When he died in 1977, Jim Thompson left as
his legacy a handful of crime novels. Never popular during his
lifetime, he died-not forgotten-but virtually unknown.
With most of his books out of print, he seemed an
unlikely candidate to acquire cult status, or attract filmmakers.
Yet both have happened. Sam Peckinpah filmed The Getaway in 1972, and it in turn is the basis for the new version with Alex
Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Several years ago, The Grifters was a major hit. After Dark My Sweet largely bypassed theaters
and went directly to video stores.
Both The Getaway and After Dark My Sweet pose problems for filmmakers. What reads well and holds interest
on a printed page doesn’t always translate into suspense on film.
Since both are pretty much straightforward executions of crimes
by people who aren’t very bright, there are not many subplots, surprises,
or even dramatic endings. The problem is how to maintain interest,
build suspense and keep the thing moving.
Peckinpah solved it by throwing away parts of Thompson’s
story, rewriting Walter Hill’s script, creating new scenes, and
using most of his technical bag of tricks. According to actor Alec
Baldwin, that’s one of the reasons Walter Hill wanted to remake
it and film the original script that he had written. But in doing
so, he apparently kept some of the scenes which Peckinpah had created.
While the original is hardly prime Peckinpah, it remains
a good, solid action picture. Basically The Getaway is a
combination of a robbery-gone-wrong and a chase film with a few
doublecrosses along the way. In both versions the husband-Steve
McQueen in the original, Baldwin in the remake-is sprung from prison
after the wife-Ali MacGraw/Kim Basinger-applies her talents to the
powers that be. Ben Johnson’s prison warden in the original has
become James Woods’s crime lord in the remake. In return for his
freedom, McQueen and MacGraw agree to rob a bank for Johnson, who
supplies the not-too-bright gang members. Midway through the robbery,
the plan goes awry, and one of the gang members is killed. McQueen
shoots gang member Al Lettieri, takes the money and runs. Lettieri
recovers, kidnaps a doctor and his wife and starts the pursuit that
ultimately leads to a showdown in a sleazy border town hotel.
Through use of sound and crosscutting, Peckinpah created
tension and built suspense when there actually wasn’t much happening.
He also threw in flashbacks, flash-forwards, and had dialogue begin
in one scene and end as a voice-over in the unrelated scenes that
followed. By the time The Getaway was made, action sequences
shot in slow motion were more or less his trademark. But the technique
which worked so effectively to create the lyrical blood ballets
in The Wild Bunch, often seems self-indulgent when used to
capture a child swinging on a rope over a river, or shotgunning
the taillights out of a police car. Although there’s violence, it
was restrained enough to earn the film a PG rating.
Director James Foley’s solution to building suspense
in After Dark My Sweet seems to have been to write a vague
script and rely on the persona of Bruce Dem.
The quirky, murky story has Jason Patric as a washed
up, possibly brain damaged boxer who lost his temper and killed
his last opponent. Escaping from a mental institution, he wanders
into one of those nameless small towns in the southwest. Not that
it matters, but he may or may not have lived there before, or maybe
everyone he meets seems to know him simply because of his boxing
career. Rachel Ward picks him up, takes him home to tend her palm
trees, and to meet her friend, Bruce Dem. Bruce has been plotting
for months to kidnap a child, and Patric appears to be just the
dupe he needs to carry out the plan. But Jason isn’t as dumb as
he looks, and suspects he’s being set up. As a result, for reasons
that are never quite clear, he kidnaps the wrong child, then takes
it back and nabs the right kid. After they feed the child some pie
he goes into a diabetic coma and the plan starts to fall apart.
The final resolution doesn’t have much to do with the situation
that sets it up.
The film has its problems. Scenes appear to be missing.
Several times during a love scene the picture fades to black and
stays there so long that one expects the ending credit roll to appear.
Unfortunately, the pace is so slow that most viewers are not likely
to want the missing footage back. It seems much longer than its
114 minutes. Why it’s called After Dark My Sweet is anybody’s
For Patric this represents an outstanding performance
in a lost cause. His boxer is at once dazed, confused, alienated,
and as it turns out, not at all what he appears to be. In his wilder
moments he makes Dern appear rock steady and normal. Too bad that
the movie doesn’t match his work. MM