Ask the Dust (2006): Robert Towne’s Film Noir Starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek

Robert Towne’s noir melodrama Ask the Dusk features Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek as the central romantic couple in most appealing and compelling performances.

A dream project for Towne for three decades, the movie is old-fashioned in its classic storytelling and small number of characters, but it’s also a work in which every element, from the writing to the direction to the acting and production, plays a significant role, contributing to a satisfying film that almost overcomes the problems of plotlessness and deliberate pacing. As such, the film is bound to fail at the box-office.

In 1939, Fante published an autobiographical novel about his early struggles as a writer while living in a Bunker Hill boarding house. However, due to the inevitable forces of technology and modernization, Ask the Dust was shot in South Africa, where a large set of Downtown L.A. circa 1933, was built from scratch, assisted with workable CGI effects. Not to worry: the yarn looks convincing, plus the movie is really interior, not only in setting but also in theme and feeling.

Based on Fante’s memoir that was reportedly rescued from obscurity by Charles Bukowski, when he found the out-of-print book in a public library, this Depression era movie centers on a doomed interracial romance in a way that’s different from what we are accustomed seeing in the period noir or problems pictures.

With Ask the Dust, Towne has added another panel to 1930s movies set in Los Angeles as the new frontier, beginning with the aforementioned Chinatown, and including John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975), and Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They in 1969. Donald Sutherland plays a major role in both the Schlesinger’s and Towne’s films.

Though most of these films center on outsiders and misfits (what sociologists call marginal individuals living at the periphery of society), none has dwelled on the racial tensions of that era since most of their characters were Caucasians who had no (or limited) encounters with minority members. Ask the Dust might as well been titled Down and Out in Downtown L.A. (to borrow from Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills). At its center is an on-and-off explosive relationship between an aspiring Italian-American writer (Farrell), Arturo Bandini and a passionate Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez (Hayek).

Towne holds as long as he can, without losing audience’s interest, the consummation of Bandini and Camilla’s affair, which occurs 90 minutes into the film. Up until then, and even later, the relationship is marked by racial hatred that occasionally boils to the surface in stereotypical slurs. Uneducated and alien, Camilla is a waitress because it’s the only–“and best”–job she can get. She makes no secrets that all she wants is to marry an American so that her children would have better opportunities and better life. One reason why Bandini is not good enough for her has to do with the ring of the nameCamilla Bandini It’s better if it’s Camilla Smith or Camilla Johnson.

The situation is pretty much the same for Bandini, who initially looks down at her due to lack of education and also sultry looks that intimidate him since he had no sexual experience with women. The racial stereotypes for each other ignite sparks, it’s an expression of the strong attraction they have though don’t really understand.

Moving from the personal to the more socio-political level, the central relationship stands as a microcosm of several issues facing Angelenos in the 1930s: The immigrant experience, underlying racial tension, abject poverty magnified by the physical proximity with the rich, living side by side with unimaginable wealth

Though it’s very much a two-handler, Towne doesn’t neglect the secondary characters, all played by terrific actors. Most prominent among them is Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), a shell-shocked veteran of World War I, who keeps intruding into Bandini’s room when least expected or wanted. Wearing nothing but a tattered bathrobe, Hellfrick knocks on Bandini’s door, asking for a dime or a nickel, which he promises to return. As noted, watching Sutherland (who had appeared in Towne’s Without Limit) brings to mind his iconic role in Schlesinger’s version of Nathanael West’s novel, The Day of the Locust.

Aileen Atkins portrays Mrs. Hargraves, the harsh landlady of the house where Bandini and Hellfrick reside, reflecting the prevalent racism at the time by imposing the strict rules of no Mexicans (or Jews, for that matter) allowed.

Some of the most touching scenes belong to Farrell and Idina Menzel (Rent), as Vera Rivkin, a tortured Jewish woman who’s both physically and mentally scarred. Heading down to Long Beach to visit Vera, only to be caught in the Long Beach earthquake. It’s through her that Bandini discovers his sexuality–“and humanity

The film’s establishing shot is evocative, moving from exterior to interior, beginning with the hills and the ocean in the background, then descending on Downtown L.A., sweeping to shabby motel, the Alta Loma, where Bandini sits in his underwear at his typewriter. Living on oranges and cigarettes, and with the fierce visage of H.L. Mencken (voice provided by film critic Richard Schickel), who intermittently publishes his stories, Bandini is trying to find his voice as a writer.

Ultimately, it’s the wounded and desperate souls who populate the streets and coffee shops that inspire Bandini with material for his stories. From their first meeting, they’re drawn together, but Bandini can’t help insulting her. Later on, confused and insecure, Bandini fails to respond when the two drive out to the beach one night and Camilla forces him to swim in the nude.

Towne has said that in his adaptation of the novel, he decided to stress more the racial divide, and indeed, the film is quite poignant in showing the relative position of racial minorities in the social hierarchy. Since Bandini himself was the victim of anti-Italian discrimination in his Colorado youth, Camilla assumes that he will have more sympathy for her as a working class Latina in L.A. There’s a wonderful scene, in which Bandini and Camilla go to the movies to see the musical Dames and Camilla experiences prejudice from the white woman sitting next to her.

Farrell is both appealing and effective in conveying Bandini’s contradictory attributes: weaknesses and tentativeness but also arrogance and cruelty. Farrell’s first person narration is evocative, turning him into a sympathetic noir anti-hero, very much in the mold of the young John Garfield or William Holden.

Voluptuously sexy but also nakedly vulnerable, Hayek render her most emotionally touching performance to date, one that runs all the gamut of emotions of a woman desperate to find home and make it in America–even if it calls for sleeeping with her boss (Justin Kirk, in a pale, underdeveloped role).

The production’s evocative look relies on Caleb Deschanel’s brown desaturated images, which are just as congruent with the film’s tone as the text itself. Dennis Gassner’s production design, which includes the famous Angels’ Flight, and Albert Wolsky’s costumes are also evocative of the specific milieu during that era and the characters’ different social classes.