Tuesday, July 13, 2021

A Palm Springs Noir, My Sweet

Palm Springs Noir? The words suggest steamy doings in bone-dry terrain: crimes amid the cactus, double-crossing and doubling down in the precious palm-lined oases that secure a lush life for some but hardly for all. Palm Springs Noir is a terrific new anthology from Akashic, which has made a point of publishing geographically-inspired noir story collections for decades. (Copenhagen Noir, anyone?) The editor of this latest volume in the series is Barbara DeMarco-Barrett—writer, editor, and desert-lover—who happens to be my longtime friend and colleague.

 The writers in Barbara’s collection (including big names like Janet Fitch and T. Jefferson Parker) were carefully chosen both for their talent and their familiarity with Palm Springs and surrounding towns. Each casts a jaundiced eye on the staples of this landscape: swimming pools, mid-century-modern décor, trailer parks, Airbnb rentals, gardeners spritzing the luxuriant foliage despite a dwindling water supply.

 Film Noir of course is the term that French cinéastes have applied to the tough-minded black-&-white thrillers that Hollywood churned out in great numbers circa 1940. Think Double Indemnity and other flicks in which dames like Barbara Stanwyck were up to no good. So it occurred to me to wonder, given how much Hollywood types in the Forties loved to frolic in Palm Springs, whether any films of the noir era depicted that locale. Eric Beetner, whose “The Guest” is one of the gems of the new collection, admitted to me that surprisingly few films were set in the Palm Springs environs during the noir era. While the ending of High Sierra was indeed shot near Palm Springs’ high-desert region, he mostly cited obscure entries like The Threat, “a good and underseen movie with the amazing Charles McGraw.” But Beetner also came up with a 1990 neo-noir that seemed worth checking out. Which is how I came to watch 1990’s After Dark, My Sweet, shot entirely in the Palm Springs-adjacent city of Indio. (Indio, a blue-collar town once best known for date-growing but now the site of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, is the setting for a creepy Tod Goldberg story, “A Career Spent Disappointing People,” that continues to haunt me.)

 After Dark, My Sweet, based on a Jim Thompson novel, involves such noir staples aa a down-at-the-heels ex-boxer, a beautiful widow, and a shifty guy out to make a buck. There’s cool voiceover narration and a twisty plot about a kidnapping gone awry. Director James Foley, who got his start directing Madonna’s music videos, has a terrific eye for desert landscapes as well as for the watering holes of the rich and the would-be-rich. This is a noir with a difference, of course, because it’s shot in full color, thus depriving the film of the moody shadows that made 1940s cinema so evocative. In their place is Foley’s careful use of color, with its calculated splashes of crimson and blood-red. And the film’s big sex scene, carefully prepared for and long in coming, is far more explicit than anything the Forties might have been able to show. (Curiously, it’s male lead Jason Patric, not the stunning Rachel Ward, whose bare skin is on nearly-full display.) Patric, who also in 1990 would be featured as Lord Byron in Roger Corman’s regrettable return to directing, Frankenstein Unbound, makes a strong lead here, one both tender and volatile, smart and not-so-smart. And Ward’s character is perhaps more complex than most of the femmes fatales we know and love. But it’s Bruce Dern’s Uncle Bud I’ll long remember: a guy loathsome and yet almost lovable, a friendly fellow defined by greed, a true denizen of a film noir world.


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