Film Reviews

After Hours Martin Scorsese

Rating - 10/10

Gangsters. New York. DeNiro. The near-ubiquitous aural presence of the Rolling Stones. These are the entities we generally associate with the cinema of Martin Scorsese. But to paraphrase the owner of a late night diner in Scorsese’s 1985 dark comedy classic, After Hours is different. Very different. After all, how many of Scorsese’s other seminal works feature their lead protagonist being chased by a woman driving an ice cream truck?

Released during a time of professional crisis, After Hours  was later regarded by the director as being “like a rebirth."  After his first attempt at adapting Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ was aborted due to budgetary problems and protests by Christian fundamentalists, Scorsese decided to test himself and rediscover his independent roots. The springboard for Scorsese’s artistic rejuvenation came from a screenplay originally penned by Joe Minion for a Columbia University film course taught by Yugoslav filmmaker Dusan Makavejev.
The film was After Hours: a low-budget, Kafkan dark comedy centered on the perilous plight of a New York computer programmer who desperately wants to return home from an ill-fated date in SoHo. The film starred relative newcomer Griffin Dunne as the film’s protagonist Paul Hackett. Jaded after another day at his monotonous job, Paul meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) at a local café. Enticed by their shared interest in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Paul feigns interest in a series of bagel shaped plaster of Paris paperweights produced by Marcy’s roommate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) in order to secure Marcy’s telephone number.
Upon calling Marcy’s number, Paul is invited to her SoHo loft and thus begins his descent into the district’s dark, arty quarters. Paul’s first confrontation with the inauspiciousness of the night transpires when he helplessly watches his sole twenty dollar bill zip out of a taxi cab window. After quickly falling out with the increasingly quirky Marcy, Paul aspires to return home only to encounter another unfortunate experience preventing him from exiting the area: he does not have enough loose change to cover the increased subway fare. Other obstructions soon follow: he is mistaken for a serial burglar; gets chased by an angry mob; induces a suicide; witnesses a murder; disrupts a S&M session and struggles to recover his keys from a distressed bartender. And that’s only half of his troubles.
Despite the nightmarish eccentricities within Minion’s script, Scorsese maintains a realistic vision through his direction. There are no hallucinatory scenes to define Paul’s horrified state of mind. Instead Paul’s emotional state becomes increasingly more frenzied and paranoid as the effects of fatigue and frustration wear him down. Aside from its opening and closing scenes, After Hours was shot almost entirely at night on location in SoHo. For Scorsese the night-time environment amplifies and accentuates the strangeness of SoHo, the danger of the inner city and Paul’s unfamiliarity with his surroundings.
Just as the twilight period unleashed sinister influences affecting Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968), so does the cover of darkness appear to produce strange elements conspiring against Dunne’s Paul Hackett. But while Bergman’s film was imbued with a sense of grotesque horror, After Hours works within the existentialist realm of the absurd. Each of the individuals or events, Paul encounters during the night provides another diversion between his desire to leave and the unexplainable forces stalling his exit.
In many ways, Scorsese's film is similar to two other notable works: Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939). In Buñuel's film, the film's protagonists are unable to exit a bourgeois salon parlor they have entered during the night. There is no rational reason to explain why they cannot leave, but despite their best efforts the group fail to exit the premises. This is similar to the problem faced by Paul Hackett in Scorsese's film, as there is no logical reason available to explain the absurdities of his situation.
In addition to Buñuel's film, these circumstances also replicate a film mentioned in conversation during After Hours: The Wizard of Oz. The influence of Victor Fleming’s 1939 fantasy was already visible in Scorsese’s work prior to the release of After Hours. The sepia-tinted opening of Scorsese’s earlier Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) strongly echoes Dorothy’s carefree days on a Kansas farm. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Paul is transported to a strange locale from which he almost immediately wishes to leave in order to return to the cozy confines of home. Although Paul’s story, like Dorothy’s, shares several detours along the way, Paul’s predicament is a solitary one. There are no allies to share in his plight. Nor is there any discernible Wicked Witch blocking Paul’s path in After Hours, but rather a procession of them.
As Pauline Kael astutely opined the SoHo stages of After Hours are littered with “one flaky, threatening woman after another.” For some critics this aspect of After Hours represents a misogynistic streak within Scorsese’s film. Certainly the film’s detractors have ample incidents to demonstrate the possible existence of an underlying contempt for women. Nearly every female character in the film, aside from the coolly androgynous avant-garde sculptor Kiki, appears to be in some way neurotic, emotionally unstable or aggressive in their desire to detain Paul for themselves.
Yet, there is also a counterpoint to that argument. Almost all of the women in the film initially try to assist Paul without question. That is until he upsets them; at which point the likes of Rosanna Arrquette’s Marcy, ice-cream truck driver Gail (Catherine O’Hara), Club Berlin wallflower June (Verna Bloom) and kitsch-obssessed Julie (Teri Garr) turn on him. Additionally, it should be noted of the quirky, emotionally-heightened nature of all of the film's SoHo based characters; each of whom, regardless of their gender, act as an impediment to Paul’s exodus.
Following on his earlier dark explorations of New York at night in Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese converts SoHo into a lurid, claustrophobic landscape capable of eliciting Paul’s innermost fears and anxieties. This feature is manifested in the film’s repeated reminders of Paul’s trepidation towards fire: evidenced in his sudden remembrance of a childhood memory involving a burn ward, the images in Marcy’s textbook, his squeamish reaction to her possession of ointment for second-degree burns, her story of a rapist breaking into her apartment through a fire escape, and the film’s use of Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is?, which in its opening lyrics references a childhood confrontation with fire.
In spite of all the visual and metaphoric darkness contained within the film, After Hours is a disturbingly funny film. The film’s black humor is perfectly realized in its emphasis on minute details and deadpan comedy, highlighted by Griffin Dunne’s excellent performance as the film’s hapless yuppie protagonist. Former Fassbinder cinematographer Michael Ballhaus bestows the film with a slick Noirish aesthetic, while Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker keep the film running at a brisk pace.
Despite its mixed reception amongst audiences, After Hours was a critical success during its initial release. The film even garnered Scorsese the coveted Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Filmed on an estimated $4.5 million dollar budget, After Hours grossed over $10 million dollars and assisted Scorsese in securing funds for his second attempt at filming Kazantzakis’ controversial novel The Last Temptation of Christ. In recent years, After Hours has become an almost forgotten fixture in the Scorsese canon. Nevertheless, this zany, overlooked gem is one of his greatest and tightest achievements.
An underrated masterpiece and one of the best films of the Eighties.