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Neo-Noir, My Sweet

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This is a contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathan

Neo-Noir, My Sweet

When we think of classic film noir, it is in black and white; there are dark shadows, darker voice-overs and deadpan women in tight sweaters leading men to their doom. Sex is underneath practically everything, and it takes place mostly off-camera. I’m not sure when the term “neo-noir” was coined, but the real start of this modern noir seems to me to be Body Heat (1981), which is an “adult” movie that I watched over and over again as a teenager, internalizing its sweaty atmosphere and its panty-discarding, shuddery sex, but when I tried to watch that movie again recently on television, it didn’t hold up for me at all. I was surprised by its slow place and too-somber attitude; all of its sex scenes had been parodied so often that they didn’t have heat anymore, only “heat.” Thinking of other neo-noirs, I was struck by how often sex plays a role yet seldom gets much of a work-out on screen, and if it does, as in Basic Instinct (1992), there is a coldness about the “heat,” as if everyone involved knows how easily a big “sex scene” can seem ridiculous. This is a problem that the makers of classic noir didn’t have to deal with.

As a kid, when I was renting Body Heat over and over again, I always picked up the video box for a movie called After Dark, My Sweet (1991), which had some striking poster art of Rachel Ward seemingly whispering something to Jason Patric. On the back of the box, there was a photo of Ward with her arms wrapped around Patric’s neck and her legs wrapped around his waist; the light in the photo was hitting Patric in such a way that he looked vulnerable, lost and extremely carnal. I never rented After Dark, My Sweet, which was directed by James Foley, even though that photo of the stars on the back of the video box stayed with me. Just a few days ago, on IFC Channel, I finally caught parts of this never-seen film from my adolescence, which is considered a representative neo-noir by some. I didn’t watch all of it (mainly because it’s pretty difficult to get used to IFC Channel movies being interrupted by commercials), but what I did see really encapsulated what I think a neo-noir sex scene should be like, and it fully lived up to my impression of the film from its long-ago video box.

Patric plays one of those sweet and totally limited ex-boxers that only seem to exist in the movies and in pulp novels (like The Grifters {1990}, the film was based on a Jim Thompson story). He has been drawn into a kidnapping scheme by Ward. Patric is very soft-looking here, almost doughy, while Ward looks drawn and too thin. The characters they are playing are both just ever-so-slightly past their prime physically, and the movie utilizes the full sexiness of this ripened quality they have; it also sees the sexiness in the woman, Ward, calling the shots over Patric’s child-man. They circle each other for a bit, and finally they give in: Ward reclines on a bed, expectantly, but somewhat lazily, too, as Patric takes all of his clothes off. As he stands naked, the camera views him from behind so that we can take in just how squeezable and almost-out-of-shape all of him is. He gets on top of Ward and starts thrusting into her; the camera cuts to her face, which clearly registers, “Yes, I am taking advantage of this guy as a sex object and I am thoroughly enjoying every moment of it.”

Crucially, at a key moment in this sex scene, Foley cuts to a shot of Ward’s hands digging into the small of Patric’s back, which is lightly covered with hair. This is an image another movie might not show you; another movie might have made Patric shave that hair on his back, or made Ward cover the lines under her eyes, but After Dark, My Sweet seems to have an almost French appreciation for “flaws” like this and views them as turn-ons. Everything about this scene is evocative of sex, in its slightly heightened, movie way; it feels very private, very “what the hell?” and very early 1990s. I don’t really want to see the rest of After Dark, My Sweet. Like so many movies that you don’t really need to see, it functions as a kind of notion in my head. Maybe after another twenty years have passed, I’ll see some more of it. Maybe, though, like certain sexual memories, it’s at its best in secretive glimpses, come-ons and fragments to be savored like a last cigarette.

Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and the L Magazine, among other publications.