Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne): “What do you want from me? I’m just a word processor!”

Street Pickup (Robert Plunket): “Why don’t you just go home?”

Paul Hackett: “Pal, I’ve been asking myself that all night.”

Martin Scorsese’s After Hours is eternally underrated. It’s also one of the director’s very best films. It breaks free of convention and critical expectation and conveys the kind of passion usually evident only when a major Hollywood “auteur” director goes back to his “indie” roots. Europeans got it even if many of Scorsese’s home audience did not: After Hours won him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, and still seems his best attempt at working with the film medium as a freehand form of art. Only much later, with his classic documentary series on Italian post-war cinema, Il mio viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy, 1999) does Scorsese again tap so profoundly into those European film obsessions that first drove him to make movies.

“I really felt if I don’t pull this one off it’s really over and I’ll never make another film.” (1)

After Hours begins with the camera tracking fast through a sea of word processors then dollying in on Paul Hackett, a figure who appears bored to death as the workday heavily plods to an end. Then we cut to Paul reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in a restaurant (a trademark Scorsese shot in extreme close-up that then dollies back fast) where he meets the film’s resident “Nutty Blonde”, Marcy (Rosanna Arquette). She’s a fan of the book too and they hit it off. Paul (unwisely) writes down the number of Mary’s friend, Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino before her apotheosis as the queen of neo-noir in films like John Dahl’s The Last Seduction, 1994). Marcy and Paul arrange to meet there, setting in motion events that become increasingly surreal and dark as the night progresses.

After Hours

Paul, who after all just wanted a good time, then goes through many layers or “circles” of hell. Screenwriter Joseph Minion intentionally structured his script in this way – it is after all a classic narrative ploy and the script was submitted as his thesis at Columbia Film School (he got an “A” from his teacher, Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev). Paul is trapped downtown, loses all his money and has no way of getting back home. In the process, Scorsese paints SoHo as the kind of existential hell dreamed up by Sartre.

Virtuoso German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus began his career holding lightweight cameras and shooting day and night, often with only available light and at incredible speed, for Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the 1970s. His fluid work in After Hours accentuates the delirium and adds some disorienting camera angles and the blur of neon lights, illuminating faces now with reds, now acid greens and blues. Throw in jazzy cutting by Scorsese’s long time favourite editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, and you have a team born to make wild movies together. Scorsese has noted that the film was “an exercise completely in style”, but it has always been more than that.

“I was… remembering how to make a picture. To have a smaller crew, move faster…”(2)

Paul’s headlong downwards trajectory comes to seem part of a demented domino theory or possibly even a mousetrap-like game. There’s a suicide, an S&M session where the man (Horst played by Will Patton) interrupted thinks Paul “lacks discipline”, a mad imbroglio of serial burglaries (that have been taking place in the area that night), and a murderous posse of New Yorkers that starts hunting down Paul for those thefts. And so on!

In After Hours, such wild plot elements and motifs as a sculpture of a human torso, a plaster of Paris bagel, a $20 bill and that string of burglaries reveal connections that only exist because Paul’s journey links them. This heightens the film’s ominous tone, as evidenced in the scene where Paul tries to explain all the things that have happened to him, and can’t, perhaps because they sound far too absurd even to him!

After Hours marks the moment in cinematic history, and Scorsese’s personal movie journey, in which the director bids farewell to his younger self. This maker of low budget movies with a Nouvelle vague feel was now ready to use those skills on a more dynamic and commercial canvas. His palette loses forever its black-and-white grittiness and heads towards a Las Vegas style: Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002) and The Aviator (2004), leaving behind the lightness of spirit so clearly evident throughout the madcap ride of After Hours.

The film’s dreamlike narrative is a poetic riff on Paul’s subconscious need to escape, first from his dead-end job (“I’m just a word processor!”) and then from the City itself. After Hours’ evocation of the Kafka-esque waking nightmare of an ordinary man caught in incomprehensible circumstances – stylistic features it shares with Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and Orson Welles’ brilliant The Trial (1962) – widen to include all the horrors of nocturnal downtown New York City. And this is no accident: the chat between Paul and the bouncer at the Club Berlin is partly lifted from Kafka’s short story “Before The Law”(3). In a very palpable sense, After Hours is a cinematic re-imagining of The Trial.

In After Hours, Scorsese has fashioned a New York City of steaming roads and an endless network of dark streets, bars and clubs, overrun with all sorts of weirdos and loners. He successfully shows New York as an amorphous canvas that the distorted temperaments and contemporary fears of its inhabitants are all whizzed around in as if in a giant blender.

Though later Scorsese movies have had far greater budgets and all star casts, it is in After Hours that we see exactly how and why a filmmaker from New York might have become an inspiration to a generations of film students. As for aspiring Hollywood moguls, they would take their cues from the Bigger and Louder movies Scorsese would subsequently make. As he remarked to Amy Robinson at the time: “Thank you for giving me back my love of cinema!” (4)

Endnotes

  1. Scorsese quoted by Amy Robinson in Filming for Your Life (The Making of “After Hours”), 2003.
  2. Scorsese in Filming Your Life.
  3. Franz Kafka, The Trial, trans. David Wylie, Echo Library, Middlesex, 2006, p. 127.
  4. Scorsese quoted by Robinson in Filming for Your Life.

After Hours (1985 USA 97 mins)

Prod Co: The Geffen Company/Double Play Prod: Amy Robinson, Griffin Dunne, Robert Colesberry Dir: Martin Scorsese Scr: Joseph Minion Phot: Michael Ballhaus Ed: Thelma Schoonmaker Prod Des: Jeffrey Townsend Mus: Howard Shore

Cast: Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, Teri Garr, Verna Bloom, Thomas Chong, Cheech Marin, John Heard

About The Author

Jonathan Dawson recently retired as Associate Professor in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Griffith University (Queensland) and is now Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania. He has written and directed scores of films, television series and documentaries. He is also a major contributor to Ian Aitken’s The Encyclopaedia of Documentary Film, including the essay on Australian documentary cinema. Sadly, in the intervening years since writing this piece, the author has passed away.