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MOVIE REVIEW : Delectable Double Cross in ‘After Dark’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

For a look at how eerily well Jim Thompson’s spare, brackish stories of lovers, losers and sociopathic double-crossers update to today’s straitened moral climate, try the stunning surprise of “After Dark, My Sweet” (AMC Century 14, Cineplex Odeon Fairfax), which fairly crackles with real Thompson tension.

Director James Foley and his co-screenwriter Robert Redlin have pulled Thompson’s story out of film noir shadows and set it unflinchingly in the desert’s orange-red glare. There, like a tumbleweed, Kid Collins (Jason Patric) blows into the path of the recently widowed Fay Andersen (Rachel Ward) whose mocking edge sharpens with her every bottle of wine, and Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern), a dangerously affable ex-cop who’d smile you right into Tehachapi.

Shuffling slightly when he moves, like the boxer he was or the mental case he has been called, “Collie” is by most standards a loser at a young age. With one boxing ring death on his record and a memory clouded from boxing or helpful electro-shock--it doesn’t really matter which--Collie’s perceptions oscillate wildly. Actually, his only problem is that he’s been looking for trust while the rest of the world has been looking out for itself.

He is easily snared by Fay, who lures him to be the patsy Uncle Bud needs for his lunatic kidnaping scheme, then warns him off. In flight, Collie’s equally easily persuaded by the professionally soothing Doc Goldman, who knows a former mental patient when he sees one, to stay under his protective care, and under his roof. George Dickerson’s pale, controlling Doc is haunting.

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It’s not certain Collie reads the doctor’s decorous come-on for what it is, but something about the set-up makes him uneasy and he heads doggedly back to the widow Anderson--and major trouble.

Fay, Collie and Uncle Bud are in the most delicate balance; they’re not yet in hell but somewhere a meter is ticking and a move by one of them forces an irrevocable countermove by the other two. Foley’s trick is to have the actors play these lost souls as though their fates weren’t sealed a long time ago; not as losers but as people having a bad patch--that has lasted far too long.

There is a certain nobility in this tack, even for the scruffiest of the trio, Dern’s Uncle Bud. To watch his kitchen table scene with Collie is to be privy to a kind of nakedness so pitiable that no one could gloat over it. It is a fine actor’s high-water mark.

Ward, whose beauty, even without makeup, might go under the heading of therapeutic, simply gets more interesting with every role. She knows every corner of Fay’s mind, as well as the timetable by which her humor turns lacerating and she makes Fay gallant in spite of herself. And when Collie and she finally turn to each other, it’s in one of the rare love scenes whose intense eroticism has a reason to be there.

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It’s Patric, however, who dominates the screen. Collie is one of those roles actors lust after, the damaged dreamer, maybe dumb, maybe dangerous, and Patric demolishes the conventions of the role with breathtaking skill. He is controlled, subtle, many-layered, physical in ways that tell us everything about the character and intuitively right. He never stoops to “signifying” to show us this is someone being slow; with Collie’s dizzying racks in and out of focus, there is no way of being sure in any case.

Virtually every production element is exactly right: Maurice Jarre’s score is sensibly understated; David Brisbin’s production design for Fay’s house and that wretched date palm orchard is enough to explain her ongoing depression and the lights and shadows of Mark Plummer’s camera work are eloquent. If one had to quibble, the boxing flashbacks--for all the psychological freight they carry--are thuddingly heavy. Could there be a moratorium, please, on boxing slo-mo with animal sounds from the arena? Very small quibble, actually, in the face of so much that is so fine.

‘AFTER DARK, MY SWEET’

An Avenue Pictures presentation. Producers Robert Redlin, Ric Kidney. Executive producer Cary Brokaw. Director James Foley. Screenplay Foley, Redlin based on the book by Jim Thompson. Music Maurice Jarre. Editor Howard Smith. Camera Mark Plummer. Production design David Brisbin. Costumes Hope Hanafin. With Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, Bruce Dern, George Dickerson, Rocky Giordani.

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Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (extended sexual sequence, brief nudity)


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