After Hours, Martin Scorsese

Scorsese’s ‘After Hours’ Subverts the One Crazy Night Genre

In Martin Scorsese’s 1985 art punk gem After Hours, a yuppie lost in SoHo is terrorized not so much by the late-night characters but by the city itself.

After Hours
Martin Scorsese
Criterion Collection
July 2023

If films serve as a barometer for society — and they better, because if not, a lot of recent history will be far less understandable — then white middle-class America in the mid-1980s both needed and was terrified of a night out. The theaters were filled with stories of mild-mannered milquetoasts who tumbled like Alice into a frightening new world, often just by going downtown. It’s a solid formula: Throw an uptight character into a no-holds-barred night world filled with people they would never associate with but now need for survival. The everybody-wins setup allows audiences to laugh at the panicked protagonist while simultaneously identifying with their plight and hoping everything returns to normal by morning.

Now available in an extras-packed Criterion edition, Martin Scorsese’s somewhat forgotten entry in the One Crazy Night genre, After Hours (1985), has most of its hallmarks but gives the loopiness a spin that’s both eerie and carnivalesque. Midtown Manhattan office drone Paul (Griffin Dunne) is introduced as a semi-sentient zombie. He flicks through channels in his anonymous box of an uptown apartment before heading out for a change of scenery. Reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in a diner, Paul is chatted up by Marcy (Rosanna Arquette). Her invitation to come downtown and buy one of her sculptor friend’s bagel-and-cream-cheese paperweights is suspiciously thin, and her effect is that of somebody on a low dose of psilocybin. Still, Paul takes Marcy up because she’s beautiful, and his apparent void of a life needs something to get his pulse going.

What follows is not quite a wild night out. It is an anxiety dream delivered with a Jim Jarmuschian art-punk sense of cool and Federico Fellini’s love for extreme characters. Chasing a potential hook-up with Marcy, Paul winds up at the SoHo loft she shares with the sculptor Niki (Linda Fiorentino, perfecting the aggro fatale vibe she’d use a few years later in John Dahl’s The Last Seduction), who is slapping together humanoid paper mâché sculptures in a bra and black leather skirt. He leaves after getting mixed signals from Marcy, who might be married and hints at having horrific burn scars and being toyed with by Niki. Trapped in SoHo after his cash flew out the window of a flamenco-blasting speeding taxi, Paul bounces around the dark and empty downtown streets like a traveler in a foreign land where he understands none of the customs.

Joseph Minion’s episodic script knits together confrontations and conversations with a skein of miscommunication and missed connections. Nothing works properly. Scenes transition with dream logic. Every word Paul utters and every action he takes is the wrong one. Lonely souls, from a perky waitress (Teri Garr) to a man trying to pick up another man for the first time (Robert Plunket), read Paul’s frantic neediness as an attempt to connect. A bartender (John Heard) tries to help but sets in motion Paul being chased by an ad-hoc mob led by a New Wave vigilante (Catherine O’Hara, anarchically hilarious) who misidentifies him as a burglar. Meanwhile, a couple of Kiki’s friends (Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong) roam the neighborhood in a banged-up van appropriating items for resale.

Films in later decades (Dazed and Confused, The Hangover) would have treated Paul’s after-midnight journey as a life-affirming adventure, flavored by the odd shiver of light danger, which allows a guy stuck in a rut to carpe that diem. Stiff-necked leads in other ’80s One Crazy Night films, like Jeff Goldblum in John LandisInto the Night—another insomniac office worker knocked out of normalcy by a danger-prone blonde (Michelle Pfeiffer) — and Jeff Daniels in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild — suburban businessman dragged off the beaten path by a danger-prone hellion (Melanie Griffith), this time with black hair — panicked flailing in their new surroundings like Paul.

But those male character’s arcs led to some growth, discovery, or expansion. Though atomized by his deadening computer work, Paul has little interest in liberating catharsis. Once realizing he won’t be sleeping with Marcy, he shuts down, caring only about survival. Catching a glimpse through an apartment window of a couple’s argument that ends with the woman shooting the man dead, he quips to nobody, “I’ll probably get blamed for that.”

The dream-like atmosphere of persecution and chase which permeates After Hours draws from Kafka. One of the film’s funnier and better-written scenes is when Paul tries to talk his way past a bouncer. The implacable man’s deflecting and pitying answers (“I’ll take your money because I don’t want you to feel you left anything untried”) Scorsese built the moment around Kafka’s “Before the Law” parable, which Orson Welles used for the start of his adaptation of The Trial.

Manic and cuttingly funny, After Hours was a departure for Scorsese but a necessary one. His prior two films, Raging Bull (1980) and The King of Comedy (1982), had their virtues but were somewhat airless exercises in Method cynicism that couldn’t find an audience. When the filmmaker’s first run at making The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart due to budgeting, he seized on After Hours as a way to get back in the game and rediscover himself. That his shot at returning to Hollywood’s good graces was provided by a then-unknown Tim Burton backing out—Burton told Dunne, who was also a producer, he didn’t want to stand in the way of Scorsese making a film—is one of film history’s odder curiosities.

Although After Hours was not a smash hit, it was also cheaply made and low-stakes. The film is stamped with many of the director’s tics, from the juddering and zooming cinematography by Michael Ballhaus (whose grit and speed, perfected on Fassbinder films, became a Scorsese calling card) to the pitch-perfect soundtrack (a mix of spooky-jaunty compositions from Howard Shore and jukebox hits from Peggy Lee and the Monkees). But jumping into a pre-existing genre and giving it his spin may have freed Scorsese to make his first mainstream hit, The Color of Money, the following year. Additionally, centering the film on a competently unremarkable turn from Dunne rather than a star performance crucially freed Scorsese from bending everything to another Robert De Niro showcase.

By placing the action in such a geographically specific space, After Hours lets Scorsese put his stamp on a New York neighborhood even more vividly than he did for teeming and clan-like Little Italy in Mean Streets (even though that was shot largely in Los Angeles). SoHo’s broad empty avenues, spacious industrial lofts, pre-modern architectural aesthetic, and roaming spiky-haired punks gave it an out-of-time feel that aligned well with the dream-like screenplay. In one of the Criterion edition’s documentaries, Scorsese describes the SoHo of the mid-’80s as a character in itself: teeming during the day with delivery trucks but “deserted” and “sinister” at night.

After Hours plays up the outsider characters, from the punks slamming in a night club (the song on the soundtrack is Bad Brain’s “Pay to Cum” an unusually authentic cut of hardcore punk) to the leather boys making out at a bar. But it does not present them as freaks for the sole purpose of weirding out or thrilling Paul. One of the film’s lovelier moments is a young couple silently slowly dancing to a Robert and Johnny doo-wop number as Paul tries to wheedle subway fare to get back uptown. He is as oblivious to the romantic moment unfolding behind him as he is to the world he is so frantically trying to escape.

In the world of After Hours, Paul is not the audience stand-in or some kind of avatar of bourgeois normalcy, having his brief and voyeuristic walk on the wild side. Amidst the denizens of downtown, he is the freak.

RATING 8 / 10