A sun-drenched film noir set in the Palm Springs desert, After Dark, My Sweet drips with tension and a brooding sensuality as two desperate people, a disgraced ex-cop and a struggling widow, ensnare a vulnerable and disturbed drifter in their scheme to kidnap a wealthy family’s son for ransom. Based on the 1955 novel by Jim Thompson and directed by James Foley, the film captures the sinister, yet morally ambiguous tone of the author’s pulp fiction.
Jason Patric, then a teen heartthrob who had last appeared in The Lost Boys, stars alongside 80s pin-up Rachel Ward, who spends much of the film dressed in a pair of cut-off jean shorts, showing off her impossibly long legs. Patric plays ex-boxer ‘Kid’ Collins, who is on the run from a mental institution when he meets Ward’s Fay in an empty bar. Black and white flashbacks to his vicious final bout hint at the reason for his confinement, and it’s easy to assume that too many beatings have made the boxer dim-witted. He even shuffles along as if he’s still in the ring, itching for a fight.
Given a menial job by Fay, and a home in a trailer parked on her land, Kid is soon introduced to Uncle Bud, played by Bruce Dern at his sleaziest, with long white hair and a procession of Hawaii shirts. Blinded by his attraction to Fay, and despite her half-hearted warning to stay away, Kid finds himself entangled in their plot to kidnap the town’s wealthiest son. Kid is soon set up as the kidnapper, and the fall guy.
But Kid Collins has something in common with Thompson’s other leading men: seemingly slow and underestimated by everyone, he’s darkly clever, and deeply disturbed. Kid’s smouldering blue eyes are the only hint that he’s not as slow as he seems, although he does warn Fay and Uncle Bud (to little avail) not to treat him like he’s stupid. It’s only as the film builds to its taut, near-perfect conclusion that he reveals himself for what he truly is - a frighteningly intelligent man who has one last shot at making something of his meaningless life.
It’s an impressive performance by Patric, and the sexual tension between Kid and Fay is certainly palpable (although the sex scenes show little of the violence that marks Thompson’s work - an issue that’s already causing controversy around the release of The Killer inside Me). There’s no denying Rachel Ward’s sex appeal, but it’s a shame that she isn’t a better actress - good at playing drunk, she over-acts in the melodramatic moments when the kidnapping of the young, lonely and neglected boy starts to go horribly wrong.
Despite its minor flaws, Foley’s film is a lean, compelling thriller whose fluid tracking shots and rusty brown and gold hues have aged surprisingly well in the 20 years since its release, while Patric, whose career never quite took off, is still a heartthrob.