Arizona Son: The Cardone Files Vol. 3 — Black Day Blue Night (1995)

Dave continues his epic chinwag with director J.S Cardone to learn about a film that’s very much the centrepiece of his career, and how he met the peerless J.T Walsh.

The third of J.S. Cardone’s Arizona crime trilogy, which began with A Row of Crows (1991) and continued with Shadowhunter (1993), BLACK DAY BLUE NIGHT (1995) is built from what’s arguably his finest script – and released into a post-Tarantino landscape, you’d have to question why distributor Republic Pictures didn’t take a punt on a cinema release. As Greg Evans pondered in Variety amid the film’s successful festival run:

“Cardone’s script keeps a step ahead of the audience, and a compellingly hard-bitten performance by Michelle Forbes could surely spin some minor box office on the film’s way to the tube.” [1]

“It was the end days of Republic Pictures, unfortunately,” clarifies Cardone. “The reaction to the film was really good, but they’d lost their way in terms of theatrical. I can’t remember his name, but the head of the company and I went round and round because he had no idea what to do with it. He thought he was Roger Corman or Avi Lerner – who is brilliant, I might add, especially with foreign sales. It just got lost. Disappointing to all of us. We knew Black Day Blue Night wasn’t a studio picture, and we knew we weren’t reinventing the wheel, but similar films like Red Rock West (1993) hadn’t made any money – and I think that became the issue. And as you know, as I’ve said, you guys know the business probably as well as I do. It costs more money to get it into the theatres than it does to make it.”

“I originally had an option to make the film independently and then have it released via Paramount. It was going to go through Steve Gollin as an executive producer, but there was the issue that we had a two-picture deal with Republic, and they wanted to exercise their option. They wanted this script. David Korda had read it and he had the remnants of his grandfather’s company, and he was looking for something to finance through Republic, and we were pretty much forced into it.”

So, it wasn’t to be – and Black Day Blue Night anonymously hit VHS the following year, a medium awash with every young filmmaker trying to emulate that kid from Video Archive who’d just hit pay dirt. Cardone’s movie does fit into the QT-indebted trend of twisting crime-thrillers (a la Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995) and 2 Days in the Valley (1996)), but the writer-director was too much of an old hand to have joined the latest incarnation of the Nouvelle Vague outright.

If you had to level a real comparison at Black Day Blue Night, then the neo-noir sensibility of the aforementioned Red Rock West does indeed come to mind, not least as it was shot to the east of Tucson, in and around Willcox, while Cardone’s picture was shot over to the west, utilising the Yuma County vistas of Somerton and San Luis. They also both feature the quintessential – and much-missed – character actor J.T. Walsh.

In Black Day Blue Night Walsh plays the bellicose figure of Lt. John Quinn: a cop who’s recently lost his partner during a heist on an armoured car, along with a suspect and a million dollars in cash. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Hallie Schrag (Mia Sara) has stumbled into a beat-up motel room to discover that her husband, Bo (Tim Guinee), is boning bleach-blonde bombshell Rinda Woolley (the stunning Michelle Forbes). Contrary to expectation, the two women decide to head off on an impulsive road trip together – but on the way, they give a lift to a mysterious hitchhiker called Dodge (Gil Bellows), whose sole possession is a weighty suitcase that he’s not too keen to relinquish.

Cardone writes formidable female characters. It’s a trait that’s evident throughout his career, but it’s at its most potent in his Arizona crime trilogy. Think back to the stoic determination of Katharine Ross in A Row of Crows or the gutsy conviction of Angela Alvarado in Shadowhunter. Both Forbes and Sara continue this run in Black Day Blue Night, although it’s the former who delivers a dynamic display that really should have been the catalyst for casting agents to form an orderly queue. Fiery, fearless, and foxy, Forbes is a hypnotic presence in a film that doesn’t possess a weak link.

The reason for finding such ballsy women in Cardone pictures?

“I’m married to one!” laughs the filmmaker. “It rubs off on you. I find them really fascinating. Across our conversations, I’ve mentioned influences like Ida Lupino, who was a great actress and an equally talented director. Women tend to see things clearer than you or I do. I’ve never quite understood why. They cut to the chase a lot quicker. Men dance on issues. The women who have always attracted me are women who are opinionated and strong.”

As well as Sara, Cardone regulars John Beck and Frederick Flynn are back in the fold, while fresh from the Tarantino-esque lilt of Love and a .45 (1994) is the excellent Bellows, who manages to add a welcome level of intrigue to his enigmatic drifter. Walsh, as always, dominates every frame he’s in, even if you feel he should be in more, but expanding on that would spoil the surprise. The film was the actor’s first collaboration with Cardone – and it’s an experience which is etched into the writer-director’s memory.

“When I wrote that script, J.T. got hold of it. He called me up and said “I’m gonna the play the cop”. Not ‘want to’, but ‘gonna’! I’d always been a huge fan of his, but I didn’t really see him in that role. I asked him why he wanted the part, and he said it was the two women and that they were really sexy. I wanted Michelle Forbes for the role as I’d seen her in Kalifornia (1993), and of course I already knew Mia [Sara].”

“But yeah, I’ll never forget. The very first scene J.T. shot on Black Day Blue Night was out in the desert at the hot springs. I had only talked to him on the phone. I got a call off the wardrobe woman and she said that he’s way overweight and that none of the costumes fit him. I said put him in spandex or something! Anyway, he called me to say it was embarrassing, so I said “Fuck you. You pay for the new wardrobe” [laughs]. He virtually hung up on me! When we eventually met face to face out in the desert, I could see that he had a real penchant for women. He was already coddling up to Michelle!”

“Anyway, I came on the set and went over to shake his hand. The first word out of his mouth was ‘Franciscan’. I knew exactly what he was talking about when he said it and I replied ‘Jesuit’, to which he said yes. We were both Catholic, you see. I was educated in a Franciscan school, while he attended a Jesuit one. “That’s the real reason I’m doing this,” he said. “Because we both went through twelve years of Catholic School and we’re both really fucked up” [laughs].”

Frequently chastised for the direction it takes, it’s fair to say Cardone has an absolute ball steering his narrative down a linear desert highway with the restraint of an off-road racer. Black Day Blue Night is a wild ride, with a haunting final shot, and all the hallmarks of a nihilistic Jim Thompson novel. It’s also the perfect end to a remarkable trio of pictures.

Premiering at the Hampton’s International Film Festival in October 1995, Black Day Blue Night played a handful of events including WorldFest in Charleston where it bagged the director another Gold Award for Best Independent Feature. A quarter of a century later, its almost complete absence from any kind of physical format or streaming platform is both startling and sad, yet thoroughly predictable [2].

[1] Review: Black Day Blue Night by Greg Evans, Variety, 26th November 1995.
[2] The film did get a brief DVD release in Australia and some parts of continental Europe, but it’s now firmly OOP. There was also an American Laserdisc edition.

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