After Dark, My Sweet is a modern (1990) film noir, based on a novel from the ’50s.
Kevin “Kid” Collins, we learn through brief flashbacks, is a boxer who went berserk in the ring and killed an opponent.
The opponent repeatedly fouls him, in a way that is so blatantly obvious as to be completely unrealistic, though it’s typical of a movie boxing scene. The referee, unlike the most unsophisticated person watching the movie, somehow doesn’t see any of the fouls. Collins finally can take it no longer, and, in Rocky-fashion, angrily comes off the ropes to knock his opponent down. Then, definitely not in Rocky-fashion, he proceeds to batter him mercilessly while he’s down, and then even takes the time to remove his glove so he can do more damage with bare knuckles. People who later recognize Collins—who apparently was a reasonably prominent fighter—seem to be unfamiliar with this incident that would likely go down as the blackest moment in boxing history had it happened in real life.
After that Collins was confined in a mental institution. At the start of the film he has recently escaped and made his way across the country. Apparently now he’s living the life of a drifter, not going anywhere specific for any specific reason.
Not much is really done with this backstory. I don’t see any particular reason he had to be a mental patient, or an ex-boxer, or more specifically an ex-boxer who killed someone in the ring. Yeah, a few things in the story would have had to be reworked—like the part involving a doctor who takes an interest in him—but I mean none of that seems essential to who he is or what he does.
He doesn’t come across as all that crazy. He walks a little funny, and occasionally he seems just a little unconventional in how he talks or behaves, but no more than, say, someone with mild Asperger’s.
Actually, though, maybe the reason he doesn’t seem particularly crazy to me is that he doesn’t stand out from the other characters. Everyone in this movie acts a little “off.” I think it’s because the movie is so self-consciously trying to be a film noir. One of the reasons I was never more than slightly into After Dark, My Sweet is that at no point did any of these people feel to me like anything other than characters in a movie.
Anyway, Collins tries to talk to a woman named Faye in a bar, and gets into an altercation with the bartender and punches him out. Even though Faye was rude and uninterested initially, that seems to impress her enough that she asks him to come home with her and pretty much move in since he has no place to live.
Faye’s an arrogant, annoying, perpetually drunk broad who likes to speak cryptically—and who is not even all that hot—so naturally he falls for her. (Yes, one of the themes of this essay is how hopelessly unrealistic this movie is.)
Meanwhile, some mysterious loser guy she knows, who goes by the nickname “Uncle Bud,” decides that Collins is just the guy they need to carry out an unlikely crime scheme he has come up with. It’s sort of a joint plan of his and Faye’s, but Faye is half into it and half dismissive of it, telling Collins that he’d be better off not getting involved and letting Uncle Bud’s fantasies fade away.
In addition to Faye’s efforts at dissuasion, Collins is already suspicious of the plan and quickly sees that there’s a good chance Uncle Bud will betray and possibly kill him if he gets involved. So he agrees to it.
Eventually anyway. First, though, he leaves Faye’s place and goes back to wandering. But that doesn’t last long, as he stumbles (literally) into a doctor, who immediately infers that he is an escaped mental patient. So, as one normally does with escaped mental patients, he invites him into his home, suggesting that he maybe stay for a year or so until he gets back on his feet.
Based on what I read online, the doctor is probably gay, and his interest in Collins is not wholly professional or altruistic. That’s not explicit in the movie, but, yeah, he seems like kind of a creepy guy the way he looks at Collins.
Collins decides not to stick with the doctor, and rather than wait for the next random person to inexplicably invite him to come live with them, he returns to Faye’s place, and to Uncle Bud’s scheme.
The intended crime is the kidnapping of a local rich kid. They pull it off, at least the initial snatching of the kid, despite various screw-ups.
Collins announces that he’s seen through Uncle Bud and probably Faye’s intention to turn on him and kill him so there will be one less person to split the money with, and so he keeps them at gunpoint. About 10% of the time that is. The rest of the time he doesn’t, so if they wanted to they could easily sneak up on him or poison him or do whatever they want to him.
Uncle Bud pretty much remains a scumbag, but for the remainder of the movie Collins and Faye struggle with mildly interesting ethical concerns about whether to harm the boy and whether to go through with the rest of the plan and such. (The time to think about that stuff is before you ever get involved with something like this, but never mind.)
The ending I found somewhat convoluted, and not all that likely to play out like Collins intends or to have the consequences he wants. But, it’s a mildly interesting twist.
Certainly there are elements of the story that held my interest, and some of the characters—like Uncle Bud and I suppose the doctor—are entertaining weirdos, so I didn’t hate the movie by a long shot. And moviegoers who like this genre and are fine with it being stylistic rather than realistic will no doubt be more forgiving of some of the aspects of After Dark, My Sweet that had me shaking my head. But it’s a thumbs down for me, albeit a somewhat near miss.
As a final note, though, let me mention one way to give After Dark, My Sweet more of the benefit of the doubt than I have. (This is something I found mentioned in online discussions about the movie.)
The film is narrated by Collins, and apparently the book it’s based on is written in the first person from Collins’s perspective. Given that, it’s possible we’re not supposed to take it all at face value, but only as what he’s thinking or imagining is happening. People’s perceptions and memories and such are fallible and flawed, not uncommonly to the point of incoherence—and presumably that would be all the more true of those of a mental patient—so it may be that the more unrealistic elements of the story aren’t to be taken literally. Maybe things kind of like them happened, but the specific version we see is just what’s going on in Collins’s head.
Like perhaps he didn’t really take his gloves off and continue to batter his opponent in the ring with his bare knuckles, or perhaps he didn’t really get invited to stay with the doctor in his home for a year shortly after they met, but he remembers these things that way in his damaged mind.
If so, then the unrealistic aspects of After Dark, My Sweet shouldn’t really count against it, since you’d expect the perceptions and memories of a crazy person to be unrealistic. Or at least that’s one way to look at this movie.