He hurried away, leaving her looking after him, speaking words he lost in flight. He walked half a block. He was pleased. At least she had asked him. At least she had identified him as a man. He whistled a tune from sheer pleasure. Man about town has universal experience. Noted writer tells of night with woman of the streets. Arturo Bandini, famous writer, reveals experience with Los Angeles prostitute. Critics acclaim book finest written.
—John Fante, Ask the Dust (1939)
In writer-director Robert Towne's adaptation of John Fante's novel Ask the Dust, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) is an Italian-American from a small town in Colorado, where he grew up being called "Wop" and "Dago" and "Greaser," who arrives in Depression-era Los Angeles hoping to become a great writer. He pours his heart out to H.L. Mencken, editor of The American Mercury, both in his head and in submission letters accompanying short stories. (One letter is so stirring that Mencken removes the salutations and publishes it as fiction.) Arturo is dying for experiences he can write about but he's too diffident to go out and get them. He has exactly one bold move: he gives a signed copy of a magazine containing one of his stories to his landlady as a way of sweet-talking her into renting him a room despite the fact that he's unemployed; he gives another to Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), an ember-eyed Mexican-American waitress at a local bar where he goes to spend his last buffalo nickel. (His valise is half full of copies of the magazine.)
Arturo is boyishly open-faced but so thin-skinned he's not in fact very nice, notwithstanding the fact that he declares himself a lover of man and beast alike. Ethnic prejudice has distorted his feelings — he wants to make a name for himself that he won't be ashamed of. In Los Angeles, Bandini is sometimes taken to be Mexican, which to Arturo is even "worse" than Italian. All the same, he can't get over his attraction to Camilla, who is almost as touchy as he is. She's not an intellectual (she can't read English; the story Arturo tries to impress her with is doubly wasted on her) and so her pride and susceptibility aren't as neurotic or morbid as Arturo's. She's positively fiery, but also down-to-earth; her temper seems to intensify the pleasure she promises, pleasure Arturo is too unsure to grab, though she's offering.