By Jeremy Carr.

Scorsese’s follow-up to The King of Comedy (1982) can be as stressed as any thriller or even a horror film, or as ostensibly innocuous and banal as a plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweight.”

It starts with a pen that doesn’t work, just as he’s about to jot down a beautiful young woman’s phone number. He eventually borrows one that does write, from an eccentric diner cashier (the first of many eccentric individuals he is about meet), but Paul Hackett should have taken the hint. This isn’t going to be his night. He should have stayed home, gotten some sleep, and called it a day.

But that’s not the way it works out in Martin Scorsese’s anxiety-inducing dark comedy After Hours. Released as Scorsese’s follow-up to the now lauded but then widely disparaged The King of Comedy (1982), this 1985 feature follows several chaotic hours in the nightlife a bored word processor named Paul Hackett, played with effectively vacillating bemusement and angst by Griffin Dunne. An opening shot of the film has the camera breezing through Paul’s office before landing at a desk where he assists a hapless new hire, the surge of visual momentum coming to an abrupt halt, just as Paul’s sedentary existence is resting in the place of administrative tedium. After that, though, the end of his day is just the beginning, and his quest for some excitement, or even just something out of the ordinary, takes Paul on a nocturnal odyssey through Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, where he encounters a steady stream of quirky personalities and finds himself entangled in an unrelenting spiral of misunderstandings, accidents, and twists of fate.

The first and perhaps most significant of these encounters is Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), the young woman from the diner, who seems to be a sweet girl with a genuine interest in Paul. She is significant not only because it is she who gets the narrative ball rolling and inspires Paul to head out for the evening, but because she, more than any of the others soon to fleetingly populate Paul’s life—the sexy artist Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino), the bereft waitress Julie (Teri Garr), the abrasive Mister Softee vender Gail (Catherine O’Hara), the beleaguered bartender Tom (John Heard), and the quietly accommodating June (Verna Bloom)—who embodies the fluctuating allure and caution that defines After Hours. Played exceptionally well by Rosanna Arquette, with a teasing inscrutability, Marcy is the personification of Paul’s dilemma, a pushing and pulling conflict of forces that prompt, on the one hand, an inexorable attraction, and, on the other, the better sense to just get the hell away from whatever is happening.

Recently released on a new Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, the After Hours disc includes, in addition to a handful of deleted scenes, a series of supplements that illuminate the film’s somewhat unorthodox backstory and its turning point placement in Scorsese’s filmography. There is a conversation between Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz, a standard documentary about the making of the film, and a commentary track with Scorsese, his longtime editing virtuoso Thelma Schoonmaker, renowned director of photography Michael Ballhaus, Amy Robinson, and Dunne (the two actors also produced the picture). All involved discuss what the film meant at the time and how and why it has endured, and when looking at After Hours now, with the entirety of Scorsese’s work as a thematic yardstick, it clearly aligns with his penchant for probing character studies that track those who, like Paul, find themselves in trying situations, tested to the limits of their physical and psychological endurance. In the Criterion essay by critic Sheila O’Malley, “After Hours: No Exit,” she notes the film’s “fun-house mirror” that reflects “illusory escape routes.” “The film’s disorienting mix of dread and humor,” she writes, “evokes Paul’s mental state.” Indeed, while the formal traits of After Hours are undeniably Scorsese-esque, they are also usually impelled by what Paul experiences; though his cinematic panache is rather more restrained here than elsewhere, as much as any other Scorsese film After Hours boasts a cohesive style executed in the service of suggesting Paul’s inner instability. At first and at intermittent moments throughout the film, Paul is shown to be an earnest, good person; he is sincere, simply looking for happiness, and, in most cases, is keen to get along and go along—whatever it takes to get back to his apartment. During these sequences the film feels deceptively settled as such, taking a breather as if to imply this might work out after all. But when Paul’s expedition then turns topsy-turvy, and Scorsese sparks a correspondingly expressive ember, the jarring, panicked effect is all the more pronounced. 

After Hours (1985)

Although Paul easily forges relationships and is, at his core, a decent man—going out of his way to return what he thinks is Kiki’s stolen sculpture, for example, apparently lifted by Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong—he’s also too curious for his own good. He is seemingly drawn to drama and often acts against his better judgement. It’s hard to fault him, though, due to the direness of his situation and his need for money, shelter, and, later, safety. Scorsese, Dunne, and screenwriter Joseph Minion efficiently fashion an inescapable labyrinth of mania, where, on the outside looking in, it’s tempting to say, “just move along, don’t follow this or that person,” and so on. But even this is challenged by the film’s absorbing scenario and its enveloping frenzy, as easy as it is to get swept away.

Comparisons to the paranoid works of Franz Kafka are inevitable when discussing After Hours, as are the multiple interpretations of what happens to Paul and why and what’s the point—the answers to which are unnecessary to know in order to appreciate the film. There is some credence to these readings, however. Recurring props (a $20 bill, a set of keys) and the film’s visual template (repeated motifs and color-coded attire) do seem deliberate, as testified to by interviews with costume designer Rita Ryack and production designer Jeffrey Townsend. The setting itself, while definitively New York City, has the tone of a surreal dreamscape, figurative perhaps and vibrantly realized by Scorsese and Ballhaus. Though nightmarish and claustrophobic, these aren’t necessarily mean streets (until a vigilante mob enters the picture), but they are insane, secretive, and ominous. And again, all this feeds and expresses Paul’s mounting hysteria. Reinforced by Howard Shore’s haunting score, the episodic structure of After Hours advances a feverish unease, step by step, hour by hour, place by place.

To be sure, After Hours is a mysterious pressure cooker of a film, but it is also terribly funny. Written by Minion when he was a student at Columbia University, the script, initially titled “Lies,” is delightfully mischievous, and it was the concept’s peculiar humor that first caught Scorsese’s attention. For instance, in the middle of his persecution for thefts he didn’t commit, Paul peers into a nearby building and witnesses a quarrelling couple; the woman shoots the man dead and Paul ruefully muses, “I’ll probably get blamed for that.” Or consider the deliberations over the film’s ending, where one potential conclusion had Paul entering June’s womb before being “born” along the highway. (The great Michael Powell, a Scorsese ally, helped formulate a more reasonable but nevertheless sardonic finish.) But the absurdity of After Hours is outrageous and yet not totally removed from reality. The escalating compilation of chance, coincidence, and sheer bad timing is like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm dialed up to eleven, and one appreciates Scorsese’s wry sense of humor as he charts Paul’s anxious course from day-to-day trivialities and prosaic obstacles and annoyances to the inscrutable mingling of sexual and violent tension.

It is a lot for one movie, and by the end we’re almost as exhausted as Paul, but it all works brilliantly.

Scorsese may have been attracted to the inherent comedy of After Hours and the film as a whole, but his attachment to the property wasn’t a sure thing. After the “flop” of The King of Comedy and the cancellation of his passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ, an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial 1955 novel that would eventually be realized, with its own fair share of controversy, in 1988, Scorsese was laboring to move forward. It was Dušan Makavejev, of all people, who passed along Minion’s script to Robinson (the remarkable Serbian director was at the time teaching at Columbia), and from there, the film was originally offered to Tim Burton, who graciously stepped aside when Scorsese showed interest. Scorsese saw After Hours as a way to start over, to start fresh, to revel in the freedom of a fast, nighttime shoot with a minimal cast and crew. It was a matter of desperation and downsizing and that may be why the film has such exuberance and such a concentrated, motivated construction.

The result of this pivotal production is a thoroughly entertaining film, one that earned Scorsese the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is devious and delirious, provoking sympathy and ironic detachment, slowly building to one incident, then suddenly bursting forth to another. Paul’s plight is by turns tender, antagonistic, and fearful. It can be as stressed as any thriller or even a horror film, or as ostensibly innocuous and banal as a plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweight. It is a lot for one movie, and by the end we’re almost as exhausted as Paul, but it all works brilliantly.

Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretationfrom Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

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