an emotionally wretched film, and it's easier to respect than it is to relish. But the admiration for Foley, who has more recently turned to helming 50 Shades sequels (2017-’18), is notable enough to make the movie at least enthrallingly dreary. What I like most about After Dark, My Sweet is how it is able to take standard noir characters — the washed-up boxer, the scheming femme fatale, the dishonorable sideman — and allow them to exist in what we perceive to be the real world.
The defining characteristics of these people remain the same; I can almost picture Robert Ryan in the Collins role, Jane Greer in the Anderson part, and Dan Duryea as Bud. But without black-and-white gloss, and without the romanticism-fostering that comes with nostalgia, we are better able to attach ourselves to these tormented people. Style and time, though, are not the only reasons why the characters, and the storylines they prop up, are resonant: Foley’s writing and direction are subdued, and reliant on facial expression as thematic messengers. The performances are plausibly tortured, not chintzily so.
Even though the title does indeed come from another source, After Dark, My Sweet comes across like a misnomer: it is not a Chandler-esque noir in the slightest. It is, rather, a pessimistic kitchen-sink drama where no one wins. That fatalism, however, is part of what makes it so captivating — and thrilling, in certain moments.
Fatalism is also rampant in One False Move, a 1992 crime film from Carl Franklin. But it is, in comparison, octaves more enjoyable. Whereas After Dark, My Sweet almost statically watches characters fuck their lives up, One False Move does so dynamically, and offers more by way of conventional thriller tropes, almost as an unguent for all the gloom. There are jaw-drop-provoking plot twists, and there are unadorned, but expertly staged, sequences of suspense, too. The feature could even be compared to Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut, 1984’s Blood Simple, or the ever-twisting A Simple Plan, from 1998 — movies that were as exciting as they were immaculately, and humanistically, scripted and ensembled.
It builds off a screenplay by Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton (who also stars). We’re never quite prepared as to how it all might disentangle. One False Move opens with a home invasion that turns deadly: In the process of looking for a hidden stockpiling of cocaine and money in the home of someone we gather was an acquaintance, three criminals — Lenny (Michael Beach), Ray (Thornton), and the latter’s lover, Lila (Cynda Jackson) — brutally murder the household’s hexad of inhabitants and hit the road.
After pursuing a few leads, the detectives hired to investigate the case, Cole (Jim Metzler) and McFreely (Earl Billings), discover that the triad might be heading toward Lila’s hometown, Star City, Arkansas. Upon arrival, they are greeted, and then accompanied, by the inexperienced, over-enthusiastic police chief, Dixon (Bill Paxton). The movie travels back and forth between the intermixing storylines.
Thornton and Epperson’s script emphasizes interpersonal relationships. More impressive about the film, though, is that it draws on race and class differences to add to the tension. Even characters who conspire with one another cannot, fundamentally, easily get along: their backgrounds, and what motivates them, are so disparate that the achieving of harmony comes to look like a futile ambition. Everyone functions to serve themselves, and this leads, inevitably, to destruction.
The coda is stunningly violent, but it's also cathartic — made even better when, just before it, an unexpected development in the plot comes about. This fiery finale is earned: One False Move so exquisitely develops the repartee between its subjects, all has almost organically become ready to blow by the time we reach the 90-minute mark. A sign of an unusually well-crafted movie: that the expansions of a storyline feel predestined and natural rather than carefully mapped and manufactured.
After Dark, My Sweet: B+
One False Move: A-