A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
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.
Her name is Mrs. Fay Anderson. She is pretty clearly an alcoholic. Why else, after Collie beats the bartender senseless, would she follow him down the street in her car and offer him a ride? She does this not because she is drunk, but because widowhood and drinking have put her into the orbit of Uncle Bud, a man whose moneymaking plans require someone like Collie: Needy, vulnerable, presentable, persuadable. 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.
"After Dark, My Sweet" (1990) tells their story as an inevitable progress toward failure and doom. What makes the story fascinating is the subterranean way Collie understands everything that is going wrong, understands Mrs. Fay Anderson is a good person and needs to be protected, and protects her in a way so subtle she may still be wondering if he did what she thinks he did.
The movie, based on a novel by Jim Thompson, the poet of circa-1950 pulp noir, has a stubborn, sullen truth to it, focusing on its handful of characters during the course of a particularly incompetent kidnapping. The story is so intimate that everything depends on the performances, and Jason Patric, Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern, and a character actor named George Dickerson, bring a grim, poetic sadness to the story. Film noir, we are reminded, is not about action and victory, but about incompetence and defeat. If it has a happy ending, something went wrong.